Earlier this summer, I took my annual trip to North Dakota to see some of our regular dealers and to interview some potential dealers in some towns I had not been to before. One of those towns was Grand Forks. I flew into Fargo, then drove a rental car to spend the night there.
The city of Grand Forks is a quiet little Upper Plains community of about 60,000 with another 30,000 people living in the greater Grand Forks/E. Grand Forks, MN area. It's home to the University of North Dakota, a surprisingly wonderful little campus of about 12,000 students. I had a chance to drive around the town to take in the sights. From what I understand, the town has changed dramatically over the past few years.
In April and May of 1997, Grand Forks went through a horrific flood that forced the evacuation of over 90% of their residents. The Red River of the North, fed by an abundance of snow melt in South Dakota, Minnesota and southern North Dakota, flooded five feet over forecasts sending tons of water over makeshift dams and levees that were built to hold back the water. A fire triggered by a natural gas leak laid waste to entire blocks of downtown buildings. After the flood waters receded in May, Grand Forks looked like a war zone with burnt out buildings, deserted homes and a thick muck of mud left over from the flooding.
Amazingly, the downtown area has come back strong with new buildings, parkways and housing. Some buildings were refurbished from their former shells and, quite honestly, it looks like nothing really happened there. But there are high water marks at various places around the downtown area showing where the Red River had gotten up to. Some marks are between 12 to 15 feet above the ground.
With that said, a handful of restaurants have popped up in downtown Grand Forks. One such restaurant, Sanders 1907, I was told was one of the top restaurants - if not THE top restaurant - in the state of North Dakota. Well, of course, I've had bad luck with picking my restaurants this summer and as I pulled up in front of Sanders 1907, I found it was closed. (They're closed on Mondays.) Oh well...
There was a pizza place just around the corner - Rhombus Guys - but it was a small place with a lot of people inside. I didn't think I really wanted a pizza in North Dakota all that much, either. I drove around the downtown area for a bit and I drove past another place that looked interesting - The Toasted Frog. I parked just down the street and made my way into the restaurant.
Located on N. 3rd St. (see map), The Toasted Frog is situated in a building that was originally built during the late 19th century and has housed a number of businesses over the years. After the downtown was renovated, the building stood empty for a few years until it was purchased by Grand Forks natives Jon Holth and Shawn Clapp. Clapp and Holth both had extensive experience in the restaurant business - both had worked at Sanders 1907 and then had ventured up the Red River (the Red River flows from south to north) to Fargo where they managed the restaurant and lounge at the Hotel Donaldson, a high-end boutique hotel in the downtown area of Fargo. Clapp and Holth opened The Toasted Frog in May of 2006 and as of this summer they were looking to open a second location in Bismarck.
The menu at The Toasted Frog is pretty eclectic including steaks, seafood and Asian-style spare ribs. They have some interesting sandwiches such as the open-faced pheasant melt and the Moroccan-spiced lamb burger. The restaurant also offers a number of wood-fired pizzas on their menu. They also have something like lavosh- thin-rolled flat bread that they fill with interesting concoctions such as pheasant confit, a lavosh with a combination of different types of seafood such as shrimp, crab meat and scallops along with some vegetables, and a spinach and havarti cheese lavosh.
The restaurant features a dining room with exposed brick walls with a number of high tables in the middle with lower tables along the wall. Large windows and contemporary industrial lights hanging from the ceiling allow for an abundance of light to filter into the room. The exposed kitchen area is in the far back of the restaurant. You could easily see the chef and assistants laboring over the grill. The bar area is off to the side just as you walk into The Toasted Frog. It had about eight to ten seats and a flat-screen television had ESPN on. I decided to sit at the bar and enjoy my meal there.
In addition to a number of top-shelf vodka, bourbon and Scotch they had on the shelf at The Toasted Frog, they also had a pretty extensive and impressive wine list. I looked through it for a bit, but decided that I really wanted to drink beer that evening. Surprisingly, they had Bell's Two Hearted Ale on tap. I didn't know that Bell's came as far west as North Dakota. I ordered up one of those from the amiable bartender while I perused the menu.
One of the first things that jumped out at me on the menu were the fish tacos. I'd had a lot of fish tacos at a number of restaurants this summer and I don't want to say that I was burnt out on them. But I was sort of leery of getting fish tacos in Grand Forks, ND considering they were made from grilled mahi mahi. Now, grilled walleye fish tacos may have gotten more of my attention.
The bartender came over and said that their feature entree that evening was their New York strip steak, marinated in garlic oil and rosemary herbs. I had been looking at that on the menu, as well. I asked him about the fish tacos and he said, "Oh, they're very good. They're one of our top items on the menu."
Well, I was torn between the steak and the fish tacos. I decided to go with the geographic rule on this one - we're closer to beef lots in North Dakota than we are the sea. I went with the steak - rare. I also noticed they had a caprice salad on the menu and I ordered that, as well.
The caprice salad was absolutely wonderful. The tomatoes were overly ripe and meaty. The basil was fresh and the red onion slices were very forward and pungent. I have to say the caprice salad was one of the better ones I've ever had - including some from much larger and more prestigious restaurants.
A waiter brought my steak to the bar and it looked pretty good. It was a large strip steak (14 oz.) resting on a bed of broccolini. Wasabi and garlic mashed potatoes were off to the side. The outside of the steak was charred and I was a little skeptical if it were truly rare. But I cut into it and it was a wonderful cool red in the middle.
The only problem was that the steak was overly gristled. I had trouble finding parts of the steak that didn't have a full piece of gristle in the bite. I would say a good third of the steak was full of gristle. Sometimes you get a steak that isn't a good cut of meat. My number came up that night. What I could eat of the steak, it was very good, however.
The wasabi and garlic mashed potatoes were good, but I couldn't really get much of either a wasabi or a garlic taste to them. The broccolini were cooked spot on, still having a little crunch to the stalks.
The bartender asked how my steak was and I told him that it was full of gristle. He sort of cringed and said, "Well, that's no good. Do you want me to get you another steak?"
I told him that wasn't necessary. At $22 bucks, the steak was a bargain. So he told me he'd buy a couple beers for me. That was nice, considering the beers were $3.75 a glass. But looking back, I should have gotten the fish tacos.
I dawdled at the bar after dinner watching a ball game on ESPN and having a couple more Bell's Two Hearted Ales. The dining room had begun to empty out and I was the only person at the bar. The bartender did a good job of taking care of me that evening and he got a nice tip.
Other than the steak being full of gristle, I had a good meal and a good dining experience at The Toasted Frog. Each time I've had to change plans while looking for restaurants this summer that were either closed for the evening, burned down or gone out of business, Plan B or even Plan C has turned out to be a good choice. I was glad to come across The Toasted Frog. It was a surprisingly good place and one that I would think would work well in larger metro areas.