Little Home Kitchen on the Prairie

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October 22, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar

The Hyatt’s got its groove back. When the downtown hotel debuted 31 years ago, it boasted a destination restaurant. As formal dining faded from fashion, it substituted Taxxi, about as compelling as a ride from the airport — and that’s who ate there: traveling salesmen and diffident conventioneers. 

Thanks to a hotel wide renovation, it’s again safe — OK, actually thrilling — for locals to return. Prairie Kitchen has adopted the farm-to-fork mantra for its menu and carries the regional salute to the décor, too — stone and wood in a muted palette, framing windows onto Nicollet Mall. The oval, 80-seat bar has also devised Minne-centric cocktails, like Honey Crisp Prairie (vodka and Crispin cider) and the Bee’s Knees, a martini sweetened with Ames Farm honey.

The menu’s a honey, too. The new, CIA-trained chef has embraced not only our local foodstuffs, but our Scandinavian heritage as means to showcase them. While you’re unfolding your napkin, a bread basket arrives, plump with housemade lavosh and a chuck of rye sturdy enough to stand in for a hockey puck (tastes better, though). They’re accompanied by four-herb butter and a pot of that honey from Ames.

Even the soups ($6–$7), untasted, sound sumptuous: a summery chilled citrus-cucumber broth brightened with shavings of radishes and almonds, or waterzooi, a fish stew from Belgium (how did that get through customs?) finished with woodsmoked bacon.

Instead, we went all Swedish with that land’s trinity of eats: slithers of cured salmon, so silky you’d just as soon wear it as eat it, paired with logs of fingerlings dressed in feathers of dill (app size $9). So simple, so perfect. 

Continuing our Nordic quest, it’s on to meatballs (app size $13). Whatever your perception might be, trust me — these will transcend grandma’s recipe. The chef grinds veal, hand-coaxes it into golfballs, sautées them with fastidious timing to ensure they’re uber-juicy, then adds a cache of earthy morels and gilds the whole deal with a cream sauce about as rich as Warren Buffet, pumped with gruyere and Chardonnay. This is the moment when, in a gesture of faux-politeness, I offered the last meatball to my companion in order, bread ready, to snitch the last of the sauce.

Next, trout cakes (app size $9), another best-of-show number. The fillets in the petite patties bear the scent of gentle smoking under their quick-crisped net. They’re set upon a garden of greens and radish slices, ready for baptism via the little pot of creamy, richly biting sherry mustard at their side.

Had to try the walleye, too ($22), done often around here but rarely done so well. Under a peek-a-boo chemise of Parmesan, the flesh is fresh and juicy, accented with a toss of ultra-skinny green beans, artichokes and earthy morels, then garnished with a pickled radish salad — like the Best of Minnesota on a plate.

Dessert? Just say yes to the Pick Three option ($11). First, a strawberry-rhubarb tart creatively wakened by minted vanilla ice cream. Next, a short stack of vanilla-scented mini-pancakes topped by bananas sautéed with aquavit and cinnamon cream. Finally, yes, there’s chocolate: a melting wedge of midnight dotted with hazelnuts, then gilded with hot caramel and wild berries.

All I can say is “yum.” And can I reserve a table for tonight?