Elegant Is as Elegant Does

510 Restaurant

510 Groveland Ave., Mpls.

874-6440

IF YOU AREN'T planning on attending the prom and the only thing that you're graduating from is the nasty fit of depression you struggled through last month, then you might not feel like you have any cause to dress up, shower yourself with cologne, and go out to dinner. And you may be right, but then again, if you wait around for the right reason to do everything, you might never do anything. Not that I'm any Pollyanna turned philosopher; I'm just doing my job, which this week involves telling you that the 510 Restaurant is the perfect place for dignified reveling.

Tucked away in the regal 510, a residential hotel built in 1928 and since turned into a co-op, the restaurant's elegant service and setting is a testament to the building's history. Throne-like chairs and chandeliers dripping with crystal grace the lobby; the maitre d' utters "right this way" with an air of distinction difficult to find these days. If you're in search of a bit of class that's deeper than your local Eurobistro, you need look no further.

A recent visit brought my friend and me there around sunset; the waitstaff played the warm spring evening off to its best advantage, unobtrusively adjusting the windows and shades to let in the rosy spring sun. The menu is a relatively simple document to navigate, a pared-down, lighter, and less expensive version than in years past. Also relatively new are the three-course menu options, a bargain at $19 or $35, depending on how you opt. Bottled wines are sold not much more than $1 over retail value; bargains can be found at the top of the list ($13-$19), including the nice, dry bottle of Nicodemi Trebbiano D'Abruzzo '93 ($19) that we managed to polish off through the course of the meal. Rows of chewy bread tucked into linen and looking as pleased to jump into your hand as Lewis Carroll's oysters make excellent companions to the wine while you size up the menu.

The appetizer selection here consists of miniature feasts, ranging from the rustic (roasted garlic with fresh mozzarella, marinated tomatoes, and basil, $3.95) to the lavish (as in sautéed, raspberry-marinated quail on creamed leeks and a black pepper-parmesan tuile, $6.95). We started with a special appetizer of the day, a small portion of fettuccine in a light cream sauce, bright with a bouquet of red, yellow, and orange peppers, rained on with a bit of cracked pepper, and topped with some cheerfully overfed grilled shrimp. 510's country-style paté should satisfy the easily bored, lying low in a shallow cumberland sauce (think of a light, tangy raspberry vinaigrette) with a sculpture of pickled asparagus, calamata olives, pepperoncini, and cornichons balanced precariously on top ($3.95). The soup of the day, roasted eggplant, quite took our breath away with its slow-roasted flavor and peppery overtones ($4); it was nothing like the bland purée we had been preparing for.

Our waiter was vociferous when it came to recommending dishes that were particularly good that day, which made ordering a surprisingly effortless task for two indecisive diners. My friend and I both were immensely happy lingering over our recommended plates, though what we passed over bears mentioning: shiitake-seared salmon filet ($15.95); toasted, wild rice-coated walleye ($16.95); and grilled tuna with roasted grapes ($18.95). I thought my companion might be envious of the plate of tomato-saffron ragout sitting in front of me, thick with fat mussels, smoky scallops, grilled shrimp, smoked chicken, and pieces of garlic sausage served over a bed of grilled vegetable couscous ($14.95). But no: The seared flank steak provencal, sided with an extraordinary tomato aïoli and perfectly roasted new potatoes ($14.95), was equally impressive.

The 510's service is four-star caliber without putting on airs; when my friend disappeared for a few moments to use the phone, our waiter asked if we wanted our plates to be kept under heat until she returned, his voice lilting on a sea of politesse. His offer rejected, he busied himself re-sculpting her napkin. Somehow this was all charming, although the self-conscious might find the fawning attention a little embarrassing.

A couple of hours later, our waiter rolled out the dessert cart with a magisterial flourish, his eyebrows arching and falling dramatically as he presented the evening's selection (all $4.50), which included an orange-mocha flan with chocolate sauce; fresh raspberry cake with crème anglaise and raspberry sauce; lemon-pistachio mousse cake with blueberry and raspberry sauces; and the chocolate terrine with crème anglaise and fresh raspberries that we chose. Served on a pink china plate and soaked with raspberry sauce, it was a Victorian holiday, enough to make us forget the world outside for a few moments--a pleasure of dining out that is usually forgotten amid all the meals grabbed on the run. If you have a hip, wealthy old aunt who lives in an amazing old house and can roll out the silver tea cart and make you feel lovely and graceful, then perhaps you have no need of a place like the 510. That just leaves more room for the rest of us.

TABLEHOPPING

NOIR BAR: And you thought that the New French Cafe (128 N. Fourth St., Mpls.; 338-3790) was only good for spinach salad, people-watching, and sidewalk romance. Well, tut tut, the New French is planning a series of Sunday-night screenings of short and full-length films in 16mm. They include such classics as Rendezvous, Un Chien Andelou, and Dr. Suess on the Loose. Features begin 9 p.m. every Sunday and admission is free. Reserve your seat early, though; the screening room (adjacent to the bar) holds a maximum of 50 viewers.

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