Swedish Roulette

Aquavit
IDS Center, 80 S. Eighth St., Mpls.; (612) 343-3333
Hours: Lunch, Monday - Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Saturday noon-3:00 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; bar menu available Monday-Saturday 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; parking is validated daily after 5:00 p.m. in the IDS ramp.

The loveliest things I had at Aquavit were very lovely indeed--for example a foie-gras appetizer that looked like a dollhouse sculpture garden ($14). On one side of the plate were two slices of foie-gras terrine, divided by a shiitake mushroom and tender as dew; above them, like spring rain, hovered a frothy butter cloud. On the other side of the plate sat a square wafer with a center dimple, full of delectable duck confit, and the plate itself was dotted with tears of dill oil. Gorgeous.

A few meals later, I had a dazzling passion-fruit mousse ($8) that looked more like a futurist sculpture than food: A ribbon of dense yellow cake printed with a chocolate geometric pattern encircled a perfect round of zingy mousse, crowned with tiny mango cubes that adhered to the cake to make a perfect cylinder. Beside the mousse art there was another low square of cake, topped with a perfect globe of ginger sorbet, which was itself topped by an almond cookie shaped like a swooping spiral banner, the top of the cookie soaring into space, a center bit anchored on the edge of the sorbet, the tail poking into space past the plate edge.

When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad...well, you know the tune. Mostly, what dazzled me at Aquavit was my own rotten luck. I got a steamed-lobster pasta dish overpowered by lots of piquant black olives not mentioned on the menu; I got hot food served cold; I got a salad, ordered mostly to see the "cheesecake" in it, that arrived cheesecake-free. I got overcharged three separate times, I got the check dropped before the dessert was delivered, I got "Who ordered the venison?" plate auctions on every single dining-room visit. I got lied to by a server who insisted there was no $19.99 prix-fixe lunch in the dining room, and after producing the menu sneered at me for ordering off it. I got meals during which the next table's conversation was unbelievably amplified by a connecting shelf in a wall, and I got picture-perfect views of City Center's neon, which cast a food-court glow over the meal. I never got an Aquavit dining-room meal that I felt justified the Aquavit dining-room price--at least $50 a head, and usually more like $100 per person once you figure in wine and tip and all.

I know about the lucky-in-cards-unlucky-in-love connection, but is there something I should know about "Lucky in X, unlucky in Aquavit?" What is that mysterious endeavor? If it's blackjack or Powerball, I'd really like to know--but I fear it's something like lucky in peeling eggs. Lucky in freckle retention. Lucky in yak herding.

Out of my five visits, one night's dinner was particularly illustrative of my own personal bad Aquavit karma. The meal began with the waiter telling us that we really, really should get bottled water because a lot of people find Minneapolis tap water particularly offensive. After that he sniffed at our wine choice and tried to pressure us into ordering a bottle twice as expensive--and then, in three successive courses, everything I had was much worse than everything my three dining companions had.

I began with a lobster-roll appetizer ($13), which was supposed to be served with a seaweed salad and an avocado sour-cream sorbet, but instead came with seaweed salad, avocado salad, and fresh cucumber pickles. The lobster was just little bits of lobster scraps resembling a sushi lobster roll that had been dropped. Across the table, a friend had ordered the roasted squab consommé ($10), a chestnut-brown broth that was rich, fragrant, and enhanced by a scoop of scallop risotto crowned with jewels of black truffle slices. Just delicious. Others tried the good, sweet gravlax ($9) and the herring plate ($8). I sampled the latter, which consists of four nice presentations of different varieties of herring, twice, but never developed any passion for it--it just seems like herring to me.

Between courses a waiter--unprompted!--treated us to tales of all the celebrities and critics who had been recognized and feted here, and told us how a staff so peppered with old Minneapolis hands plucked from other restaurants could never let a critic go unworshiped. Except, evidently, me, and I really could have used it.

Entrées were distributed (auction-style), and I was treated to rare seared tuna scallops ($26) that were an unpleasant mahogany brown, tasted strange and oily, and had a grainy texture. The scallops in the pallid sea-urchin sauce that surrounded the tuna were dry and rubbery. A friend got seared crispy salmon, terribly overcooked, in a pastry envelope ($22), so the two of us sat there unhappily and coveted our neighbors' entrées: One lucky member of our party devoured his delicious hot-smoked venison slices ($27) on a ho-hum diced-root-vegetable cake, while the table high roller gloated over a fantastic concoction of meaty, pink, salt-cured duck ($29), served with foie gras and a sweet onion confit, and perfectly accented with a spiced wine reduction.

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