Highland Grill (St. Paul, MN)
The Blue Plate Restaurant Company operates four neighborhood restaurants around the Twin Cities: Highland Grill, Edina Grill, Longfellow Grill and Groveland Tap. They are all neighborhood restaurants, similar to one another but each with a different style. It's a good concept, and every neighborhood is improved by a decent drop-in restaurant.
Highland Grill is a family diner with an upscale kick. They've certainly got that fine informal style, right down to the kitchen towels that serve as napkins. The staff is marvelous, with kind and friendly servers, and a super-quick kitchen. They do short-order really well, which is impressive given how complex some of their dishes are. And they use local and organic ingredients as much as possible.
Head Chef Kevin Wencel describes the Blue Plate holdings as "the big little guy," able to be a significant buyer from organic producers, and he's always looking to increase the organic and natural foods options on his menus. Currently, he relies on the year-round availability of bison, maple syrup, and lots of grains, legumes and flours. Because their menu changes only twice a year, they're not as nimble at serving short-season products.
Much as we love the wholehearted enthusiasm of everyone we've met at the Highland Grill, not every dish makes us swoon.
Appetizers are generally interesting, and they're good for sharing. We liked the beer-battered green beans, served with an Asian-style plum sauce, and the sweet-potato fries with peanut pesto aioli. Roasted corn and jalapeno hush puppies are served with both chipotle ranch dressing and chimichurri dipping sauce, but we wished they were cooked just a little more and served a little hotter.
We really liked the potato and cheddar pirogues, served with sautéed onions and horseradish sauce.
Highland Grill also serves a variety of salads. Our favorite was the roasted beet salad, with arugula, chives, cashew nuts, and citrus vinaigrette, although we didn't care for the white bean and goat cheese puree over which it was served.
We can recommend the grilled salmon, done with organic maple syrup; the combination worked surprisingly well. It's served with tasty bitter greens and garlic mashed potatoes.
We wanted more zip in the chicken enchilada, although there was nothing actively wrong with it. We felt the same way about the fish and chips: not fabulous enough.
The hamburger was, you know, a hamburger, but the lamb burger was delicious. It's a patty of delicately spiced meat served with tzatziki sauce, roasted tomatoes and arugula. Think of it is as souvlaki in burger form.
Other sandwiches are more hit-and-miss. The yellowfin tuna melt is good, but the Guajillo chicken sandwich is barely edible. We didn't like the pepper sauce that was mixed with the shredded chicken, nor the carrot-and-mayo mixture that topped it.
The best thing about Highland Grill is that you can get breakfast anytime. And everything is good. Aside from the more pedestrian choices, we loved the crab cake Benedict (with plenty of crab), and the jack cakes. Jack cakes have "your daily requirements for everything," and are fantastic. Three medium- sized organic-flour buckwheat cakes come piled with an amazing overload of blueberries and sliced bananas, raisins, peanuts and excellent granola. We're told no one ever finishes the order.
The hash browns are also top-notch.
Highland Grill is often crowded, with a line of people waiting outside. Use call-ahead seating to jump the queue. We like this place and wish it well; we also wish that the menu excited us as much as the concept.
771 Cleveland Ave. S.
St. Paul, MN 55116
Upscale, often organic, diner food
Breakfast about $8, sandwiches $6–$10, entrees $8–$13
Call-ahead seating recommended
All diets cheerfully accommodated