Alaskans aren't afraid of a little drive to get what they want. Some Anchorage residents routinely drive 45 minutes for a renowned pepper steak or for a certain plate of yam fries I could name. But they tend to drive south. With apologies, the Valley has a lot of things to brag about -- being a food mecca just isn't one of them.
However, the Grape Tap Restaurant and Wine Bar in Wasilla might just shift Alaska's foodie compass.
I took four friends -- all enthusiastic eaters -- with me to dine. We were all charmed by the sunny, inviting house on a side street off the town's main drag. Inside, the main floor is bright, warm and contemporary. A decidedly tongue-in-cheek mural depicts God and Adam sharing a bottle of wine. Whimsical touches are scattered throughout, playful chandeliers, fuzzy/sequined throw pillows. It's a chic room, but one that doesn't take itself too seriously.
I had requested a table in the basement on the advice of a friend. It was a hot day in June and the descent to the basement was a surreal experience. One minute you're hot and dusty in Wasilla and the next you've been transported to a cool, dim, wine cellar with European or, perhaps, Napa Valley ambience.
Upon being seated we were given a bowl of house-made nuts. They were sweet, spicy, addictive and gone in no time flat. The first bowl is complimentary, but after that, cost $1.50. They can also be purchased to go ($25 a pound, 1/4 pound minimum) so I'm guessing they're a popular item.
Our server, Jasmin, picked up quickly on the festive mood of our table. She was friendly and fun but not overbearing. She was also quick on her feet. When we noted that salt is not a part of the restaurant's basic table setting, she didn't miss a beat: "We assume everything is going to be perfect." Her knowledge of the menu and enthusiasm for the food made her a great ambassador for the restaurant.
The menu is a creative interpretation of familiar dishes. As starters we ordered seared ahi tuna, a wedge salad, scallops, and bacon-wrapped dates. The ahi ($16) was well-prepared with a crust of white and black sesame seeds and came with a tasty little fried cake of sesame-scented rice. The wedge salad ($10) was a punched-up classic with a generous quantity of tomatoes, bacon and bleu cheese.
The Moroccan scallops ($14) were my favorite -- they had a nice sear and were more well-done than some scallops-preparations I've eaten lately -- not too translucent in the middle. The sauce was creamy with a subtle, cumin-y flavor. I could have licked the plate. The "not-so-cheap" dates ($10) were a generous nine-to-a-plate. They were delicious because ... well, because they were dates ... stuffed with Roquefort ... wrapped in bacon. They were gone within minutes of hitting the table.
The meat lover in our party ordered the large tenderloin au poivre ($40; there is a smaller size for $28). While different from his favorite Double Musky steak -- he declared it to be "a close call" -- I loved the sauce, subtle with a distinct, peppery tang that lingered pleasantly but didn't overwhelm the beef.
Another friend ordered the evening's special, a trio of Alaska seafood including salmon, halibut, and crab ($36). The blackened halibut was superb but, to be honest, I didn't get a taste of the other two. I was too slow, a good indicator that my friend enjoyed it. The chicken quesadilla ($12) with bacon, tomatoes and chipotle was satisfying if a bit pedestrian. I ordered the filet mignon sliders ($18), an elevated pubdish. The buns were satisfyingly sweet and squishy, the meat mild -- the perfect bed for a heap of caramelized onions and an oozing sauce of melted Cambazola.
We were all stuffed but too intrigued by the dessert choices to forgo them completely. We ordered the coffee crème brulee (nice, creamy and light, but not memorable $8) and the peanut-butter Oreo mudslide ice-cream cake (described by our server as a "wall of deliciousness" $8). One serving and four spoons concluded our meal with a "battle to the death" for our share of the dessert. It satisfied all five of our inner-children.
Please, Valley residents, don't blame me for sharing Wasilla's best-kept secret. It was bound to come out.