One of the most appealing new restaurants by a Twin Cities chef isn’t actually located in the Twin Cities. You’ll find it two hours to the southeast in La Crosse, Wis.
Not that Lovechild co-owners Jay Sparks and Joan Ferris didn’t initially envision their collaboration as a metro area restaurant.
“It was just so hard to find a space,” said Ferris. “It’s the competition. There are so many restaurants opening in the Twin Cities.”
She’s speaking from firsthand knowledge. Both were towering figures in the D’Amico dining universe. For almost 20 years, Sparks was the company’s top chef, overseeing a diverse set of properties (D’Amico Cucina, Cafe Lurcat, Campiello and Parma 8200) while simultaneously mentoring several generations of Minnesota chefs, including James Beard award winners Tim McKee and Isaac Becker.
Ferris was a force on the company’s hospitality side, ultimately spending nearly a decade as general manager of the company’s full-service restaurants.
On their weekends off, the couple would road-trip to La Crosse, Ferris’ hometown, and on one of those visits they heard of an empty downtown space. One look, and their business plan took a detour.
“It was perfect, an absolute dream,” said Ferris. “After we saw it, it was a done deal. We wanted to walk in and say ‘Yes, this is the place.’ We couldn’t find that anywhere in Minneapolis.”
The 100-seat restaurant and bar opened on Dec. 9. To say that the response has been positive is an understatement.
“We have to pinch ourselves after service each night,” said Ferris. “It couldn’t be going better, and people couldn’t be nicer, or more welcoming. We’re having such a great time. We’re planning on riding into the sunset with our Lovechild.”
The restaurant is housed in a former hardware wholesaler that dates to 1892. Its elegant interior — brick-and-timber meets shimmering velvets, soft lights and backlit mirrors — in no way indicates that a Hooters had been a previous tenant.
Sparks’ cooking is similarly revelatory. His masterful approach is uncomplicated but never simplistic, allowing bold flavors to radiate from premium ingredients.
Why not start with a rustic bread peppered with olives, toasting it to a just-right crispiness and then topping it with a ripe Taleggio and roasted tomatoes, their bygone hints-of-summer aura accentuated by the oven’s heat?
A half-dozen expertly made pastas — sold in two diner-friendly sizes — totally embody Sparks’ razor-sharp less-is-more aesthetic, from pillowy gnocchi splashed with a lively tomato sauce to ravioli stuffed with lovingly braised beef.
Entrees range from a mammoth lamb shank, the melt-in-your-mouth meat easily coaxed off the bone (and served with a flagrantly rich risotto) to intensely flavorful chicken thighs, the skin crackling and redolent of garden-fresh thyme, the meat prodigiously juicy.
Dessert? Layer upon layer of flaky, buttery pastry, crowned with sweet-tart apples and a voluptuous dollop of whipped cream.
Then there’s Ferris’ eagle eye, indefatigable energy and warm personality, all of which set the standard for the well-tuned service staff.
Prices? Definitely less than “special occasion.” A well-run bar, too. Yep, this place is a total gem.
Compact, walkable downtown La Crosse, with its preponderance of handsome, historic redbrick structures, is coming back to life.
Long dominated by college bars — it’s a short walk to the University of Wisconsin campus — the area’s impressive renaissance is fueled by a nascent retail scene (including the long-closed Doerflinger’s department store, now home to a Duluth Trading Co. outlet), a housing growth spurt, a handful of new hotels (including the remarkable Charmant Hotel), a popular riverfront park and, of course, Lovechild.
Sparks and Ferris are downtown dwellers, living a block from the restaurant in a loft apartment that sits above a late-night slice shop.
“We have a really great commute,” said Sparks.
What’s with the “Lovechild” name?
“A lot of people are afraid to ask that question,” said Ferris with a laugh.
Here’s the story: Sparks and Ferris have been an unmarried couple for 25 years.
“And the restaurant is the coming together of everything we love,” said Ferris. “Hence, Lovechild. I didn’t realize it was going to be so risqué. Once we tell people, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we get it, that’s funny.’ ”
300 S. 3rd St., La Crosse, Wis., 1-608-433-2234, lovechildrestaurant.com. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. No reservations.