Here’s the first thing you learn in business school: Don’t try to be all things to all people.
Choose your target audience, define and refine it, and then deliver.
Well, the boys behind Aster, warming the halls of Riverplace, didn’t get the memo. Instead, it’s all over the map: little bites for the après-movie crowd. Creative twists for the jaded trendster. Familiar noshes for the college kids who want it cheap and want it simple — just bring on the booze and turn the music up. Plus pleasers for those who simply want to linger by the river and soak in the best view in the metro.
And, know what? Carlson School gurus be damned, it’s working.
The digs are serviceable and comfy and, let’s face it, crowded, even between the uber-bargain happy hour and live-music showtime at 9. We elbowed our way between clots of kids from campus, their parents (perhaps) from the nearby condos, and a table of bachelorettes that included a lass dressed like the Good Fairy, complete with wand and crown — all noshing on small plates, sipping the swell craft beers or something from the major list of teas, many of which find their way into elegantly creative cocktails.
The menu is kept blessedly simple, much of it involving nice pairings rather than complicated recipes — such as the quartet of cheese plates ($6), including Northern Lights bleu cheese with pears and honey, or brie with roasted grapes and bacon. Same for the sandwiches and salads ($7–10).
We shared two salad plates, starting with a mélange of avocado, ripe and chunky, dressed with pico de gallo (standard) atop greens under a drift of queso fresco — not too exciting. Better: the plate of smoked trout, sweet and juicy, paired with diced beets, pickled onions and snappy arugula in a suave buttermilk dressing.
Four flatbread pizzas ($11) also are on offer, including our two selections, both satisfying (well, except for the dull, dry crust): an assembly of artichokes, roasted sweet red peppers, oregano and a light hint of Parmesan, and the winner — a toss of sweet apple, salty bacon, savory walnuts and blue cheese, rich and velvety.
From the list of nibbles (popcorn with chili-lime butter, spiced nuts and olives, etc.) we picked the pair of pork tacos ($8) — meaty and moist, for sure, but more like plain-jane pulled pork than alive with flavor, despite a smitch of pico de gallo and skim of queso fresco. Tacos for Norwegians.
Desserts fared better. We loved the housemade lemon pie, tart and sassy as you please, and the rich, smooth buttermilk panna cotta topped with a compote of Door County cherries. Oh, there are homemade popsicles, too (talk about something for everyone): a berry mix and an orange-and-booze concoction.
Aster Cafe // 125 SE Main Street // 379-3138