Editor’s Note: The Herb Box is now closed.
It may seem improbable that a restaurant featuring s’mores crême brulee on its dessert menu would be located in a health club, but everything about The Herb Box, the new dining concept that opened in the Eden Prairie LifeTime Fitness club last month, is a little improbable. Co-owners Becky Windels (above, left) and Susan Wilcox (above, right), who own two identically named eateries in Scottsdale, AZ, likely would be the first to admit it.
“We did want to expand. Never in a million years did we think about Minnesota, but we decided, ‘What the hell, we’ll give it a shot,'” Wilcox says.
Chef Windels and CEO Wilcox have run The Herb Box, first as a catering company, then as a to-go cafe and finally as dine-in restaurants, for 17 years. Comfortable in their desert environs, Windels and Wilcox found a fan in LifeTime Fitness CEO and part-time Scottsdale resident Bahram Akradi, who persuaded the duo to bring their “comfort food with a surprise” up north to replace the poorly performing Zahtar at his Eden Prairie club. Up for the challenge, Wilcox and Windels have spent the past nine months doing everything they can — from hiring and training the staff to picking the uniforms to importing Scottsdale chef Matt Arnold to run the kitchen — to ensure the cold-weather version of The Herb Box remains true to the original and attracts a similar following.
“We don’t know anyone here, so we hope the food really speaks for us,” Windels says.
The menu, with an extensive selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options, reflects Windels and Wilcox’s “favorite things.” Items like smoked trout beignets offer the deep-fried flavor that Minnesotans love, but with a surprisingly tender and fresh bite of fish (and non-greasy texture) that marries beautifully with the accompanying red pepper aioli and cornichon garnish.
“I love New Orleans, and I love beignets. I don’t know how I came up with it,” says the self-taught Windels, who comes from a food-centric family. “I’m from Montana, and smoked trout is very popular there.”
Other appetizers, like the pear and gorgonzola flatbread, illustrate Windels’ devotion to balance — fitting for a restaurant surrounded by people carrying yoga mats. The sweetness of the pear is matched by the saltiness of the cheese and fried sage atop the bread, which has a whole-wheat crust that is almost cracker-crispy but at the same time is substantial enough to deftly hold the other ingredients.
“There’s an amazing balance in flavor in the food — you’ve got your salt, your sweet, texture, and spice,” Windels says. “I like bold flavors — I can’t stand to have a bland plate in front of me.”
Though the menu is heavy on produce — local and organic, when possible — meat lovers will find plenty to sample. (“We don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a super-healthy place where guys don’t want to go,” Wilcox laughs.) Free-range, air-dried chicken, pork chops, and beef tenderloin all appear. But even heartier options, like Thai barbecue baby back ribs, retain a light quality by being paired with sides like green apple, jicama, and watercress slaw, and a creamy, smoky, so-good-you-can’t-put-it-down gouda macaroni and cheese topped with rosemary and brioche bread crumbs.
“The ribs are sweet and spicy, the slaw is fresh and bright, and the mac and cheese tones down the spice,” Windels explains.
Though voted the best vegetarian dish by Phoenix magazine, the butternut squash and corn enchiladas offered enough heft to satisfy large, post-workout appetites. While enrobed in a satisfyingly savory tomatillo sauce and cotija cheese, the enchiladas still put the spotlight on the well-seasoned vegetables. A green salad topped with sugared pecans and a lemon-honey vinaigrette only increases the dish’s appeal.
“Even guys who have to eat meat with every meal will eat this and they don’t miss the meat,” Windels says.
Even the sweeter items on the menu fail to tip the sugar scale through Windels’ expert flourishes to each dish. Red velvet pancakes, a Mother’s Day addition to the menu that has graduated to year-round status, find their subtle cocoa flavor enhanced by the citrusy burst of Grand Marnier syrup. A dollop of mascarpone cream doesn’t hurt, either. And while the chocolately richness of that s’mores crême brulee is addicting on its own, the homemade marshmallows and graham crackers make the dessert a stand-out, not a sugar bomb.
Whether The Herb Box finds its footing on the icy terrain of Minnesota remains to be seen, but if our tastebuds agree with the restaurant’s Arizona advocates, Wilcox and Windels should find a similarly welcome reception. Their monthly visits will give them ample opportunity to hear directly from customers which dishes made the journey north unscathed and which, if any, remain the preference of southwestern palates. Luckily for us, they’re ready to listen.
“We have definitely been led by our customers. Lots of times chefs think they’re geniuses, but we didn’t want to ignore our customers. We kept listening, and that helped us to grow,” Wilcox says.
The Herb Box, located in the LifeTime Fitness Club at 755 Prairie Center Drive, Eden Prairie, is open to both members and non-members.