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.

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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