Noble Lion Offers Upscale Food in Far-Flung Suburbs
Marc Huebner was in home tech sales for 25 years before finally answering the siren’s call to restaurant ownership.
Marc Huebner’s love affair with cooking could have come to a roaring halt in 2013, when star chef Bobby Flay sent him packing. To his credit, Huebner had made it to the final four on Food Network’s “America’s Best Cook,” but then his celebrity chef coach, the effervescent Michael Symon, urged him to cook a crab-stuffed poblano pepper. In hindsight that probably wasn’t good advice, Huebner admits, since Southwestern fare is Flay’s specialty. And even though Flay and Symon are tight, Flay didn’t hesitate to penalize the way the
pepper was cooked, thus ending Huebner’s star turn. And if you think it’s hard to sit on your couch at home and watch someone pull off their apron and exit the stage, head down, try being that person.
He had made it to the final show, Huebner points out. A previous attempt with “Master Chef” failed when he didn’t make it past the first audition. “I was going through a divorce and didn’t have a good attitude—and they noticed that,” he says, smiling. Huebner’s attitude has improved considerably in the years since that audition. In part because he’s the proud owner of a hidden gem of a restaurant in Victoria, The Noble Lion. Located on a block of charming shops and restaurants, the 52-seat restaurant (with an additional 28 seats on the patio) combines fine dining with everyday casualness.
Although he still loves to cook, Huebner isn’t the chef. “A lot of people do pop-ups in their homes,” he says. “I thought about it, but I live in Waconia. Who’s going to drive out there?”
Rather than manning a stove, he’s front of the house. “That show put a fire under me,” he says. In some respects it was the same as running a restaurant: brief moments of glory, heart-pounding rushes, lots of repetition and waiting.
Huebner developed his love of fine cuisine when his father’s job at 3M moved the family to Belgium. His mother, whose family lived in nearby Germany, took cooking lessons at the women’s club from Lynn Rossetto Kasper, the host of “The Splendid Table,” the iconic cooking show that aired for years on public radio. That led to trips to Paris and other foodcentric adventures. When they moved back to Hastings, Huebner further honed his palate by watching PBS cooking shows. He remembers one of his early treks to the grocery store to find truffles for a recipe, only to be thwarted in his efforts when chocolate truffles were the only truffles he spotted.
All of the intel went into a notebook for his future bistro. His strong suit, he claims, is surrounding himself with excellent people. He hired Katie Kath, who owned Spill the Wine in Minneapolis until it closed in 2015, to be his mentor. “I sold her on it by saying, ‘how’d you like to open a restaurant without any skin in the game,’” he says. He hired his chef, Pat Donelan, from Craigslist. What impressed Huebner about Donelan was not only his excellent culinary skills, but his work ethic. He does everything from ordering food and determining quantities to sanding table bases. (What impressed us when we met Donelan at a fundraiser was that he had just foraged the mushrooms for the dish they were serving.)
The menu, which ranges from a grilled Caesar salad to Lake Superior Whitefish Cakes and Steak Au Poivre with Belgian frites, is all prepared in a 400-square-foot kitchen, which doesn’t have tweezers, nor a microwave. “I can’t even reheat a cup of coffee if I want to,” Huebner says. He describes the menu as “elevated food that’s still recognizable.”
The décor, which is still in the works, has European touches borrowed from his art collection at home. The patio tables are both his and borrowed from the coffee shop that shares the alleyway.
And while it’s just becoming known in its neck of the word, it’s already hard to get a seat on weekends and most evenings. People in the area “are happy to have something of this caliber without the pretension,” he says. “If I could find an identical spot, I’d open another one.”