Heading to dinner in Willernie somehow conjures a Little House on the Prairie scenario in my head. I don’t know why I would expect it to be like Walnut Grove, because it isn’t. Willernie sits in the elbow crook between muscled Mahtomedi and elderly White Bear Lake. The tiny cross section of main streets is jam-packed with bars and good ol’ taverns lit by Michelob Ultra signs. And there sits The Hanger Room, an ambitious little steak house with all the hopes and dreams of Laura Ingalls.
Fashioned from an old bowling alley, it has a bit of a split personality. From the entryway, the door to the right leads to a refined, quiet dining room with formal touches. The left-side door reveals a more casual bar area with high-top tables, a touch of neon, and one of the most awesomely jammed beer tap towers I’ve seen. This place is serious about its craft beer program, and it deserves props for its huge list of scotches and bourbons as well.
Chef Leonard Anderson seems equally serious about the beef program. The Hanger Room purports to be the first restaurant in the east metro with a dry-aging room on the premises. With the dark wood paneling and all the talk of dry-aging, this place definitely reads steak house, but it strives to be a bit more.
Anderson’s last gig was leading the kitchen of W.A. Frost, where he earned some kudos for cooking fresh and innovative food from local ingredients. In keeping with that, his menu in Willernie is not the creamed-spinach/blooming-onion riff you’d expect from a suburban steak house. Instead it feels like a big-city chef has come to town and brought crispy pork belly, fennel fries, and micro herbs along for the ride. The mini salmon ceviche tacos were architectural bites with a wafer-thin slice of radish on top, a lovely mouthful. Crispy pork belly came with a vibrant salsa verde, while beef carpaccio was rightfully left to elegant simplicity (albeit, with an odd plastic eggshell). My fried egg BLT with a zippy sauce was drippingly wonderful.
But raising the bar, thereby raising expectations, means you have to execute, and some things were more ambitious than delicious. Fried Cornish game hen had a tasteless coating and a dangerously pink interior. Lobster risotto was crunchy and lacked the promised sea urchin component. I was a little befuddled that the steak, the dry-aging of which was so vaunted, would come smothered in caramelized onions and shallot jus, overpowering any beefiness. The service, as well, has some work to do to catch up to the promise of the menu.
Like the split entryway, I had rather split experiences. My dinner date, who lives in the area, kept saying how they’ve “needed” a place like this, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is exciting to see such flavors and ingredients in the outskirts. I think there’s a desire for this kind of cooking among the sea of mozzie sticks and tater skins, but expectations should be met, if not exceeded. And I have all the girlish hopes and dreams that, as The Hanger Room evolves, they will.
Stephanie’s rating: 79
See Hanger Room’s Restaurant Rater score at mspmag.com.
GETTING THERE, GETTING IN: Free lot in the back, plus free street parking. Reservations are recommended for weekends. HOURS: M 11 am–12 am bar only; T–Th & Su 5 pm–10 pm dining room, 11 am–12 am bar; F–Sa 5 pm–11 pm dining room, 11 am–1 am bar NOISE LEVEL: Low KIDS: Not really kid friendly CARDS: Amex, Discover, MC, Visa ENTRÉE PRICES: $11–$69 S ACCESSIBLE
3 Great Plates ...
1. 42+ Day Aged Ribeye
It’s 16 ounces of gloriously beefy steak with just the right mouth melt. Yeah, it’s $69, but it’s worth it. Order it simple, with no adornments.
2. Fried Egg BLT
Available on the bar menu, this sandwich has all the right levels of bacon, avocado, and hot sauce.
3. Fennel Fries
Hot, crispy, and fresh, they’re an unexpected yet perfect accompaniment to the hefty beer list.