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.

However, that unsnobbishness is certainly one of the qualities the restaurant is proudest of: Chef Anderson noted that the restaurant sometimes serves 1,000 meals in a day; general manager Scott Anderson (not related) happily points out there is a line snaking out the door all through dinner, every night but Sunday. Most of that line is foot traffic from the mall (I was able to get same-day reservations whenever I tried). Further, it's traffic, I suspect, that has no idea how special it is to be able to get a Murphy-Goode or Gundlach Bundschu tasting flight of wines at the bar ($10 for three half-glasses of wines that change to echo recent wine dinners). Traffic lulled by dessert clichés like New York cheesecake, crème brûlée, and Chocolate Death ($5.95)--which, despite the unpromising name, turned out to be a lovely individually frosted chocolate-ganache cake. Across the page from the desserts sits a truly astonishing dessert-wine list: North Coast California pear eau-de-vie, zinfandel port, and who knew there was such a thing as Mendocino County viognier grappa? There is, and here's where you get it. (A glass of Germain-Robin's runs $14.)

Then again, who's up for an American grappa tasting and a couple of go-rounds on Camp Snoopy's log flume? There's something about the "location, location, location" cliché that seems particularly intractable when considering the Napa Valley Grille. Compare the restaurant to Goodfellow's, which is inevitable, and it's hard to think of why or when you'd ever go to the place. The prices for the fancier meals are only 10 or 20 percent higher at Goodfellow's than at NVG, but the food at Goodfellow's is far better, the room far nicer. What city dweller would bother?

Well, here's a reason: Consider chef Anderson's history, and that of his chef-boss, Steve Vranian, a former bigwig in California cuisine who is now the Midwest regional chef for Constellation Concepts, the company that owns the many Napa Valley Grilles and California Cafes. Then factor in the odd, unique way that the Twin Cities seem to have become a national concept-restaurant incubator (there are now more than 55 Bucas; Oceanaire is working on a third, Washington State location), and--hold on to your hats--the MOA Napa Valley Grille was the very first location. When it proved successful, Minnesota exported the concept to Napa Valley, and then the rest of the country.

Two big chefs and a restaurant incubator--could the mall be where the next wave in American cuisine begins? When I spoke to chef Anderson on the phone for this article, he hinted to me that that might indeed be the case. He and Vranian are conceptualizing a new sort of California cuisine, one based on the food ways of the Mediterranean immigrants who settled California wine country. "Olives, olive oil, wine, walnuts," says chef Anderson. "That's what people brought over with them, but it came from the Mediterranean in the first place. But then, local bison, local venison, local pheasant." The local filters the northern Mediterranean, and the northern Mediterranean filters the local.

Look for this vision to be more fully articulated come summer. Anderson says he has already been working with a local farmer to plant the tomatoes, flowers, vegetables, and greens he wants. He also pointed out that I managed to miss the one dish on the current menu that most closely hints at what he's working toward, namely Sicilian tuna ($22.95) made with tomatoes, olives, fennel, and pine nuts: "There's a huge migration of tuna around the island of Sicily, but when Americans think of Sicilian food, they don't think of tuna. But Sicilians think of it."

I'm thinking of our land-that-garlic-forgot reputation, and finding it difficult to imagine Minnesota incubating the new wave of fresh, local, wine-centered cooking. But if it does, I guess I'll thank the calamari-gobbling crowds for financing it.

TABLEHOPPING

CRÊPES JAMBON, 1; SMOKING TEENS, 0: Café Wyrd has shut its doors, and in a flurry of activity reopened as Café Barbette, a French spot that will feature the same early-morning to late-night hours of the long-loved, long-lived coffee shop, but now will serve omelets, quiche, croissants, and crêpes all day, fancy lunches and dinners, plain and very fancy desserts, lots of Belgian beers, lots of good French wines, and no small quantity of photos of at least one formerly well-known aerialist (Barbette).

"It's very much going to be a place for everyone," says Kim Bartman, the head honcho of Café Barbette, and Wyrd, and the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "For the breakfast regulars, for the late-night people, but also for people looking for something special to eat in Uptown. It's all going to be as organic and local as possible; there will be a range of prices, like ahi tuna at dinner for $18, but crêpes all day with ham, portobello mushrooms, and Gruyère for $6 or so." Bartman says Lisa Carlson will be the chef, and that she is fresh from a stint in the kitchen at Lespinasse in New York, and she will be assisted by several people with a pastry background, which could make this the dessert destination Uptown needs. "We're going to be serving up some pretty dang good-looking food," sighs Bartman.

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