Patriots Tavern in Stillwater, MN
There’s an unspoken hierarchy of geography that governs many food lovers’ initial reaction to a new restaurant. The best places are going to be in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, or affluent but still-urban areas: Linden Hills or Kingfield or Grand Ave. Ethnic joints on University Ave. or Eat Street get points for being gritty and “real.” Small-town cafes are “comforting,” and sometimes they’ve got pie worth writing about. And then: At the very bottom of prejudice totem pole, you’ve got the ‘burbs, plastic cesspools of overpriced, artificial food for the margarita-fixated drones who don’t care to pick their way into the cities.
And a New England-themed tavern eatery in a mock colonial subdivision out by Stillwater? Oh, man. Forget about it.
Except: No, don’t. Patriots Tavern is the new project by the Pilrain brothers (Brent and Brian), the guys who turned safe and boring Italian-American food into a consistent and sometimes thrilling joy at their first restaurant, Roma Restaurant and Roman Market in Willernie.
Roma is distinguished by its uber-comfortable Middle American decor, its many references to history (culinary and otherwise), its utterly non-pretentious menu, and its stem-to-stern dedication to scratch cooking, and the Pilrains have carried this formula over to Patriots.
Patriots is also distinguished by the fact that its Colonial pub grub kicks a good deal of Yankee ass. This is no small feat; keep in mind that Patriots Tavern is doing New England eats (which feature a lot of seafood) for a reasonable budget in suburban Minneapolis, and that your skeptical scribe lived and ate for nearly six years in Boston and enjoyed many summer lobster bakes in Maine.
The clam chowder, sampled on our first visit, was a pleasant surprise. Even in Boston, many clam chowders are phoned-affairs, little more than thick salty cream and sad little bits of clam. And yet: The Patriots Tavern clam chowder ($5) was balanced, creative, and smart. Smoky bacon provided a counterpoint to the clam and cream, and while the soup was pleasingly rich and thick, it wasn’t merely like drinking out of a cardboard pint container; it had layers of complementary flavor.
Still more interesting (and equally successful) was the restaurant’s Patriots Peanut Soup ($5), a Virginia dish that’s a staple in Colonial Williamsburg. The bowl we got was perfectly seasoned, boasting a peanut-based broth with snappy scallions and spiced peanuts that garnish the plate, ready for the diner to shuck them and add them to soup. Strange? Yes. But Patriots gets points for not only including an off-the-wall thematic dish, but for carrying it off with skill — try it as a novelty, come back to it as a newfound favorite.
There is no shame in the fact that the lobster roll at Patriots ($14) doesn’t equal the best in Maine (which can be had at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset). The beauty of a Red’s Eats lobster roll is its simplicity: nothing but a one-pound boiled lobster served on a split-top bun with drawn butter. And if you’re seaside like Red’s Eats, that’s the way to do ’em. With less reliably excellent lobster, you’re better off going with Maine’s Plan B lobster roll, the style embraced by Patriots: mayo, scallions and celery cover the lobster meat and complement it with a creamy, crunchy jacket of flavor. Down to the toasted split-top bun, the version at Patriots could easily pass out East.
At $24, the Filet Oscar is one of the most expensive items on the menu, but this filet steak charbroiled with crab and asparagus served with Hollandaise over hash browns is certainly rich enough to justify the cost and surprisingly light on its feet for such a mass of calories and flavor. Done with reheated bagged ingredients at a hotel restaurant, this dish would be coagulated death; at Patriots, it’s a pleasant indulgence.
The house-made dessert is also outstanding. The custard-filled cake known as Boston Cream Pie is one of the most-abused regional delicacies in the world of pastry, but the Patriots version of this favorite ($6) really works: It’s a light, elegant confection with deep chocolate flavor.
We sampled a laundry list of other dishes and had uniformly good experience; the amusingly named, tender, and richly flavored Liberty Ribs ($15, above right) were some of the best barbecue we’ve yet tried at a non-BBQ specialty restaurant, the Patriot Burger (with applewood smoked bacon, aged cheddar, tomato, and mayo) was big, balanced, and a steal at $7, and the ale-battered onion rings ($4 for an order of four huge rings, pictured above left) tasted fresh and pleasingly crunchy, and came with a choice from among the long list of Patriots dipping sauces. (We really liked the avocado ranch, papaya habañero, and the gunpowder remoulade.) We weren’t blown away by a French onion soup special ($5), but it stood out only in the context of otherwise good-to-excellent food.
Buttermilk double-fried chicken (breaded, fried, and then breaded and fried again) wasn’t greasy at all; it was crispy as the dickens, wearing a thick, herby jacket of crust concealing tender, moist meat. You get a full half chicken for $12, and that comes with buttery, garlicky mashed potatoes that still pack rich potato flavor.
Service at Patriots is consistently friendly if sometimes a bit casual; we were left waiting for a number of minutes during one visit (while numerous kitchen staffed noted our presence and then retreated without actually doing anything about it, such as, for example, seating us) and almost discouraged to enter (due to a half-locked front door) on another.
This is a minor bellyache; the overall picture at Patriots Tavern is a rosy one, and if serving American classics with inspired cooking skills and good ingredients is patriotic, the Pilrain brothers should be up for a couple of Congressional Medals of Honor.
BEST BET: The clam chowder may be the best currently on offer in the Twin Cities area, and the Liberty Ribs are an unexpected delight.
New England-style pub grub in Stillwater
145 New England Pl
Stillwater, MN 55082
OWNERS / CHEFS: The Pilrain Family
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $7-26