For Your Eyes Only

Loring Pasta Bar
327 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 378-4849
www.loringcafe.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1:00 a.m. Monday-Saturday; 4:00 p.m.-midnight Sunday; kitchen closes daily at 11:00 p.m.

 

Pretty, sexy kids: The new Loring Pasta Bar is inarguably one of the prettiest restaurants in the history of Twin Cities dining. The first of its two rooms is a long grotto of a bar made of undulating, Gaudí-like writhing snakes of brick. The other is a three-story soaring cathedral of post-Industrial Revolution romance, with balconies, lacy ironwork, exposed iron girders, and a prominent stage framed with an upright portico that fairly announces, "All the world's a stage, and you are in the middle of it." Truly, the transformation that Jason McLean hath wrought here, from Dinkytown drugstore to Cathedral of Unbuttoned Cool, is nothing short of thrilling.

Dear reader, if there's a prettier place in North America to get a $7 bowl of ramen, I'll eat my hat. Which I'll be happy to do instead of facing another round of Loring Pasta Bar appetizers. Badump-sha! But seriously, folks, take the Loring's signature artichoke ramekin--please!

All right, enough of that. Truly, the food at the Loring Pasta Bar ain't bad, but it ain't good, either. If you made some sort of grade school chart with my hat at one end and good food at the other, the Pasta Bar's offerings would fall right in the middle. Maybe there's a T-shirt in it: Better than your hat, worse than the Loring Cafe!

Yeah, I agree, it does seem unfair to compare the three-month-old Loring Pasta Bar--designed as a cheap, fun restaurant for penny-pinching University of Minnesota types--to the venerable other Loring, but how can you not? Similarities abound, from the familiar dim-and-sexy bathrooms, to the sensuous exposed brick, to The Ramekin (King of all Ramekins and thou shalt take no other Ramekin before Him).

Perhaps more important, there's no strong suit in cuisine here that gives the new location its own restaurant identity. The menu ranges from fettuccini carbonara to jerk shrimp to beef stroganoff to Szechuan salmon to steak frites. And guess what percentage they do well? Yeah, about 20 percent.

I did find a couple of dishes I can recommend: the smoked duck salad ($7.95 for an entrée portion, $5.95 as a starter) was good. Tender, bright-pink slices of duck worked well on a bed of spinach dressed with a pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette. But the dish was really made special by the presence of pleasantly woody pine nuts and fresh-cut slices of creamy, salty Parmesan cheese. The salade sauvage ($5.95/$3.95) was also good: mixed greens topped with walnuts so abundantly crusted and candied they looked like little nuggets on the plate, additions of blue cheese and slices of pear keeping it all lively and interesting. The steak frites ($15.95 for a 7-ounce steak, $18.95 for 10 ounces, and $25.95 for 20 ounces) was a stand-up version; not a great cut of meat (it's not supposed to be), but buttery and flavorful, and presented with a stack of truly excellent fries. (If I ran the world, I'd add a whole Belgian frites section to the Pasta Bar's menu and offer these beauties with aioli, curry, béarnaise, the works. Then I'd add beignets for dessert. Then I'd make all the peasants give me a sack of oats on my name day. Oops. Did I say that aloud? Rats.)

The best pasta, by a factor of ten, was the seafood linguine ($12.95). A simple broth of tomato, red wine, and olive oil fills out a bowl of pasta enlivened by a couple of sweet, perfectly seared scallops, a few mussels, and some shrimp--understated, uncomplicated, pure. And truthfully, the ramen ($6.95) was pretty good, just noodles topped with a seared, well-done ground-beef patty, jazzed up with cilantro, ginger, carrots, and scallions. Which is to say, the next time you want ramen in a restaurant, do rush on over.

After that, hazard and chaos are your every receipt. Let's gloss over the awful appetizers entirely, that greasy calamari ($6.95) and taste-like-a-supermarket-Boboli pizzas ($9.95 or $10.95), and zip to the entrées. The lemon-caper chicken ($11.95) was skin-on boneless chicken breast saturated with lemon butter and caked with capers. It was dreadfully overcooked, and arrived on dry, crunchy yellow rice of such unpleasantness that it reminded me of airline food. A braised lamb shank ($11.95) tasted muttony and unseasoned. Shrimp with pears ($12.95) was another bad idea. The shrimp themselves were fine, as were the bits of fresh wilted spinach, but the sauce of green peppercorns, cream, and brandy was sweet and limpid, and the half-cooked slices of pear just made the whole thing squishy and off-putting.

Clunky linguine ($6.95) coated in a rough pesto of pistachios, rosemary, mushrooms, and cooked slices of tomato should be avoided. Fettuccini carbonara ($7.95) was, the two times I saw it, a gluey rendition. The spaghetti Bolognese ($7.95) served best as a good example of what the kitchen doesn't understand: It's nothing but commendable to want to serve cheap pasta to students; with prices from $7 and this spectacular room, I think we can all agree the Loring Pasta Bar can only afford to serve factory-made pasta, not homemade. But if that is your starting point, you should seriously consider embracing the noble tradition of sauces that pair well with factory pasta, like aglio e olio, the Italian sauce of garlic and olive oil, or basil pesto with potatoes and green beans, and even traditional ragù Bolognese--the meat sauce made with ground meat and canned tomatoes, which goes really well with boxed rigatoni. But instead of traditional Bolognese of beef and pork on rigatoni or conchiglie, at the Loring Pasta Bar they're serving a sauce that's more like a stew--half-inch chunks of stewed lamb and carrots--a combination that slides unhappily off the slick strands of spaghetti and sits like failure in the bottom of the bowl. Which is pretty much how the gruesome tiramisu ($3.95) greets life, too. This stuff is barely tiramisu; it looks like a budget-grocery-store sheet cake and tastes like it too. It's enough to drive you to drink.

Which is probably where you want to be, anyway. The Loring has a dozen wines available by the glass (all $4.95 or $5.95) and another two dozen varieties by the bottle, most around $30. It's a really solid list of global, well-respected wines that tend to express their variety or type quite clearly; if a wine list were a palette, this one would be distinctly unmuddy. The only zinfandel is the light, elegant Nalle Dry Creek Valley ($39); the only cabernet franc ($5.95/glass) the soft and fragrant Steele version. The mostly-cabernet-sauvignon Niebaum-Coppola Black Label claret turns out to have a lot of body and enough acidity to go perfectly with the steak.

Which is something you'd better know going into the place, because in my experience the service was endlessly chipper, but none too well informed. Ask these servers too many questions and they quickly assume a polite, steely expression that fairly screams, "I just knew Mrs. Mackenzie was going to call on me if I didn't do my homework!" Not a plate arrives at the table that isn't subject of a "Who got the shrimp?" plate auction, and one night I even saw kids delivering martinis to tables with the bowls pressed into their hot little hands (dear Lord, deliver bar trays unto the little children). The general impression I got was that most of the servers had been ripped right out of chem lab and thrown onto the floor.

Which is not to say that I don't envy them on some level. Working in this stunning cathedral of artisanal bohemian gee-whiz makes the average slogging-through-college job look like last week's artichoke ramekin. Oh, and for you sharp-eyed readers out there, of course I'm not going to review the Loring's artichoke ramekin. When I get done reviewing the Statue of Liberty and the Mississippi, I might get around to it. Some things are just too big to review, and it's to the Loring Pasta Bar's credit that their architecture approaches that category.

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