The Sad Comedy of Really Bad Food

Mpls. Cafe
1110 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 672-9100

When people find out what I do for a living they invariably ask whether restaurateurs know when I'm coming. The answer is that no, they never do, because I want to get the same treatment that any Josie Blow coming in off the street would get. This policy presents several major benefits: First, it makes me feel ethically snug; second, it means I can write off my many wig and prosthetic-nose purchases; and third, it makes me laugh. Or at least it makes me laugh through what would ordinarily be a merely painful meal. For example, consider the terrible times I've endured recently at the Mpls. Cafe.

There I was, withered to my bones with dehydration. Tumbleweeds rattled around in the bone-dry mesa of my water glass. My waiter had apparently given up the profession and lit out for a better life. The floor manager was busy giving free drinks to another, louder table, to apologize to them for all the things they wanted that they couldn't have--like food, and for them wine, since no one thought to entrust the floor manager with the key to the tantalizing wine cellar. It had been a long hour since I placed an appetizer order, and I might as well have been waiting for a bus for all the fine dining I was doing. I felt like Pamela Anderson at a NAMBLA convention. Had I not been a food critic--and in this case, incredibly, dining with another local food critic--I would have wept.

Yet instead, when our waiter, apparently having met disappointment on the coasts, returned at one-hour 10-minutes (sans H2O), and asked, incredibly, whether we needed more bread--well that was merely the beginning of the hilarity. I laughed. When I said no, we had plenty of bread, the waiter, not trusting me--and why should he, with me sneaking into his section and marring a life of vagabond adventure--unwrapped the focaccia in its napkin-nest, peeked in at it, rewrapped it, and strode off again to his lair. I laughed so hard I thought I'd rupture something. Actually, I'm still laughing about it. Because it's not just me getting the worst service in the world: It's me getting the worst service in the world while taking notes. I'm Allen Funt in my own private Candid Camera. (By the way, focaccia here isn't mere bread, it's "farm-fresh focaccia," freshly hoed-up from the focaccia fields.)

When the food eventually arrived, one of the dishes, the Turkey Mediterranean Tulips (turkey wings baked and finished on the grill with a jerk sauce, $6.75), was the best thing I had at the Mpls. Cafe. They were smoky, tender, spicy. The Potato Cakes with Balsamic Syrup ($6.25) were dull as paint--simply giant patties of underseasoned mashed potatoes served in a watery balsamic-vinegar sauce that eventually soaked into the potatoes, leaving them soggy and brownish. It seemed like ill-conceived leftovers.

After so many hours the entrées, of course, arrived just on the heels of the appetizers, and things went downhill from there. The bouillabaisse-style Soupe Canoise ($5.95/$9.95) tasted burnt, and had a little black hot-pepper-looking thing lolling suspiciously to one side. I asked my bus-friend, the only person who ever attended the table, what it was, and as he didn't know he set out in pursuit of our waiter, whom it took another 15 minutes to track down. Flyboy had never seen it either; it's been my experience that if you ask any member of the wait staff at Mpls. Cafe what anything on the menu is they become startled and disappear for maddening amounts of time in search of answers--so he went looking for a manager.

When the young, key-free manager arrived and he identified the little stem-on vegetable as a Japanese eggplant, I couldn't stop giggling. Then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing. It was bitter, charred, and awful--it made me want to spit. (If you ever wondered why people salt and drain eggplants, take a cute little past-prime Japanese eggplant, char it over an open flame, and pop it into your mouth. You'll salt forevermore.)

Of course, one bad experience does not make a bad restaurant. So I returned. And returned again. Each time the service was comical, and the food, while conceptually interesting, often seemed as though no one had tasted it after the idea was put to paper. The Salmon Tartar ($11.25), minced salmon served in a pool of cayenne-infused olive oil, tasted dusty and inedibly oily; Wood Roasted Quail Provençale ($17.95) was teeth-achingly salty; Casablanca Risotto with Saffron Infused Chicken Kabob ($13.25) was a pair of painfully over-salted kabobs resting on a mountain of gummy risotto; New Zealand Rack of Lamb ($21.50) was virtually ruined as each small lamb chop was heaped with a spoon of raw, biting sorrel-garlic pesto; Chicken Garlic Basil Rigatoni ($10.75) was dull and undifferentiated; and worst of all was a special of lobster ravioli with fresh blueberries. I imagined puffs of tender lobster meat with a dozen or so blueberries thrown in for color and contrast. I got raviolis enriched with crunchy bits of shell, drowning in a thick, sour, jam-like paste.

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