EVEN THOUGH THE SUBURBS are creeping inexorably westward, Waconia, in the heart of Carver County, is still a small town on a big lake. There’s no Starbucks, stoplights are rare, and getting there from almost anywhere in the metro area is a haul: take Highway 5 about 10 miles past the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. If you hit South Dakota, you’ve gone too far.
But foodies have good reason to visit Waconia, now that Keven Kvalsten, former chef de cuisine at the beloved Corner Table in south Minneapolis, has settled in the quiet hamlet. Teaming up with Tom Peterson and Matty O’Reilly, owners of the charming, low-key 318 cafÃ© in Excelsior, Kvalsten has opened the Green Room, a 45-seat eatery—and a lovely spot for destination dining.
From the moment you step into the Green Room’s entryway, a tunnel-like installation of cool, blue glass arranged in a mosaic by Tonka Bay artist Kat Moses, you know you’re in for something fresh. The art is both striking and strikingly compatible with the dining room it introduces—a clean, simple space painted green (of course) with a vintage tin ceiling. The dÃ©cor is homey but there’s nothing quaint or cutesy about it. The same goes for the food.
On a recent Saturday evening, the specials blackboard listed a white-bean soup with ham and an oven-roasted halibut with fingerling potatoes. The soup had a long-simmered, homemade richness, and the fish was pleasant enough, with a crisp crust and a creamy, mild texture. But the rest of the plate was a revelation: the roasted potatoes, accompanied by carrots and eggplant, had the taste and texture of produce fresh from the field, and its sauce (“beet mustard,” according to our server) was the perfect balance of sweetness and astringency. The dish went winningly with the Sauvignon Blanc la Tarral we ordered from the eclectic wine list.
Our choices from the regular dinner menu were winners as well. The spinach and beet salad, served with a generous dollop of goat cheese, was tasty enough to convert even the beet hater at our table. The pork tenderloin entrÃ©e, featuring cabbage, apples, and a Dijon sauce, was hearty and satisfying. The coconut-almond-crusted walleye arrived with a smoky tomato sauce and light, lemony rice.
We’d heard that the restaurant offered a three-course chef’s tasting menu, but our server seemed caught off-guard when we asked about it. (They were training new kitchen staff, she confided later.) The kitchen rallied nicely, however, delivering a shrimp appetizer served with olive tapenade, followed by a “surf and turf” combination plate with roasted halibut and grilled rare skirt steak on risotto, and finished with the chocolate-lava cake from the dessert menu.
Portions are elegantly modest, so there’s a good chance you’ll have room for dessert. The kitchen does a nice job with the usual suspects, such as crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e and cheesecake. But our unanimous favorite was a dish of coconut macaroons, stacked like shortcakes with diminutive scoops of strawberry sorbet.
Kvalsten’s new venture bodes well for Waconia. Just as roving bands of hungry city folk headed to the Harbor View CafÃ© have livened up Pepin, Wisconsin, the Green Room may soon do the same for Waconia. And locals will wonder how they ever did without it. MM
The Green Room
140 W. Main St., Waconia