Tavern 4 & 5: hot tots in the 'burbs

RICK NELSON | Updated 11/6/2013

Appealing gastropub fare and craft beers at Tavern 4 & 5.

Brendan Hanson fed a pizza into the wood-burning oven at Tavern 4 & 5.
Bruce Bisping

This is not the kind of admission that a person likes to make, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. Yours truly recently fell in love with a plate of tater tots.

The venue in question was Tavern 4 & 5 in Eden Prairie (so named for its proximity to the County Rd. 4-Hwy. 5 crossroads), and those tater tots are a prime example of the restaurant’s ability to identify and repackage popular dining-out trends. Hipster Nation has embraced tater tots for the past few years, but rarely do they ascend to this level of bar-snack goodness, with creamy mashed potatoes formed into cork-shaped tots and then rolled in crunchy, panko-like crushed house-made potato chips. With each bite, the gently crisp, golden brown exterior, twinkling with flecks of sea salt, collapses into a piping hot, snowy white and potato-rich interior.

Or try the potato skins, with their prosciutto and fontina touches. Or what about a crazily addictive chips-and-dip version of the Reuben sandwich? Or a snappy-skinned ring bologna, grilled to tantalizing smokiness and served with a robust, beer-blended mustard? Or juicy pork, glazed with an assertive five-spice barbecue sauce and roasted, on the bone, a la chicken wings?

The kitchen — helmed by chef Zac Leeman — goes out of its way to matriculate beyond the now-familiar gastropub format. Plate-size pizzas are a pleasant surprise, with puffy, lightly chewy crusts and a plethora of like-minded toppings, including a lively pesto, subtly sweet roasted red peppers and plenty of flavorful rotisserie chicken.

Health-conscious diners will appreciate pizzas with doughnut-like holes in their center, filled with a mound of fresh greens. Then there’s a series of basic but satisfying next-Gen diet plates, consisting of steamed seasonal vegetables, brown rice or fluffy red quinoa, salad greens and grilled salmon, tofu or chicken. Setting the world on fire? No. Satisfying a niche? Definitely.

Salads don’t stray too far from crowd-pleasing favorites, but they’re made with integrity and an eye on fresh components. A dozen or so sandwiches are also far beyond the rote iterations of chain restaurants, whether it’s a gussied-up BLT, a fancy-schmancy grilled cheese and well-seasoned pulled pork, stacked high on a tasty onion bun, the sauce’s vinegar sassiness a fine foil to the sweet, crunchy coleslaw.

Larger dishes are often similarly pleasing. Rotisserie chickens are a cut above their supermarket counterparts, with crispy, well-seasoned skin crackling over abundantly juicy meat, a portion so generous my leftovers covered my chicken salad needs for not one but two lunchtime sandwiches. Several steaks were grilled to a tantalizingly caramelized sheen, and the slight sweetness of a brined, thick-cut pork chop was accentuated by complementary maple and apple accents.

Less successful were salmon and walleye entrees, both taken past their optimum temperatures. Oddly, what should be a highlight — the burgers — really aren’t, more a series of lustrousless iterations running up and down the gourmet burger roll call.

While the front-of-house staff might not routinely grasp basic dining-out fundamentals, they more than compensate with a collective outpouring of enthusiasm and energy. It’s a treat, really, to find yourself amid people who genuinely seem to take pleasure in their work.

Another plus: a great-looking room, which has erased most of the space’s most egregious strip mall-isms. Following the menu’s example, the space manages to modernize the tavern format without wholly remaking it.

Would I journey across town to dine at Tavern 4 & 5? Probably not. What this well-managed restaurant does very well is serve the everyday needs of its neighborhood. If I lived or worked in the southwest suburbs, I’d be a regular.