Two orders of paella Valenciana ($25) ranks as the worst $50 I've spent in memory. The rice was fine, but the dish had no savor (sausage and pork were promised, and chorizo is frequently used to spice it, but neither sausage nor pork arrived). The chicken was pale pieces of breast instead of long-cooked on-the-bone meat, and the seafood in the dish was nearly inedible. The Pacific lobster tails had the chemical taste of long freezing, as did the chunks of king-crab leg. The green-lip mussels didn't taste fresh and there were none of the clams the menu had promised. While the shrimp were edible and the halibut lurking under the rice was actually not bad, the dish seemed like something made in the cheapest possible way with the least possible passion.

Many, many of the other things I tried were lackluster, from bland seafood ceviche ($9.95) to tasteless calamari to a tres leches cake that tasted refrigerator-stale and like nothing but refined sugar. Flan ($4.50), however, was perfectly good, and when the music in the main room gets loud enough it dances very prettily itself. The wine list of more than two dozen options deserves credit for focusing on the wines of Chile, Argentina, and Spain, which are rarely seen together locally. But then it loses points for markups that are exorbitant even by restaurant standards. Cristalino Brut Cava usually sells locally for $9 or so, but a bottle here runs $35. In short, if your mind is full of calculators and crepe soles, there's little for you here.

Which surely is just and fitting. The sensible-shoe and slide-rule set has tight control over the western suburbs, the southern suburbs, and, oh, about most of the world. Surely the heels skittering into the bathrooms for frenzied lipstick conferences would rather have one little oasis where salsa is something you do, not something you apply to casserole.

Raoul Benavides

Location Info


Conga Latin Bistro

501 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Latin American

Region: University


SMOOCH 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM: I perchanced to be schlepping my tired old self around one of our beautiful urban lakes at about this time two years ago, or maybe it was three. As I ran I ventured upon an unhappy couple bickering about the fact that he hadn't made the Valentine's Day reservations he had (allegedly) promised to make. His paramour wouldn't let him say he was sorry and bitterly denounced him for letting all the good reservations get away. Then he got all sulky and told her probably no one had made reservations yet anyway.

I'm telling you, I am kicking myself to this day that I didn't stop and introduce myself and say, "You know what? She's right. I've been on the phone with all the most romantic restaurants, and you've really bollixed this whole thing up. It's hopeless." It really would have been such a perfect Annie Hall moment, and I'm sure I'll never get another one. Why am I so sure? Mostly because there are so many more fancy restaurants now than there were. For example: Zinc. Zinc looks to be a Valentine's ace in the hole: $79.95 gets you a four-course dinner for two, with three glasses of wine, all in that sexy French atmosphere. (Call for reservations: Zinc, 1010 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-904-1010.) Or McCormick & Schmick's, (800 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-338-3300) where they're putting together a menu of "common aphrodisiacs" such as oysters, fish with chipotle pepper and honey, and Grand Marnier-injected strawberries. Is that a strawberry syringe in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

TWIN CITIES FOOD & WINE EXPERIENCE: Obsessive Tablehopping readers will remember my bitter complaints last year about how homogeneous, unadventurous, chintzy, and corporate I thought the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience had become. In fact, I didn't even bother to go last year, since the one the year before had been so stinky, and last year's schedule seemed to promise no better. Well, the show seems to have outgrown its awkward adolescence, and looks like it's going to be better than ever, to judge by this year's schedule.

The biggest improvement is the presence of local food innovators, many of whom are giving free talks in the exhibition hall. Attend and you'll get a chance to hear what's on the mind of local tastemakers like chocolatier B.T. McElrath, restaurateur Joseph Kaplan from Joe's Garage, and chefs including Royal Dahlstrom, from La Toscana Ristorante, and Kevin Cullen, from Goodfellow's. Good news for procrastinators too: The show is two weeks earlier than usual, throwing the simpleminded among us (read: me) into complete confusion, resulting in more tickets than usual still available for the fancy $30 wine seminars. And if that isn't enough to motivate you, please be alerted: There will be a Wisconsin cheese booth somewhere on the floor, and for the first time this year a cheese carver will conjure art from a very large block of cheddar. The seventh annual Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience runs at the Minneapolis Convention Center from 3:00 p.m. Friday, February 2 to 5:00 p.m. Sunday, February 4. Tickets to the exhibition hall cost $45 a day and can be purchased online at, or by calling (612) 371-5857.

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