Let’s call 2010 / 2011 the year of the South Minneapolis neighborhood joint: The meteoric ascent of Tilia, the immaculate offerings of In Season, the auspicious beginnings of Patisserie 46 and Sun Street Breads, the pizza pie of Pizzeria Lola, and the debut of Corner Table’s breakfast and Community Supported Kitchen program all point to a remarkable whirlwind of edible awesomeness sweeping the Linden Hills, Kingfield, and Tangletown neighborhoods.
Add to this the recent opening of Wise Acre Eatery, a new restaurant owned by Dean Engelmann and Scott Endres, the folks behind Tangletown Gardens. There’s a strong farm-to-table connection here: As per the restaurant’s menu, “Tangletown Gardens’ Farm, a 100+ acre farm located outside of Plato, MN, supplies the farm-raised produce as well as raises Scottish Highland cattle and Berkshire Hogs for Wise Acre meat, and chickens for both meat and eggs.”
Two Lucia’s alumnae, Chef Beth Fisher and General Manager Caroline Glawe, give the neighborhood eatery a touch of farm-focused class. The menu is simple and elegant without being dull; the food elevated without even a touch of stuffiness.
Starters were as entertaining as they were generally well executed. The bacon steak with shallot marmalade starter (above, center left, $7) played salty and sweet flavors against crunchy and chewy textures to good effect; ham and pea fritters ($6) were equally well balanced and successful.
Wise Acre enthusiastically takes part in a current trend that should become a fixture: providing guests with non-alcoholic drink options that have the same thoughtfulness and flavor kick offered by their boozy cousins. The house-made sodas ($3) when we visited were cherry / ginger and blackberry / white pepper (a “black and white”). Both were spot on — flavorful, not oversweet, cleverly playing fruit flavor against a savory counterpoint.
The chowder of the week ($4 cup / $6 bowl) during one of our visits was a beautifully executed vegetable soup with a strong celery base and a soothing freshness that seemed perfect for early summer. Small pieces of potatoes in the soup were properly cooked — still retaining some texture, but tender overall.
On an early visit, the dill pickle-brined chicken drumsticks ($3 or 3 for $7) were tough and lacked crunch, but a few weeks later the entree version (dill fried chicken, $18) knocked our socks off. The chicken was moist, tender, and flavorful, the crust crispy, the dill taste faint but pleasant and distinct, and the accompanying cheddar biscuit, sweet shallot marmalade, and blackstrap molasses carrots all deftly executed. The dill pickle brining had the effect of playing a certain fruitiness and saltiness off the sweetness of the blackstrap molasses-glazed carrots and shallot marmalade.
A savory vegetable pudding ($16) seems to be a staple of the menu (we tried a well-executed morel pudding on one visit and wild rice and scallion pudding on the next). The latter seemed about 90 percent of the way to being a full dish — despite a house-made dill cracker and a whipped brie accompaniment, it felt a bit insubstantial, too chewy and nutty to the exclusion of other flavors and textures. A little something extra (glazed pecans? deep-fried spiced chickpeas? medjool dates?) might have made it both more substantial and more entertaining.
Our only serious axe to grind was value and portion size on a couple of dishes. Good as they were, is $7 a decent price for two small pieces of bacon sitting on crostini? And a maple rhubarb-braised beef (above) promised bold flavors but tasted very, very faintly of rhubarb and almost not at all of maple. Is $19 a fair price for a tender, homestyle grass-fed beef pot roast with carrot chive mashers and sugar snap peas? Possibly, but the missing-in-action maple and rhubarb notes were a disappointment.
More egregious was dessert. A hot fudge brownie sundae cost $5 but was insufficient for all but the lightest of appetites — a few tablespoons of decent-but-not-great frozen custard on a mini brownie with a few teaspoons of hot fudge does not a dessert make.
Forget about sharing; you won’t have enough even for yourself, and the plating method of putting the sundae in a squat little mason jar seemed designed to compound a diner’s annoyance — precious dabs of hot fudge stuck in hard-to-access parts of the jar, and the size and height of the dish seemed designed to disguise how tiny the poor little thing was. (A subsequent return visit revealed coffee-flavored frozen custard that was unpleasantly icy in texture and a vanilla variety that was similarly icy in texture and lacked significant vanilla flavor; clearly the frozen custard is a work in progress.)
Hiccups aside, it’s hard not to love what Wise Acre is doing: presenting simple, thoughtful spins on high-quality seasonal ingredients in a casual neighborhood setting. It offers some thoughtful breakfast and lunch offerings, plus a charming atmosphere that combines sleek interior design with softening features such as a living, wall-mounted herb garden. There’s a lot of room to grow with the concept overall, and given some fine tuning, Wise Acre could be a neighborhood powerhouse for years to come.
Katie Cannon and Christian Krautkramer contributed to this review.
Wise Acre Eatery
Seasonal neighborhood bistro in Tangletown
5401 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419
OWNERS / CHEF: Dean Engelmann and Scott Endres / Beth Fisher
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No