A Dear Indulgence

Bobino's

222 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.;
623-3301

BOBINO'S, NAMED AFTER the last nightclub in which Josephine Baker performed, is exceedingly pretty. Bathed in soft golden light with a few red accents, it is the perfect place for dimly lit romantic dinners, evening reflection, and confessions. Servers swish by in immaculate aprons, golden artichokes hang from the ceiling on gilded ribbons, and glass vases filled with pussy willows and yellow roses rest on each table. But for all the delicacy and perfection, there remains an air of casualness necessary for any good wine bar.

The wine list is large enough to provide variety and small enough to keep dilettantes like myself from getting muddled. When pressed to recommend a glass of white wine, our waiter chose the least expensive on the list, bringing us a crisp, buttery Domaine De Coussergues Sauvignon Blanc ('95, Languedoc, France, $3.95/glass, $19.95); it was excellent. On the high end of the price scale, if you're curious, is a $36.95 bottle of Kenwood "Jack London" Merlot, '94, Sonoma, California.

The menu, created by chef J.P. Samuelson, changes weekly, always offering a small selection of tapas, soups and salads, entrees, and desserts. Tapas at $1 each seem like a cheap way to go, but be warned: think tiny taste, not extensive joy ride. We tried both offerings on the menu, the first being a sweet potato cake topped with a sliver of salmon on top of a few baby greens treated with extra virgin olive oil, the second being some very tiny and very rare slabs of roasted leg of lamb served on silver dollar polenta biscuits dribbled over with a sweet mustard crème fraîche. So tasty that you grumble that the moment came and went so quickly.

If delicate snacking is not your idea of fun, skip ahead to entrees, which are as hearty and filling as can be. No vegetarian options were on the menu the evening we were visiting, but we were told that all the vegetarian fixings from other entrees could be whipped into its own meal without a problem. This week that meant an artfully arranged plate of organic wheatberries (which taste exactly like you'd imagine) treated with spices, creamy mashed potatoes, whole cloves of garlic and Minnesota winter ragoût lush with squash and tomatoes.

I would have been envious had it not been for the ribeye steak staring at me. Sliced on a bed of yukon mashed potatoes, it was a divine cut of meat, cut easily with a single draw of my butter knife. Along with a pile of fresh chopped persimmon, a small pool of homemade apple sauce, and the Santa Alicia merlot demi-glace ($15.95), it was a magnificent plate of food. My other friend dearly enjoyed a plate of British Columbia Pacific salmon, a swirl of flavors served with the aforementioned ragoût ($14.95).

I usually pass over dessert with the self-righteous phrase "I'm full." But this evening was different. Maybe it was our waiter's amiable sincerity, maybe it was the mood set by the bounteous meal, but whatever the cause, the result was that we ordered all three desserts on the dessert tray. Luckily sparring was held to a minimum, as we each quickly found a favorite. For me, it was the Indian pudding ($4.50), a mushy sort of bread pudding riddled with cinnamon and nutmeg, made with corn meal over a graham cracker crust and swirled with caramel and a light honey-tasting cream sauce. My two friends in turn were happy with the chocolate mocha flourless torte ($4.50), embellished with homemade whipped cream and fresh raspberries, and a dense custard with a caramel topping ($4.50). Neither trace nor crumb was left on our dessert plates.

The only slight damper in the evening was the bill of $90, which, once you add a decent tip brings you choking on the sum of $118. Of course, we DID completely indulge ourselves with dessert, wine, and appetizers. But nearly $40 per person in this neck of the woods feels a bit out of character, and coming so soon after our annual spate of holiday spending, one can really feel the pinch. Miserly thoughts aside, Bobino's is a winning effort in all other respects. Trudging along the snow-filled pathway to my house, it seemed that my feet were crunching more heavily than I'd ever noticed before. Were my footfalls more apparent because the extraordinary meal and two glasses of wine I had at Bobino's made me more reflective and sensitive of my surroundings? Or perhaps the meal merely made me physically heavier. Fortunately there was no one around to offer an opinion.

TABLEHOPPING

CARNIVAL VICTIM: If you fancy yourself too fashion-conscious to pin on a button, consider this: From now through the end of the 11th Annual Winter Carnival (which, in case you didn't already know, runs from Friday through February 2), Starbucks customers wearing a Winter Carnival button will receive a free cup of short-drip coffee every time they stop at Starbucks. The button is also valid for a $2 discount off any pound of Starbucks's special Winter Carnival Yukon blend.

CRAB TREAT: You have until March 1 to stop in at the Pickled Parrot (26 N. 5th St., Mpls.; 332-0673) for a hefty stone crab, flown in daily from Joe's Stone Crabs in Florida. Treat yourself to a crab that is so splendiferous you might get full before finishing it. Imagine your frostbitten fingers dipping a hunk of crab meat into melted butter (or some of Joe's mustard sauce), squeezing some lemon over it, and popping it into your cranky mouth. You are completely entitled to such niceties after enduring this hideously nasty cold spell. The meal also includes a grilled and stuffed tomato and a side of creamed spinach. And if you're stuck inside for a day or two with nothing but a couple of boxes of frozen spinach and time on your hands, try making a big dish of Joe's creamed spinach on your own.

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