The Whole World in Their Hands

Sapor Cafe and Bar
428 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis;
(612) 375-1971

Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.; Saturday 5:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; kitchen serves till 10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; till 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Ever want vegetarian Indian food while the old ball and chain wants a steak and mashed potatoes? Well, you can't split up just because of culinary incompatibility, now, can you? Still, to paraphrase Woody Allen, the tongue wants what the tongue wants. Well let your tongue want freely, because there's a new oasis for all you mismatched foodies: Sapor Cafe and Bar.

What's a Sapor? An informal poll of friends revealed that half thought the word sounded Indian, and the other half thought it must be Japanese: Wrong. According to co-owner Julie Steenerson, it's a Latin term that means taste. "Latin is the root of all modern languages," she says, "and so we picked Sapor"--pronounced sa-POR--"a Latin name, so it wouldn't niche us into one particular style of food." So is it fusion? No, no, no, says Steenerson. Fusion is when the cuisines of different cultures meet in a single dish--like Thai bouillabaisse. "Sapor is world cuisine," according to Steenerson, wherein each dish appearing on the menu reflects a different culture, country, or cuisine. World cuisine is how you get Thai-accented mussels, Mexican-based tamales with mole sauce, a Moroccan-derived chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons on couscous, as well as a good old American steak and mashed potatoes.

Is it possible to do all of these things well? A trio of recent visits convinced me that yes, it is, mostly. My experiences at Sapor ranged from excellent to pretty good, and when things were great, they were wonderful. One night dishes were flawless: Thai mussels ($8.50) were subtle but beautifully infused with a lemongrass-coconut broth; a wilted spinach salad ($7.25) was charmingly enhanced with knobs of good-quality Spanish Cabrales cheese and fat pomegranate seeds. Entrées were admirable. Vegetable samosas ($15.50) were flaky turnovers filled with a potato-and-red-bell-pepper curry, served on a bed of spinach dal accompanied by piquant fruit chutney and a dollop of cucumber raita. Each element of this dish--the buttery pastry, the smoky, spicy raita, the bright curry filling--was all one could wish for. It was the sort of sophisticated interpretation of Indian food we never see in Minnesota.

Grilled sea bass ($20.50) was done with a tip of the hat to China, and I'm sure China is flattered. The fish was creamy inside, perfectly charred outside, dressed with a complicated, pleasantly sour black-bean-ginger sauce, and served on a mound of roasted spaghetti squash, the plate decorated with steamed florets of pale green broccoflower. Salmon ($19.50) was done with Japanese influences; the miso marinade created a glossy, dark glaze, and the wasabi-potato cake, crusted in Panko bread crumbs, had a real zing to it, which was nicely cut by the accompanying rice-vinegar marinated cucumbers and peanuts.

As you can tell, none of these dishes is strictly Indian, Chinese, or Japanese. In fact they all follow the traditional American bistro approach of some main thing sauced and presented with side dishes. The restaurant is at its most American when dealing with steak and potatoes, or with what I thought might be their best dish, an enormous Caribbean-flavored pork chop. The chop was rubbed with jerk spices, grilled, and served topped with a chutneylike apple-tamarind relish, served beside home-fry-style sweet potatoes. I can't think of two more distinct meals in a single restaurant than that sea-bass and that pork-chop--especially if you paired the fish with sparkling wine and the pork with a Summit Extra Pale Ale ($3.50) you'd see the Felix Unger and Oscar Madison of fancy-plated foods. The big pork chop would please, I think, even the biggest meat-and-potatoes Oscar, as would the grilled New York Steak ($21.50), with an understated steak sauce and dense, flavorful mashed potatoes. These were both large, thick pieces of meat, harking back, I'm guessing, to the days when chef Tanya Siebenaler worked in the kitchen at Jax, northeast Minneapolis's steak house extraordinaire.

Until last winter Siebenaler was sous-chef at Lucia's, and before that she cooked at long-closed Bocci, the upscale Italian restaurant, and Chez Paul. Clearly, she's comfortable in the cooking idioms of many cultures, but she has a lot on her plate--as well as in her pantry. It's hard to count the number of things she does well in the course of a meal. Sometimes I just marveled at all the drastically different items on the table.

Still, when the restaurant stumbles, as it did on later visits, it's hard not to think that perhaps too much is being attempted. A lunch hamburger ($9.50) was too dry, and the steak sauce that accompanied it tasted like little more than boiled soy sauce. On my second dinner the kitchen was offering teensy starters ($2 or $3) to sample before the appetizer. A standard bowl of caperberries and olives was a lovely addition to the table, but a scallion pancake wrapped around bacon and a caponatalike filling was a disaster; the bacon was nearly uncooked. Another starter of chicken was strange, sickly sweet, and an inauspicious beginning to a meal. When there were lapses--the pork chop that had been so marvelous was still good, but the meat was untrimmed and fatty; the roasted carrot slaw beneath the calamari was too salty; the mussels overcooked--you couldn't help but wish the kitchen hadn't spread itself so thin.

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