Swedish Roulette

For dessert I ordered a gummy, starchy fresh-coconut rice pudding ($7), while my companions got lucky with the warm chocolate ganache ($9), a little chocolate cake with an oozing fudgy center, and the delicious spiced milk-chocolate soup ($8), a bowl of chocolate sauce ringed with banana slices that had caramelized tops (it's great fun to push the banana slices into the soup).

After the meal I was fretting that I didn't know what I could possibly say about the restaurant, because my Aquavit curse seemed so singularly powerful. My friend, fat and happy on duck and cake, said I should begin by stating: "This pretentious, expensive place has really good food." But I don't feel I could even go that far.

Consequently, I've been putting off writing this review, going back to Aquavit again and again, torturing myself with questions: Am I spoiled? Am I cursed? Is it possible that I really don't like Aquavit? Finally, on my last visit, and my first to the less expensive front café, I had the pleasant, welcoming, flawless meal I had been waiting for. It was the $19.99 prix fixe dinner offered in that part of the restaurant every night.

When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad...well, you know the tune.
Kristine Heykants
When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad...well, you know the tune.

The meal began with a potent, gorgeous, daffodil-colored curry soup dotted with flavored oil and featuring an earthy veal dumpling. It proceeded with a creamy layered casserole of potatoes, dill, and halibut (they call it a "halibut Napoleon")--a filling, savory comfort food, accompanied by a simple arugula salad. The dessert was another gorgeous Aquavit presentation called Arctic Fusion, a layered tower of precious morsels that looked like a child's building-block stack: At the base was a kaffir-lime ice cream rectangle lidded with a white card of meringue, topped by a circle of red-currant sorbet with another meringue cover; poking up beside the whole thing was an antenna of a caramel stick, and beneath it all sat a sweet red sauce and four groupings of red currants. Breathtaking!

In the café I sat with my back to the windows so I couldn't see the mall; my only sights were the high-heeled or dark-suited swells coming and going, and the busy kitchen. My server was the youngest I had had at Aquavit, but soothingly on the ball and unobtrusive. The breads came in a heavy silver bowl, without the added interruption of the bread server who attends tables in the dining room. When the candle floating in a pretty water cylinder on the table went out, a manager whisked right over and replaced it; in the dining room no one had ever replaced my candle. So, much as I like the white tablecloths and signature Villeroy & Boch china of the classy dining room, I guess I've got to console myself with café life. That upper-crust fine-dining existence is too fraught with bad bets.

 

TABLEHOPPING

THREE DAYS AND COUNTING: till the opening of the No Wake Cafe, that sweet little restaurant on the boat moored on Harriet Island. You might have heard about the $13 million revamp of the Harriet Island park scheduled for this summer, but have no fear: The sturdy vessel that has withstood floods and storms and Lollapalooza will be open for dinner per usual, as of April 17 (Pier One, Harriet Island, St. Paul, (651) 292-1411; Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 5:00 to 9:00, Friday and Saturday from 5:00 to 10:00; and brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) My favorite things about the No Wake are that unsurpassed downtown St. Paul view (see the new Science Museum!), the mosquito-free ambiance, and the sheer seasonality of it all--remember, one day the No Wake is opening for the season, and the next you're picking apples. Labor Day is closer than you think!

LOCAL HEROES: I wasn't impressed with the Local when it first opened, but it's springtime and a young critic's heart turns to thoughts of love--I must confess I am developing quite a crush on the place now. It all started with the new "pubistro" menu that debuted in January. Served for lunch in the restaurant and all day and night in the bar, it's peppered with adorables: I particularly fell for the free-form ravioli ($8.75), light, airy, pink, and plump salmon quenelles (as meat balls are to meat, quenelles are to fish), that peek up at you from beneath their tender pasta blankets; a heap of wood-fired mussels in a smoky tomato broth ($9); and a generous cheese plate ($9) that recently has featured amazing selections from London's famed Neal's Yard Dairy, a cheese shop that specializes in Irish and English farmhouse cheeses. See the pubistro menu for yourself on the Local's Web site,
www.the-local.com/page/menu/pub.htm--or just go down there for yourself; the pub itself (931 Nicollet Mall, (612) 904-1000) is open 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. daily, while the pub menu is available Sunday-Thursday till 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight.

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