A Delightful Downscaling

The Local
931 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; (612) 904-1000
www.the-local.com
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; kitchen open till 10:00 p.m. (closed Sundays through mid-June)

 

How long does it take before you get the face you deserve, find the identity you mean to keep, the friends you won't let go?

It takes a few decades for most people, so it's only fair that it takes some restaurants a few years to pin down their final self. In the case of the Local, it has taken about three and a half years and should be complete this summer. Restaurant watchers may recall that the place opened in the dawning days of 1998 to great fanfare: An expensive renovation of a dilapidated, grand old building had been completed to reveal two elaborate spaces. One half was all oak-carved bar and intimate snugs, a design that delivered crowd, intimacy, and creamy Guinness in the same space--an instant favorite. The other half was a sophisticated candlelight-and-white-tablecloth restaurant with soaring velvet draperies and an ambitious menu and wine list reflecting Dublin's new prosperous, cosmopolitan face. (Think rare artisanal Irish cheeses, lamb, salmon, and 400 wines to go with them.)

But the Guinness always overwhelmed the candlelight; the not-quite-ceiling-height wall that separated the two spaces let noise and smoke travel. And eventually the formal dining room was shuttered. Tears were shed, but probably not by any regular customers (never underestimate the effects of smoke and noise on people intent on tasting cheese). Instead, the folks who were crying were those who loved the dream of sleek, upscale Irish cuisine in an oak-and-velvet palace. Like me. I think of it much akin to that mournful bit of adolescence when you realize you'll never be that stunning combination of Jimi Hendrix, Wayne Gretzky, and Dashiell Hammett you were aiming for, and you might just have to settle for being a good guy with a few strong passions.

Nowadays, the strong passions at the Local have been effectively narrowed to beer and bar with a few flourishes of pub food, which seems all for the good. Instead of letting the old dining room languish in place, the space was closed down and replaced with "Willie Reilly's Pub." An entire new bar, room dividers, and wood paneling were shipped over from Ireland, assembled in Minneapolis, and--badda bing, badda boom--a whole new bar with a lighter, more contemporary feeling to it. This means that the Local's 10,000-plus square feet now host a good 150 feet of running bar top, which might well be a Twin Cities record. Upstairs on a large balcony where the private-party area was, there is also now a darts-and-pool area. And once you're up there you'll see an ornately carved Irish billiards table resting on a scarlet carpet--pretty foxy.

If you're foxy enough, you can get away with a lot, so I didn't much mind that the food at the Local runs from really pretty good to really pretty bad. The very best things I tried included an appetizer of grilled cross-sections of sausage served hot along with a vinegary cucumber salad and a tomato chutney ($8). I know it sounds weird, but it tasted good, the cucumbers acting as a sort of elegant sauerkraut, the chutney as the fanciest ketchup, all of it uniting in a way that was sophisticated, playful, and tasty. I also really liked the fish and chips ($12), an exceptionally light version, the chips small moons of fresh fried potato. A ham sandwich ($8) stood out because of the excellent thick, soft rye bread--if only I could have had the chips from the fish and chips with it instead of once-frozen-tasting shoestring fries, I'd have been totally happy. At dinner one night I tried a roast chicken that was very nice ($15). It came with a good pound of mashed potatoes and a savory sage gravy, as well as a bizarrely sopping wet stuffing. Chocolate cake ($4.99) was fresh-tasting, distinguished by a lush ribbon of chocolate ganache between the layers.

Similarly, the things that were weird were pretty weird. The Local's spinach dip ($7) is made with potatoes, spinach, red bell peppers, and goat cheese but is so bland it tastes more like a side dish than a dip. The roast-beef sandwich ($8) is an odd version: soft, tasty meat served without gravy on buttered white bread accompanied by potatoes sauced with some of the worst gravy in memory. It tasted like A-1 steak sauce, butter, and flour. And the cheese plate, the cheese plate has really gone to the dogs. What once was a boutique selection of strange and rare artisanal cheeses was, when I tried it, Swiss, brick, and blue cheeses, and the Swiss and brick tasted bland and the same and mostly like raclette, and the grapes were shriveled up. Not a friendly environment for grapes anymore. At the Local, all things grain kick the butt of all things grape, and the ho-hum wine list won't be making any waves.

The weirdest thing of all was a "pub pie." If you ever wanted a Hot Pocket at a restaurant, now's your chance. I ordered the lamb-curry pub pie ($6), but got chicken tarragon instead; picture chicken-breast cubes, cream cheese, and tarragon in a buttery roll of puff pastry and you'll get the idea. When I didn't eat it and told our server about the mistake, she countered that the kitchen was always like that when it was winding down for the night, and declined to take the uneaten pub pie off the bill. So now her snafu gets memorialized in black and white forevermore, and we all go home happy.

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