Thinking Inside the Box

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

In Cuisine
917 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 227-3395; takeout (651) 227-3381
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.

 

You know what I like about In Cuisine, the Asian-fusion restaurant that opened last summer in the old Leann Chin space in Victoria Crossings, the strip mall near Grand and Victoria? Well, for one thing, I really like that our culture can successfully recycle Leann Chin spaces nowadays. I mean, apparently they don't need to be turned into brownfields or dumped into the ocean where they land on top of a lot of sea otters or anything. I mean, who knew? You can leverage the existing synergies and just put some fancy art around and change the color scheme and suddenly you've got a subdued sort of contemporary box that's pleasant to dine in. To paraphrase my hippie-dippie childhood sleeping bag, recycling Leann Chins is good for children and other living things.

And the food! Some of the food is pretty good. I particularly liked anything coming out of the deep fryer: Tempura shrimp that come on a bed of rice vinegar-marinated jicama and carrot salad. I've had them as a lunch entrée and as a dinner appetizer; they're hot, light, and crisp, and they contrast nicely with the cool, light, crisp salad. Watch them vanish! Sesame calamari ($5.95) are also nice and light; the sesame in the batter imparts a nice nuttiness, and the accompanying cafeteria-level sweet-and-sour sauce can be avoided easily. A dinner entrée of tempura walleye fillets ($15.95) will make any fish-and-chips lover happy; you could bounce a quarter off these thickly battered, tender fillets. If anyone cares what I think, I think they should be served with chips: The wasabi mashed potatoes listed on the menu don't seem like such a great idea, and the dried-out oven-roasted potato quarters that came with the dish didn't make any friends.

A number of other dishes are perfectly fine. Sushi options like a smoked salmon and cucumber roll, at lunch served with a side of noodles ($6.75), are better than the stuff you find sitting at Lund's, and, um, hey, look over there! Is someone breaking into your car?! Rats, I guess not.

So I guess I'll have to get to the dirty truth: I couldn't find anything else on the menu to recommend. I thought the deep-fried Thai spring rolls ($4.25 lunch/$5.50 dinner) were sodden and tasteless. The wok-seared four-spiced scallops ($6.95) were clumsy: Blackened spices on overcooked scallops weren't helped by a pallid salsa made with starchy corn. The chicken and crabmeat potstickers ($3.95/$5.95 dinner) were leaden. Beef short ribs ($15.95) braised in red wine and sake were tasty enough, with all the potent flavor you hope the dish would have, but as they gave up their meat in a few quick bites and left behind nothing but a few turned carrots and a carpet of unseasoned rice, I couldn't help wondering, Is that all there is?

Ditto for the dinner entrée of "Silky Tofu," simply three slices of warm tofu served in a shallow bowl surrounded by a nice soy-ginger broth and a few slices of shiitake mushrooms, a scattering of shelled edamame, and a couple pieces of baby bok choy. Okay, but $10.95? For a quarter of a brick of tofu, a mushroom, and a handful of bok choy? The menu promised asparagus would accompany it, but I would have wanted asparagus and something else, something--rice noodles, a teeny diamond necklace, something--to not feel like I was getting simultaneously ripped off and starved.

And now that I'm really letting my hair down, I have to tell you: A few other dishes were really unpleasant. Mongolian stir-fried noodles ($6.25 at lunch, $11.50 at dinner) were simply portions of greasy, lowest-common denominator lo mein in brown sauce. But on some level, the unspectacular food isn't what really bothered me about In Cuisine. Nor was it the service, which in my experience ranged from competent to complete catastrophic freefall. One night my party waited more than an hour for appetizers, and nearly two hours for entrées, though to their credit the restaurant comped half the bill. No, that isn't what really bothered me about the place. Nor was it the lackluster, six-bottle wine list of food-indifferent choices, like the buttery Beringer Founder's Estate chardonnay (at $5.50 a glass, or $25 a bottle for a wine that retails for $8-$10, no less). No, those were not the things that bothered me.

The enduring problem for me with In Cuisine was that I could not come up with one single good reason to go there. And I can come up with a single good reason to go just about anywhere, because that's what second-tier-city restaurant critics do, or that's my nature, or something. McDonald's--see what your fellow Americans are up to! Cracker Barrel--rock candy lives! Red Lobster--get yours before lobsters go extinct! But I can't come up with one good reason to go to In Cuisine. The prices are such that a couple dollars more will buy you dinner in most of the best chef-driven restaurants in town, a couple dollars less scores you dinner in any of the best Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants. And there's nothing about the ambience, service, or other amenities to set it apart, so what the heck? I'm telling you, if they hadn't recycled that Leann Chin so elegantly, In Cuisine might go down as the first restaurant to successfully render this notoriously garrulous critic absolutely speechless.

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