Growing Up Fast

Oddfellows
401 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis;
(612) 378-3188

Hours: 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday; 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.

There are odd libations, and then there are Odd Libations, like the Jenna Tonic, Oddfellows' tribute to presidential daughter Jenna "You'll pry this fake ID out of my cold dead hands!" Bush--made with gin, tonic, and a splash of cherry-bomb juice. Oh wait, sorry, cherry juice. (Say gin and tonic. Say Jenna Tonic. Get it?) Last spring there was the Margarita Lopez, a flashy green margarita, says co-owner and managing partner Daniel Duty, "dedicated to Jennifer's infamous green Grammy gown." And then there's the line of Cabana Boy Mojitos... "But we are definitely not a gay restaurant," insists Duty. "Seventy percent of the customers are not gay; our crowd is very mixed. Straight people come in, love the space, love the food, and find it really interesting that there's a gay bar next door. We're just a classic upscale restaurant, like a Lucia's or a Chet's Taverna, with a couple of twists, like the historic space, the fun wine list, things like that."

Well, I don't know. I figure the Twin Cities could use a top-flight gay restaurant, and after a couple of recent visits, it seems to me Oddfellows is well on its way. But what do I know? In a town without a kosher restaurant and only one real (read: no-meat) vegetarian restaurant with table service, being known as the gay restaurant might be the stuff of 2015, not 2001. And if you must know, I picked 2015 because I think that's when Jenna will first run for president. (Won't that be when she's a year shy of the legally permissible age of 35?) It's going to be great: Air Force One will have a kegolator and our tax rebates will be redeemable at Big Top Liquors. Or perhaps I speak too soon. Who knows what America is headed toward?

Whatever the case, Oddfellows is headed toward greatness. And the restaurant's young chef, Serge Kogan (pictured)--coming off a stint as sous-chef at D'Amico Cucina--is one to watch. An appetizer of salmon tartare with tamari, cilantro oil, and Absolut Peppar vinaigrette ($10) tasted like hot little buttery bubbles. The cilantro oil, a little grassy pool that provided contrast to the rich fish, was particularly nice. A Saturday-night appetizer special of sautéed sweetbreads was utterly wonderful. The little morsels were set in an arrangement of shaved fennel, cubed carrots, sweet corn, and fresh greens. The whole plate was dressed with two sauces, a roast-tomato oil and that grassy green oil, which united the dish in a way that was deeply flavorful, fresh, and summery--a joy.

One of the simplest-sounding entrées turned out to be the best, and should immediately be entered into any vegetarian's date book. It was a fist-size haystack of green beans and yellow wax beans, set in with a few slices of manchego cheese, resting in a bowl of shiitake broth, in which sat a handful of baby sugar snap peas. And what a broth it was, made earthy and beefy by the shiitake mushrooms, rich and fragrant with a few pools of white truffle oil. This stuff was so delicious that everyone at the table abandoned their entrées to start clawing at the broth with mops of bread. At $12, it seems like a lot to pay for beans, until you taste it, and then it seems like very little to pay for bliss. A plain pasta with sliced plum tomatoes ($12) was also very good. The fusilli noodles, curly as corkscrews and long as fettuccine, boasted the perfect resilient texture that tells you someone is truly paying attention in the kitchen, and the inclusion of sliced plum tomatoes, good Parmesan, and plenty of garlic made it just right.

Despite the highlights, Oddfellows still comes across as a work in progress, though on a very good path. (Please note that I said 'headed toward greatness,' not 'greatness achieved.') In fact, I did have a couple of dishes that were pretty awful. The coconut-pistachio crusted shrimp with Malibu Rum crème fraîche ($13) should be returned to the cruise ship from whence it came; the bland shrimp and treacly sauce made me look around for a shuffleboard stick so I could shove them toward another table. A grilled beef tenderloin ($18) was served with a wild-mushroom ragoût that was all button mushrooms and salt. If it weren't for the green oil on the plate I would have thought it had come straight from that same cruise-ship galley. A grilled salmon fillet on a little raft of grilled asparagus was lovely, but every time some of the salmon dipped into the too-much-horseradish, too-much-pepper "bloody mary sauce," it was ruined.

A note to Chef Kogan: Enough with the festive booze touches already! Nearly every dish on Oddfellows' current menu has alcohol in it somewhere--wearying. One night a server announced that the white-peach tart ($7) would come with the same "Malibu crème fraîche" that the shrimp did, and the table just about rioted in protest. It turned out that this wasn't at all true. It was in fact a very good Malibu coconut pastry cream, uniting freshly cut white peaches with a crisp, sweet/tart shell. Servers can be like that--cheerful and enthusiastic, but not totally up to speed. I won't soon forget the night the server started to tell me about the sweetbreads: "Okay, they're organs from the insides of cows..."

Just as the sweetbreads were good, so were all the sweets. I don't quite know what to call the sliced ovals of chocolate-truffle-like-filling-and-nuts that were served one night, but they were marvelous. House-made ice creams ($5) were always remarkable: the lemon-basil ice cream struck the right balance between bright lemon and licorice-y basil; the fig ice cream tasted like it had just been made.

The most disappointing thing was the uninteresting and expensive wine list, which, co-owner and manager Duty allows, is a temporary work in progress. I usually see Bonny Doon's Ca' del Solo Big House Red priced between $9 and $12 in local liquor stores; here it's $8.25 a glass. Estancia's pinot noir, which is--at most--$15 a bottle, is sold at Oddfellows for $40. (What's more, restaurants don't pay retail for their wines like we do. So the percent markup is rather dizzying.) Here's my two cents: I think a cheaper wine list does wonders to entice diners to try a new restaurant and chef. So wait until you're a big destination restaurant before really turning the thumbscrews on the wine.

Will Oddfellows become a big destination restaurant? I wouldn't be at all surprised. Chef Kogan appears to have the talent and ambition to pull it off, and the appealing space--golden wood walls, double-height tin ceilings, big windows onto the street--makes it feel like something straight out of New York's flatiron district. Then again, who knows? All I can really tell you is that with Jenna in the White House, it will be morning in America again.

TABLEHOPPING

RESTAURANT QUARTERBACK:Ever notice that the Minneapolis business district doesn't have a single chef-driven restaurant? No Lucia's, no Café Brenda, no Zander. Frankly, I hadn't until chef Vincent Francoual pointed it out to me. And what do you know? He's opening a chef-driven restaurant! Called Vincent! Why, nature really does abhor a vacuum....But not as much as my wife! The dust is so thick in my house...

Okay, enough of that. Joking aside, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this new place, slated to open August 27 on the corner of 11th Street and Nicollet Mall (in the space formerly occupied by Bruegger's Bagels). Don't be excited just because Francoual is a veteran of such New York hot spots as Le Bernardin and Lespinasse, and was the chef at Minneapolis's café un deux trois until about a year and a half ago. Don't be excited just because Francoual, a native of Cahors, in southwest France, cares deeply about wine and will have a 20-by-the-glass, 100-bottle list that promises to be one of the best in town. No. Don't even give it up for coming attractions like an appetizer of red beets with goat cheese and frisée; an entrée of wild-boar ravioli with fava beans and savoy cabbage; or even a main dish of grilled Cornish hens, the skins lined with herbs, served with spiced braised rutabaga, a cumin sauce, and (gasp!) tripe.

All right. Sure. Be excited for all those reasons. But most of all, be excited because it looks like Nicollet Mall is getting its first-ever restaurant for grown-up natives. No Disneyland theming, no conventioneer-directed lowest-common-denominator everything, no frat-kid party-weekend sound system. I mean, a restaurant! For us! The people who live here! On Nicollet Mall! Someone get the smelling salts--I think I feel faint.

"It's going to be pretty simple inside," says Francoual, in defiance of downtown's conventional wisdom. "The food will be the focus. The dream was to do something like Lucia's downtown--good food, but you don't have to dress up. The restaurant is going to have an open kitchen, because I wanted to be able to see who comes into the restaurant, to recognize the customers. I want to be able to get to know people, to say, 'Oh, you like this chardonnay, maybe you'll like this Loire Valley white.' Find out what fish they like, everything."

And guess what else? I'm not the only one excited about this new place; Francoual is pretty damn revved up too: "Me, I'm a very emotional kind of guy," he confesses. "Most of this restaurant is chef-oriented. Everything comes from what I like, what I think people will like. It comes from the heart. I haven't had a restaurant for more than a year. It's driving me crazy. I've felt a little like a quarterback without a team. I've got all these ideas, now I just want to jump in and try them all."

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