Swank and Substance

Nikolet's
815 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; 341-4011

DOWNTOWN IS STILL the place to go for nighttime thrills, or at least that's the official line. But where exactly can the tireless thrillseeker go to find fashion and glamour? Is there a place for the jaded Minnesotan who prefers the Rainbow Room in NYC to the Rainbow Room on Hennepin Avenue? For those seeking nouvelle with a capital N, there is now Nikolet's, an extravagant (if somewhat bewildered) restaurant formerly known as Kapoochi's.

Nikolet's is so refined that they bill themselves as a "Euro-Asian Bistro," so sophisticated that they only open their portals at dinner time, Tuesday through Thursday. The dining room screams contemporary-adult cave, what with the metallic banisters, twinkling blue lights, low ceilings, and icy-blue decor complete with glassy table accessories. (Our perky waitress was nice enough to fill us in: "This is the salt grinder. It's filled with sea salt and you grind out salt from it. This is the pepper shaker. You grind out pepper from it.") If you are looking for a new lounge to frequent, the sunken bar area includes a live music stage and bamboo furniture, perfect for making lurid advances. To be honest, though, the room doesn't do the food justice.

If you were a fan of Kapoochi's, you'll be pleased to learn that head chef Greg Westcott has survived the ownership change. All the plates that leave the kitchen shimmer with Gourmet magazine presentation, layered with so many exotic ingredients that excavations are in order to actually reach your food. Nikolet's boasts a decent wine list, ranging from $16 for a bottle of Dry Creek Chenin Blanc '94 Sonoma to a $112 bottle of Sean Thackery Orion Syrah '92 Napa, all of which seem perfect for accompanying the ever-trendy combo of doughy sliced Italian bread and olive oil that starts things out.

The menu is a feast of adjectives and promises, starting with the appetizers. You won't find anything heartier on the menu than the soup of the day that coincided with our visit, a velvety sweet potato-pumpkin purée flavored with just a rumor of coconut sugar and cumin and garnished with thin slices of Asian pear ($4.50). Other delights included chewy pot stickers swimming in a sea of cilantro, and cucumber coulis among an island of fennel salad thrust with a sword of braised fennel and snowed-over with shredded seaweed ($8). The pizza starter delivered a paper-thin crust laden with grilled onion, roasted grapes, lush bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, and fontina ($8).

After this we wondered if things could get any more absurdly lavish. They could. The swordfish special was spectacular (as it should be, at $21), dressed up in a barbed-wire hat of rice noodles sitting on a layer of minced bok choy, portobello mushrooms, and cloves of roasted garlic--topping a handsome, meaty filet of swordfish marinated in an understated chili sauce.

My vegetarian friend was delighted with her potato cannelloni plate ($15.50), a cylinder of mashed potatoes circled with spaghetti-length green beans, mung beans, sprouts, olives, portobello mushrooms, roasted garlic, grilled onions, eggplant, and thin wafers of cross-cut potatoes (potato chips really; could they have been there for the sake of irony?) piled high into a mass sculpture.

The richest plate on the table was a breast of chicken finished with a black bean tomato sauce, nesting on a pile of garlic mashed potatoes, swirled with cilantro mascarpone and laden with a bizarre array of crispy parsnips ($16.50).

The desserts (all $4.50) are fruits of a designer's imagination as well. We were intimidated by the fearless bittersweet chocolate torte, served with a malted-milk ganache and praline dust; more accessible was the tub-sized serving of autumn fruit crisp, tangy and plump with apples, blackberries, and pears; the whole thing was glazed over with a sugary crust. Unfortunately we didn't have room to try the pumpkin crème brûlée with ginger cookie and mascarpone or the eggnog ice cream with caramel and chocolate sauce.

And now the real question: Will people appreciate the glamour and pizazz of Nikolet's? They'll be missing something wonderful if they don't.

TABLEHOPPING

ASHES TO GOULASH: The Modern Cafe (337 13th Ave. NE, Mpls.; 378-9882) is open again for business after a kitchen fire forced the restaurant to close its doors for renovation. The building and furnishings (counters, benches, stools, and art-deco mirrors) dating back to 1941 have been preserved, with a new ceiling and improved ventilation throughout the entire restaurant. What's more, the Modern offers new menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Highlights of the new dinner menu include lamb goulash with sun-dried tomatoes, chow mein, and a pork tenderloin sandwich, as well as old favorites like huevos rancheros, garlic mashed potatoes, pan-roasted chicken, and meatloaf.

WOMEN, CRAB LEGS, AND WINE: Cafe Un Deux Trois has announced that stone crabs are now available Friday and Saturday nights. Pulled from the waters off the Florida coast, the crabs are cooked right on board the fishing boats and flown here the same day they're caught. The cafe will be paying homage to Miami Beach institution Joe's Stone Crab by serving the crabs with classic side dishes of creamed spinach made with organic baby spinach and crispy potatoes lightly sautéed in butter and olive oil; a dollop of homemade dijon and lemon ailloli will be provided as a dipping sauce for the sweet, meaty claws. Cafe owner Michael Morse assures us that "the claws we've been getting are enormous, and because we get our product from fisherman who go out and return with their catch the same day, they're as fresh as you can get." Plan accordingly; these jumbo crabs are offered only as long as the season lasts (most likely through December). Also, this Thursday-Sunday, Cafe Un Deux Trois is hosting "la fête du Beaujolais Nouveau" (the party for the new Beaujolais). The celebration is marked by a special menu and an evening of classic French cabaret music provided by chanteuse Francine Roche and accordion virtuoso Mark Stillman. Appetizers will feature a frisée salad with poached eggs "en Beaujolais" and a green bean and hazelnut salad with Beaujolais vinaigrette, followed by entrées that include grilled medallions of Sonoma baby lamb with Beaujolais and mint, and a pan-roasted Atlantic Salmon with Beaujolais and organic braised greens. To top it all off there will be pears with Roquefort, pecans, and orange Beaujolais essence. For reservations call 673-0686. And remember, there's free valet parking after 6 p.m.

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