Becoming Barnwood

What is a “Minnesota” restaurant anyway?

Becoming Barnwood

There’s a strange little trend afoot, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. There seems to be a habit of local hotels opening “Minnesota” restaurants. I put that in quotes because I don’t know if I get it.

The Hyatt redid its entire lower level to become Prairie Kitchen & Bar, the Commons Hotel renovated the U of M Radisson and added Beacon Public House, and now Millennium Hotel has launched North 45° along with its newly fresh-scrubbed look. What do they all have in common? “Minnesota” and barnwood. Each place is highly styled, evoking a rustic-urban vibe that uses copper or iron farm-like accents and burlap fabrics somewhere alongside big rough-hewn wood boards. Maybe there’s a birch tree thing, maybe some Red Wing Stoneware crocks. As for the menus, they run the gamut from venison satay to “Swedish” meatballs to beer cheese soup to Minnesota poutine.

I get that local is hot right now, and the fact that these restaurants are in hotels means they’re trying to deliver a sliver of the local scene to people who aren’t from here. But that’s just it—when I look at these places, I wonder how we got boiled down to barnwood and beer batter. It’s like they showed up at Heartland and said, “Take the wall, leave the duck fat cannoli.” HauteDish and The Bachelor Farmer, two of the most arguably Minnesotan restaurants, don’t seem to feel the need to pander, and why should they?

What is a “Minnesota” restaurant anyway? Does it have to have lingonberries? Need it have walleye cakes and wild rice soup? Isn’t that what we eat in our daily Minnesota kitchens? I’m as frustrated by this as I was growing up with our collective characterization as Guindon cartoons who ate lutefisk and, according to a late ’90s Bon Appétit city guide, were in bed by 9 pm. I love our cultural culinary heritage, but I take umbrage with these theme parks dedicated to it, because for the most part it seems that the barnwood is more important than the food. The ironic cool factor of our cities blooming in farm country is easier to exploit than actually supporting the farms they pay superficial homage to, and that’s gross. I wish they would walk the walk; it’s not that hard to be one of us. Plus, this is our time to shine.

Midwestern cuisine is a big enough deal that there are at least two New York food giants successfully selling it to the Non-esotans. Gabe Stuhlman’s Little Wisco empire of edgy Wisconsinite-staffed eateries is humbly expanding every day, and Michael White has just recently opened The Butterfly, a Wisconsin-style joint with what looks to be a deadly carrot cake and a wicked brandy Old Fashioned. I bet there’s not a piece of barnwood to be found.

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