Sunday, November 21, 2010

Just the Two of Us at Terra Waconia

I think this small, hidden-away restaurant in Waconia has become our favorite spot to dine!
by Charlie Leck

Our metropolitan area is filled with spectacular restaurants. It's not difficult to name 40 or 50 really outstanding ones. And I mean really wonderful spots to dine. Yet, right out here in the western part of the metro, just before the you drive into the rich and open farmland of the Minnesota prairies, we've found our favorite place to dine. The little spot is called Terra Waconia. I've written about it here before. It deserves more elaborate praise than I gave it the last time.

Indeed, it is a restaurant of the land and it draws much of its wonderful success and extraordinary flavors from the farms that thrive nearby. The chef at Terra, Craig Sharp, is trying really hard to be extremely local, buying a great deal of his food products from farmers within a particularly immediate range of the restaurant.

"You might say Terra Waconia is a farm-to-table-inspired restaurant—because it’s not quite there. The chèvre, blue cheese, and ramps were local. But when I asked where the beef tenderloin ($28) was from, the chef told me, 'Stock Yards [a commercial supplier], but I’m working on that.'"
And they have worked hard on that. Only a few months after that review, an extremely large percentage of the items served come straight from small producers within a twenty mile radius of the restaurant. For instance, last night one of the items on the blackboard menu (pictured above) featured a wonderful looking flank steak from Ridgeroll Farm, only a dozen or so miles away. I chatted with one of the diners who tried it and he raved about its quality and the creative way it had been prepared and served to him.

In all fairness, in the interest of full disclosure, I should be telling you that my wife is one of those local farmers with whom Craig does business. He was here at our farm (Sheepy Hollow) just this past week, taking a look at the way Anne raises and feeds her sheep. He left with an extremely large bundle of the beautifully butchered loin roasts that we keep here in our freezers for him.

Just the two of us dined there last evening. We should do this more often. It was fun to spend a slow, quiet evening together. I ordered a wonderful bottle of wine that was really quite spectacular -- a 2003 Cote du Rhone Villages, called Valréas (by Domaine du Val des Rois). The entire wine list is solid; but it's not cheap by any means. I excuse that by understanding that one isn't going to want an unsatisfactory wine with the extraordinary offerings that this restaurant serves.

I began with mussels and Anne with the "brussels."

"Mussels and Brussels! That's cute," our very bright and articulate waitress said! She knew the charming blackboard menu backwards and forwards and had tried most of the offerings on it. She warned me that the mussels might be a little different this time, because Craig had prepared them in a smoked chicken broth that he had prepared himself. My wife, snatching some of mine, thought they were spectacular. I, preferring the normal mussels served here, thought they were good, but not great.

Anne's small Brussel Sprouts were caramelized and roasted and absolutely perfectly so. In exchange for some of my mussels, she let me try a few. Wow! They were wonderful. Both of our appetizers were served with a small piece of blackened, grilled French baguette. I'm off bread these days and didn't eat mine. Anne had them both and pronounced them "delicious."

I passed on a salad and Anne asked for the Red's Wild. The ingredients come from a nearby farm owned by a fellow named Red. They include some wild herbs and some spectacular greens. It was the highlight of the evening for Anne. She loved the combination and thought it was dressed magnificently.

I had to go for the Sheepy Hollow Lamb and I was glad I did. It was served on a very attractive, thin dab of puréed squash. The beautiful, thick slices of loin were seared on the outside and left exceedingly rare (the way I like it) at the center. That rare, they were slightly chewy, which is the way I believe lamb is meant to be eaten. Cook it longer and it will get very tender, but it will also lose some of its delightful flavor. They got it just right at Terra. It was served with a Romanesco Cauliflower that I don't think I'd ever had before. It was slightly grilled and tasted wonderful in the light squash sauce.

Anne had the grilled salmon that was served with a delectable and savory sauce and lentils. It was also left quite rare at the center, while the outside was grilled to a crusty perfection and it was seasoned with a variety of tasty herbs. She claimed her decision to order it was one of her wisest moves in a long time.

One of the delights of the evening was all the spectacular color on our plates. There's a sense of the artistic at this restaurant and we really appreciate it.

We let our eyes wander around the dining room, observing what other diners had tried. The same sense of proportionate color balance seemed to radiate off of every plate. The diners to my immediate right had gone for the rissoto (about which she raved in spectacular adjectives) and the flank steak (which drew equal praise from him). Sheepy Hollow Lamb sold out on this evening, as Craig says it almost always does. The night before he featured thick and juicy loin chops and they were extraordinarily popular.

The desserts are also winners at this surprising restaurant. I'm not allowed them, but Anne had a flourless chocolate torte and she raved about it and only, complying with etiquette, expressed her regret that I couldn't have even a tiny taste.

The folks sitting near us ordered a marvelous looking individual apple pie and a pumpkin soufflé in a caramel sauce. Like all the other dishes, the desserts were masterpieces of presentation. I wanted to wander around the room taking pictures of everyone's chosen courses. I didn't so much constrain myself as I was refrained by my wife's clear threats to murder me if I went around disturbing people who were trying to have a pleasant and private night out.

The only warning I have for you is that you won't find salt shakers on any of the tables at Terra Waconia. I was too embarrassed to ask for any. It's a small enough place that I imagine the chef can hear anything said in the dining room from back there where he works. He such a nice guy that I didn't want to hurt his feeling. I would, however, have liked to add a light sprinkling of salt to my lamb. Next time I'll have a tiny packet or two of salt in my pocket.

If you live in the Twin Cities Metro and haven't tried this delightful restaurant, you're missing something special. Be careful about their hours. They don't serve lunch and they're closed Monday and Tuesday evenings. They're located on West Main Street in the downtown area of Waconia, Minnesota (just off of Highway 5).


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