Editor’s Note: Valhalla Smoke and Ale House is now closed.
Underpromise. Overdeliver. Until you’re Thomas Keller or David Chang, take for granted that no matter what your concept, decor, and prices may suggest to the customer, you’ll meet or exceed those expectations with your food and service.
With that introduction you can probably guess that it’s not a good thing when I say that Valhalla Nordic Smoke and Ale House of Willernie is one of the most intriguing-looking restaurants to open around here in quite some time.
Its Nordic-inspired menu looks promising. The place pledges house-made beer. The classic Norse theme is aggressive to the level of exciting: Shields on the wall! Massive portrait of Odin the All-Father! Manly dark wood covering everything!
And yet on both our visits the food was an uneven mess. The highly touted house-made beer wasn’t yet available nearly a month after opening day. And it turns out that the only things louder than the Norse kitsch decor are the Goodyear-blimp-scale television screens that dominate the diner’s field of view, no matter where he or she might turn.
The central challenge of Valhalla is that it feels like two restaurants built atop one another: a high-quality, fun-loving sports bar, and a seriously confused, fine-dining New Nordic eatery. If Valhalla were merely offering burgers, fish and chips, wings, and massive television sets, it would be a solid success. All the variants of the fancy, third-of-a-pound house-ground beef burgers ($12) we tried were tasty: crowned with bakery buns, juicy, and nicely accented with various fixings and sauces.
The order of fish and chips we tried was big, tender, artfully fried, and a fine value ($15 for a double order). Our ale-battered onion rings ($6) were similarly good, and while our “Dragon” Wings ($7) were a bit swamped by their mysterious, Fieri-esque “jagermeister-bull sauce,” they were skillfully cooked. The beer list was long and interesting, and ultimately satisfying.
It is during the attempt to deliver high-end New Nordic fare that the Valhalla’s longship founders and sinks.
A restaurant — any restaurant — needs to tread carefully when it comes to its prestige entrees. Our Venison Filet ($24) should have been a dish worth bragging about. But the only boasting taking place came from our waiter, who talked up the meat’s New Zealand heritage; apparently, you can’t get venison nearly as mild and delicious in this part of the world.
It was odd, therefore, when the venison turned up sealed in a sarcophagus of pepper and garroted by a gjetost cheese sauce that obliterated whatever mild flavor the meat might have had. A gamier piece of local meat might have had a fighting chance against the stuff this venison was shellacked with.
By contrast, our 10-ounce Beef Flat Iron Steak ($18) was admirably tender and cooked to a perfect medium rare, as ordered. But the meat lacked any flavor whatsoever: Seasoning, char, marinade, and the menu-touted demi-glace all seemed to be missing in action, making for a meal that we brought home to reseason and recook for a very satisfactory breakfast the next day.
Our King’s Board charcuterie plate was a mixed bag. The gravad lox was fine, if you picked around the fishy roe; the foie gras pate was whipped to death; the deviled eggs were rubbery and underpowered; the pickled radishes were tasty, and while the cheese and sausage were nothing to write home about, they were perfectly pleasant. For $10, it would have been a fine start to a boozy evening. At $17, it contained too many misses and too few hits.
We ordered the Swedish meatballs in sour cream ale gravy ($15) assuming that they’d be a slam dunk. The noodles emerged undercooked to the point of stiffness; the meatballs looked and tasted like wadded up bits of hamburger, with none of the silken texture or richness you’d hope for in a restaurant version of this homestyle classic.
We politely sent the noodles back. Our waitress was profoundly apologetic, and asked the kitchen to remake the dish. The kitchen remade the dish. The noodles were again uncooked to the point of being inedible. We left them uneaten by the side of the table. They remained there until we left; they also remained on our bill.
We tried a couple of desserts at Valhalla. The Apple Pumpkin Joy (candied apple and baked pumpkin mousse for $5) was agreeable but largely forgettable.
On the other hand, Valhalla’s Cold Beer Soup ($4) is something we’ll always remember. The dish (composed of “dark ale, cream, rye bread, and gingerbread,” according to the menu) sounded unusual. This is a challenge I always rush headlong into — if something strange and off-putting is on a menu, it’s generally because it’s too good to remove. Not in this case; the “soup” had the consistency of regurgitated French toast and packed an aftertaste that the world’s biggest hop-head would describe as “mercilessly bitter.”
There’s the very real potential for Valhalla to get its act together. The owners, the Pilrain brothers, also head up the excellent Roma Restaurant and Patriots Tavern, so they may be able to bring their experience to bear to right the ship. It would be as simple as chucking everything but the bar food. But if pride doesn’t allow it, at least prune the fine dining menu, and test, test, test the remainder until the venison can speak for itself and the steak is something worth devouring on the spot.
Valhalla Nordic Smoke and Ale House
Gastropub in Willernie
310 Stillwater Road
Willernie, MN 55090
Daily happy hour, 3-5 p.m. (Bar menu for food)
Mon-Wed, 3-10 p.m.
Thu, 3-11 p.m.
Fri, 3 p.m.-midnight
Sun 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; brunch buffet from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Kitchen closes at 10 p.m. nightly
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$28