Safe From the Madding Crowd

Napa Valley Grille
220 West Market, Mall of America, Bloomington; (952) 858-9934
www.calcafe.com/napavalleygrille/moa
Hours: Lunch 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday; Brunch 11:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday.

There's a certain déjà vu that comes of looking at Napa Valley Grille menus: "Roast elk loin with mustard seed mash and three onion ragout"--isn't that awfully Goodfellow's? "Hickory smoked pork loin with a honey-cayenne glaze"; achiote chicken sandwiches--isn't that terribly Tejas and Bar Abilene? "Nah," scoffs executive chef Tim Anderson, who took over NVG's kitchen last May, "that stuff's pretty much everywhere now."

Well, it is and it isn't. Most chefs around here can put together a maple-chipotle sauce if they really think about it, but they don't often think about it. And when they do, there's always something slightly Goodfellowsian about it. Which makes the case of Tim Anderson particularly perplexing: Anderson was the star chef brought up here from the pioneering Routh Street Café to open Goodfellow's (Kevin Cullen, Goodfellow's chef since 1992, had been Anderson's sous-chef in the Lone Star State). And then Goodfellow's begat Tejas, which begat Bar Abilene, and those restaurants became, respectively, the standard-bearers for sexy Minnesota cooking and Southwestern cooking. All in all, it's very Star Trek-y: What happens if you make dinner for yourself coming backward through a wormhole?

Napa Valley Grille's executive chef Tim Anderson with his grilled salmon and apple-walnut cake
Craig Lassig
Napa Valley Grille's executive chef Tim Anderson with his grilled salmon and apple-walnut cake

Well, what happens is mostly good: A trio of recent visits proved to me that the Napa Valley Grille is the best restaurant in the southern and southwestern suburbs: The wine list is an erudite love story written about and in California wines of recent vintage; the service was smooth and, once you get to the table, nearly flawless; and the food runs the gamut from uninspired but perfectly correct to quite inspired at that.

The uninspired things tended to come with fair warning: A lunch of a grilled salmon fillet with sugar-snap peas ($12.95) was perfectly cooked, silky inside, crisp without, but unmistakably dull. A dinner appetizer of Provençal onion tart ($7.95) was cheesy, mild, and cloaked in a buttery red-bell-pepper-cheese sauce--so comforting that I wondered where comfort foods got too comforting. Calamari ($6.95) arrived crisp and hot, an admirable rendition.

But those weren't the really good things. The good things were the wild game, a few of the desserts, and, of all things, the green salads. Grilled Minnesota venison loin ($28.95) had a deep, smoky flavor, beautifully rounded by a currant demi-glacé, buttery mashed yams, and a bunch of winter vegetables sautéed with garlic until they gained a nicely musky, roasted taste. The smoked Minnesota pheasant breast ($24.95) was a bit dry, but delicious when sluiced with roast-pear, black-pepper demi-glacé (sad to say, the sauté of root vegetables that accompanied it was underdone).

Desserts like the apple-walnut cake ($5.75) were impressive without being showy: Here, a moist, plain cake tasted like just-toasted walnuts and smelled enticingly of apples; an old-fashioned, buttery crumb topping was irresistible; and the pretty net of caramel sauce that decorated the plate was exactly the touch to make a diner feel very, very special.

That feeling is the reason anyone pays $50 for dinner, and it does come around at Napa Valley Grille, especially when you get to sift through the many pages of the wine list, or when the green salads arrive. I can't remember the last time I liked green salads so well. The spinach salad ($5.95) was dressed with a delicious, smoky, and evocative roasted-garlic vinaigrette, which knit together little hazelnuts, salty feta, and tangy strips of roasted pepper. The baked-goat-cheese salad ($7.95) was a mound of clean baby greens (note to the public: bright yellow leaves aren't another variety of lettuce; they've gone bad) tossed with bits of walnut, a scoop of goat cheese sitting to one side, discrete on a crostini. And in certain gaps on the plate were a dozen purple grapes, sliced through the middle and arranged like little tiles, like stained glass baubles. How pretty.

At moments like that, with a glass of wine sharing its soft perfume with the air, the Napa Valley Grille seems lovely. At other moments, though, it seems odd. There isn't a good system worked out for waiting for tables, and twice when I wanted to enter the restaurant I had to force my way through a throng bristling with shopping bags: unpleasant. If your table isn't ready, you might be asked to wait in the waiter's-throughway of a bar, which is akin to loitering in the middle of Hennepin Avenue at rush hour. Heads up!

I blame it on the easily accessible menu, offering items at lunch like caesar salad with roasted chicken breast ($10.95), a cheeseburger and fries ($7.95), or an alarmingly sugary barbecued pork sandwich ($8.95). At dinner, too, you could spend $10.95 for pasta while your tablemate gets a steak and mashed potatoes. Throw a plate of calamari on the table and you'll get the sense of what it's often like: Waiter, there's a Champp's in my soup.

I guess I've got to admit the truth: I'm a little jealous of the crowds. I suspect that if they weren't there, the pheasant wouldn't have been dry, the crab cakes ($9.95) would have had more verve.

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