Of course, at Sapor even in the best-case scenario, you're still partaking of an almost unnervingly wide-ranging meal. Sometimes it seemed almost like a parlor game--two degrees of separation for everything that people eat: I can have caperberries, lemongrass, preserved lemons, and apple-tamarind relish in a single meal! Never has a glass-pour wine-list been more essential. Steenerson and Siebenaler have taken this aspect of their menu very seriously and, miraculously, have arrived at a wine list that does an admirable job of standing up to these diverse, potent flavors. One night I had the Echelon viognier ($8 a glass, $32 a bottle), which is sweeter and fruitier than most viognier and so is generally frowned upon in wine magazines. I, however, grew more and more impressed as the meal progressed. The wine managed to maintain a pretty finish in the face of both fried calamari and Thai mussels. And then, with all the vinegar and salt of the Moroccan chicken and preserved lemon dish, it had enough acidity not to collapse into something that tasted like fruit juice. You go, little viognier! Another night I tried a Heredad Ugarte Rioja Crianza, a Spanish red made from a blend of tempranillo and grenache grapes ($7.25/$29) which worked well with the tamale, the caperberries and olives and the jerk-seasoned pork chop--again, no small feat. The list also includes two dozen frequently changing bottles.

The beer list is equally impressive: Norwegian Aas pilsner ($4) goes well with the American-bistro-style fish dishes. Biscuit-scented, nearly black Sinebrychoff Porter from Finland ($6.75) went well with beef. The rest of the list of two dozen often-changing beers hits nearly every style needed to go with such varied cuisines: Salvadoran Suprema ($4); Thai Singha ($4); Belgian Sterkens White Ale ($4); Austrian Gösser Dark ($4). Obviously, a lot of thought went into these beverages.

Really, a lot of thought seems to have gone into every aspect of Sapor. Julie Steenerson, the co-owner who works the front of the house, likes to talk about the business plan she developed for Sapor. For example, Sapor's North Washington location (kitty-corner from Cuzzy's) is not as counterintuitive as it first seems. Sapor aims to be the neighborhood restaurant for all that upscale housing that's going in along the river. Sapor's commitment to mostly local, mostly organic ingredients comes because of the restaurant's underlying principle of "taste" as much as her interest in the environment. Even Steenerson's stint as general manager of Lucia's was simply part of her business plan. (And please note that this was no acrimonious split--Steenerson says Lucia Watson is a mentor to her and to Sapor, and it's easy to find similarities between the two restaurants, especially in their wine bars. Sapor's is especially welcome, with its late hours and quiet, conversation-encouraging vibe.)

Despite its stated allegiance to world cuisine, Sapor has a lot in common with Minneapolis and St. Paul's best American bistros: Lucia's, Auriga, Alma, the Loring Cafe, Table of Contents 2, Café 128, and Zander Café. The one perhaps unfair difference is that all of those restaurants have developed distinct personalities that echo their chefs' confidences--the ingredients-first purity of Lucia Watson, the inquisitive playfulness of Doug Flicka at Auriga, the daredevil glamour of Patrick Atanalian at the Loring. Of course, these identities are ones the restaurants came into over time, forged in the fires of daily service. There's something a little indefinite about Sapor's identity. But probably it's just a matter of time: Heaven knows there are enough you-say-potato-I-say-samosa moments to keep Sapor busy.

TABLEHOPPING:

ALMA PRIX FIXE:Were you feeling like something was wrong with the world but you didn't know exactly what? Maybe it was this: Alma had quit offering their bounteous prix-fixe tasting menus. But dread be gone! They're back. The menus, which change daily, are available for $45 a person for everyone at the table, and usually consist of four courses, plus one or two desserts (tax, tip, and beverage are extra). Hearing about a recent menu had my mouth watering: The meal started with a wilted endive salad with figs and walnuts. The second course was Love Tree Farms sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi with sage butter and Parmesan. The third was pan-roasted Alaskan halibut with a yellow-pepper-pineapple sauce. The fourth, duck breast in an aged sherry sauce with hand-harvested wild rice and local Brussels sprouts. And for dessert, both a wildflower-honey yogurt sorbet with lemon syrup, and a hazelnut-chocolate cake with caramel ice cream. (Vegetarians need not feel left out--fully vegetarian tasting menus are available on request.) One caveat: These tasting menus are only available Monday through Thursday. Also, when at Alma, be sure to ask about the restaurant's upcoming wine dinners; the only way to find out about them is to get on Alma's new mailing list. Restaurant Alma; 528 University Ave. SE; (612) 379-4909.

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