From Loaves to Fishes

Phoenix Seafood Restaurant
2550 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 871-2799
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 9:00 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday


I've heard lots of crazy theories and rumors in my day, and one that keeps coming my way is this thing about matter not being able to be either created or destroyed.

Craig Lassig


I mean, let's just say that it were even remotely true--then how could Phoenix, the new Chinese restaurant at the super-prominent, long-cursed corner of Nicollet and 26th, serve some 200 dishes? How, tell me how. They'd need a pantry the size of Wisconsin to house all the ingredients--ducks, chickens, lobsters, Dungeness crabs, whole sea bass, frogs, shrimp, jellyfish, nearly every pork part imaginable, oysters, quail, pigeon, beef, squid, mussels, clams, scallops, sharks, abalone, sea cucumber, a few dozen sorts of greens, a dozen kinds of noodles, a half-dozen sorts of nuts....I'm hyperventilating with the Noah's Ark-ness of it all.

Einstein be darned, I'll never believe you can provision a banquet hall with the conventional laws of volume and mass in place. In fact, the last couple times I've been to Phoenix, I've been sort of watching the kitchen door for any telltale jazzy light shows, à la Star Trek, indicating matter/anti-matter converters, or, um, stuff. Just doing my part for science, that's all. Least I can do. Especially when I'm feasting on scallops and sea bass and chow fun noodles and pork and duck and and and... But I get ahead of myself.

Probably the first thing Minneapolis old-timers want to know about the new Phoenix is: Isn't that where that coffee-shop-bakery thing was? Yes, this is exactly where the old Upper Crust was, kitty-corner from the Black Forest Inn. And yes, this is the restaurant that finally got up the courage and the dollars to get rid of the old bakery cases and wall-sized ovens that dominated the space for, what, the last million restaurants that occupied the place? What Phoenix has established is a big, cheerful traditional Chinese banquet hall, full of tables suitable for 12 with giant lazy susans in the center and cheerful streamers overhead. They've got extraordinary--for Minneapolis, anyway--hours (Phoenix is open till 11:00 most nights, and a whopping midnight on weekends). Once they get the beer and wine license they hope for, I'm predicting they're going to be as locally beloved as Nicollet staples Rainbow Chinese Restaurant & Bar and Quang Restaurant.

What's so lovable? First and foremost anything off the specials board that hangs in the main room. I had a whole sea bass once that was nothing short of bedazzling: A two-foot-long whole gray fish, steamed plump as a fresh nectarine and featuring a similar skin, resting in a platter of absolutely graceful black-bean sauce. You know the glop of fermenty black beans that often defines black-bean sauce? This had nothing to do with that. Instead, it was a coffee-brown broth floating a filigree of curly strips of scallions and wisps of lemongrass, with just enough black beans animating it to give it some piquant oomph. Spooning off some of the fish flesh, I found the bass perfectly done, tender as a custard, the nutty, sweet fish perfectly accented by the complex sauce with its notes of onion and herb. If I've ever had a better fish, I can't remember when, and for $17.95, this one's going in my scrapbook. (When they had them, bass were priced by size. My $17.95 "small" one easily served four. I think they must use a bathtub to serve the $21.95 large one.)

Another treasure is the "two combination platters" ($7.95) from the appetizer list. It offers a generous portion of skin-on roast pork that's as delectable as anything I've tried: Crackly golden brown skin that crunches like a potato chip between your teeth is stuck to luscious, salty pork by a layer of fat as delectable as butter, foie gras, or whatever fatty analogy you might supply--yes, a big mouthful of pork fat, somewhat nasty, but oh, so good. This crisp roast pork arrives on a bed of pickled daikon and carrot strips, perfect vinegar foil to the fat, and next to a cappuccino-colored quarter of barbecued duck. Next to a side of rice, I hasten to note, this makes a meal fit for a king.

Especially if you pair it with the sautéed pea shoots ($9.95, called here "garlic peapod sprouts"), a gorgeous plate of emerald-green pea shoots studded with little lentil-size pieces of sweet garlic. Any vegetarian whose short list of favorite local dishes boasts Rainbow's green beans needs to try these pea shoots. When I tried them they were sweet as May peas, fresh as dawn light, silky in the mouth with a bit of cornstarch--perfect.

My last of Phoenix's superstar picks to click is the inglorious-sounding "pan-fried whole scallops" ($8.95), an unbelievable bargain of a dish. The two times I tried it, the plate offered a generous pound of perfectly cooked scallops, deep fried, then draped in a light brown sauce, the combination creating that distinct mouth-feel of simultaneous silk and crisp that Chinese chefs prize so highly. I liked it because the scallops didn't taste of chemicals the way the cheapest scallops will. They were plump and tender, and after a girl gets used to paying $18 a plate for a diver-caught scallop or two, the opportunity to gorge on scallops seems like you're getting away with murder, or you've moved to Boston or something.

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