Nestled next to the Subway sandwich shop on Lyndale Avenue just before Diamond Lake Road, Prima’s black awning says simply, “Pasta Salads Panini.” Drivers navigating the construction-cluttered street could be forgiven for thinking it was just another takeout spot with an Italian spin.
But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of the neighborhood bistro that has been a best-kept Southwest secret for more than 13 years. Now, with homegrown ingredients from the owners’ farm gracing the seasonally driven menu, and an expanding focus on dishes that have nothing to do with a panini press, Prima has never been better.
While restaurant buzz tends to focus on newcomers to the dining scene, sometimes the most rewarding experiences are found at neighborhood standbys that are doing what they do best with a renewed energy and focus. That’s certainly the case at Prima for Eliot and Jennifer King, who started the 55-seat restaurant in the late 1990s after moving back to Minnesota from the San Francisco Bay Area.
From the beginning, Chef Eliot created a menu based on from-scratch cooking and classic flavor combinations. “I’ve always been very focused on quality ingredients and technique,” he says. Dishes like the grilled beef skewers with Gorgonzola dipping sauce and baby arugula salad show how an experienced hand can transform even simple ingredients. “It’s about the quality of the beef, the flavor from the marinade, the char from the grill,” Eliot explains. “That attention to detail is what makes the dish.”
With everything from soups to salad dressings to desserts made fresh in-house, there are lots of opportunities for Eliot and his two sous chefs to shine. “I love the new whole wheat ziti with wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and lemon-truffle cream right now,” says Jennifer. The dish is an earthy umami-bomb that leaves you searching for the source of the roasted-on-the-bone beefy flavor in the totally meat-free dish. “We roast the sprouts to bring out the sweetness,” Eliot explains, “and use three kinds of mushrooms.” A finish of crisply fried Brussels sprouts leaves, as addictive as barbecue potato chips, adds a textural counterpoint, while white truffle oil and a jolt of lemon juice bring together the creamy sauce and balance out the richness.
A full complement of secondo entrees follow the pastas, featuring seasonally inspired preparations such as the pan-seared cod with grilled artichokes, leeks and roasted garbanzo beans, surrounded by a brilliant-orange pool of roasted red pepper sauce and topped with a wispy micro arugula salad.
Jennifer also curates a surprisingly robust wine list with several special releases and obscure grape varietals at prices that make it easy to try something new. “I want people to be able to come in and enjoy a glass or bottle of wine that would be twice the price at another restaurant,” she says. “I love introducing people to new varietals, like Carmenere or Teroldego. It adds so much to the dining experience.”
In recent years the menu has also seen more dishes highlighting produce from the King Family Farm, Jennifer and Eliot’s homestead and labor of love. “After so many years in the restaurant business, it offers us a fresh challenge to grow and cook with our own products,” Jennifer says.
Nurturing ingredients from seed to harvest to diners’ plates has definitely influenced Eliot’s cooking style. “You’re not just ordering 10 pounds of micro greens,” he says. “You’re carefully placing every leaf of that red amaranth lettuce in a salad, thinking of all of the hours you tended it and watered it and cared for it. You want to showcase it to the best of your ability.”
In addition to raised-bed plots, the farm also has a buzzing apiary and a clutch of happy chickens. Eggs from the Araucana and other hens will be featured on the Mother’s Day brunch menu this year. “And the bees are going crazy right now!” Jennifer laughs. Their King Family Farm Wildflower Honey provides a richly sweet base note for the tangy mango salsa on the almond-crusted ricotta dolce appetizer.
Even though they’re headed into their 14th year at Prima, Jennifer and Eliot are excited about what’s ahead — and thankful for their guests and regulars, who have pledged to support the restaurant through the disruption of the Lyndale Avenue construction. “It’s so rewarding to see customers come in year after year,” Eliot says. Jennifer adds, “There’s one guest who used to ride his Big Wheel up to the back door and now he’s in college! It’s so cool to see the families grow and change, and keep coming back.”
With even more farm-fresh ingredients to come as Eliot expands his garden plans, and with Jennifer’s warm presence continuing to anchor the dining room, it certainly is a prime time to revisit Prima.