Glories of Gentrification

A sandwich-and-syrah joint for local literati

N E THYME
4257 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis
612.822.5155

There are many advantages to living in Literacy Land, Minnesota--or, as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, as it addressed its apparent core audience of nursery school students, "that coffeepot-shaped state at the top of the Mississippi River." Chief among them: general reader willingness to read a billion-word restaurant review without any stars or thumbs-ups or frownie-brownies.

And then there are the disadvantages--like the puns, homonyms, and other bits of clever wordplay that fill up the coffeepot-shaped landscape: Coffee, anyone? (Higher Grounds, Sacred Grounds, Hava Java, The Daily Grind) Haircut? (Ahead of Time, A Cut Above, Fades of Graye, Hair's the Place, Hair It Is, Hair We Are, Mane Event, Shear-Lock Holmes, Shear Success, Shear Amazement, Curl Up and Dye!) Sushi? (Marilyn Monrolls! Wok & Rolls!) Restaurants? (It's Greek to Me! Franks a Million! Leaning Tower of Pizza! Emphasis mine! All mine!) A bit dizzying. A bit, how shall I say, T.J. McBitemee? Jamaican Mesick?

For some reason, caterers and other residents of wedding world are particularly afflicted: A Season to Taste, Affairs to Remember, Cater to You, Essence of Thyme, Thymes Two, It Takes the Cake... Do something, or I will go on. So maybe it's unsurprising that Cynthia Olson, coming out of a 20-year catering career--including stints at Penny Snippers' and the Gale Mansion--named her catering company Never Enough Thyme. (Though, in my experience, there is always enough thyme, or else the pepper guy would be tailed by the thyme guy, no?) Which begat new restaurant n e thyme. (Any time, get it? I spent a few minutes working with the whole "northeast" thing before I figured it out; my guess is that a significant number of diners will figure this place is in Nordeast until the end of time.) n e thyme recently opened across the street from Never Enough Thyme's catering kitchen on Nicollet Avenue and 43rd Street, after owner Olson got tired of eyeing the old Lufrano's space across Nicollet from her shop.

"I called every young chef I knew about the building, and when a couple months down the pike no one had called I thought: It's across the street, why not?" she says. "A restaurant gives you an opportunity to play that you'd never get catering. Catering, you have to carry food for sometimes great distances, and hold it sometimes for hours. But in a restaurant, you can be creative and playful, and turn out just exquisite product."

The restaurant officially opened in the beginning of December--a sort of trial by fire, since the holidays also mark the height of catering season. "We were the busiest we've ever been on this side of the street," says Olson, "and breathtakingly busy on that side. We were calling [Nicollet] the Ho Chi Minh Trail at one point; anytime you looked outside, you'd see us trucking back and forth across the street. The standard joke around here is we're going to bore out a tunnel, or build a skyway. But it's been worth it. It's been so rewarding to have a waiting list every night of the week. People around here are just loving that they have a place that's so easy to get to that has wonderful food. We've seen a lot of customers four or five times already."

I bet those customers even love the name, because the restaurant is smack-dab in the middle of Kingfield, which an informal flip through my Rolodex reveals has more super-literate media types than any other neighborhood in town. So, anybody mind if I harp on puns for a while longer? Because if I do that I might never have to mention the food, which I'm pretty much loath to do. I mean, it's not bad: There's some pretty good oven French fries (for a whopping $6!); and a thoroughly stand-up caesar salad with fresh-grated, good-quality Parmesan cheese ($6 at lunch, $7 at dinner). At brunch there's a nice poached-egg-florentine resting on some fresh, garlic-touched spinach. For dessert, there's a pleasant ginger crème brûlée ($5) and a sturdy little poached pear in a nice astringent blood-orange caramel sauce ($5).

The truth is, and it's as much my problem as n e thyme's: This here is simply the very hardest sort of review to do in the right pitch. I've tried phrasing this a dozen ways and every time I make it sound like a worse restaurant than it is. Basically, everything that comes out of the kitchen is pretty good, but nothing is either particularly correctly done or very inspired, and so it's pleasant enough to be there, but hard to think of why to go back.

I recently got into an e-mail exchange with a reader who wondered whether a recent negative review I wrote would be well received: Can people tell the difference between good food and bad food? I think yes. But I do wonder how many people allow that there are gradations between pretty good and great. I can think of about a dozen: There's pretty good with a strong passion for some odd little niche, like meats or pastries (St. Paul's Mildred Pierce, or Minneapolis's Sweetski's, respectively). There's grubby but inspired: Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis comes to mind, with its incapacitatingly creamy mac and cheese, for example. There's uniformly good with stabs of breathtaking genius (the Loring Café). There's flawlessly, invariably correct and comfortingly reliable, if not heart-stirring (Zelo). Stop me before I go on and on.

Which is to say, it's a fine restaurant, which you should keep in mind as I proceed to pick to bits everything the kitchen sent out. The osso bucco ($19) wasn't, really: It was a huge cross-section of veal shank, braised just long enough to get tough, but not long enough to pick up any interesting flavor from the braising liquid. There was no gremolada, as is traditional. And the fresh, crunchy haricots verts and pieces of crisp carrot that decorated the plate just didn't belong there. Osso bucco is a wintery stew, not a place for the first crisp vegetables of spring. The orzo beneath the meat was pretty good, in a salty, flavor-saturated way, but I'm grasping at straws.

Polenta, which I saw in different-sized forms at both lunch ($10) and dinner ($13) was more like a timbale than whatever you might expect, a bowl lined with a thin layer of polenta and filled with layers of roasted eggplant, cheese, and such, then finished with a thin layer of polenta. Overwhelming. Like eating sauce alone. Or filling. Isn't that like life? You always think you only like the filling, until you only get the filling. A chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, cheese, and spinach ($15) just--I don't know how else to put it--had me looking about for the band and the wedding party.

The appetizers that ran up to the meal all seemed the same: Enormous, sharing-size portions you could have put together in about eight minutes at Lunds. Crostini ($8.50) were oil-rubbed toasts served with hummus, tapenade, caperberries, and olives. A terrine of wild mushrooms ($8.50) wasn't either; it was a pile of too-herbal, chopped-mushroom dip, and another little mound, strangely, of cranberry sauce, croutons, caperberries, and olives. An antipasto plate ($8.50) was a mammoth ten-inch-wide mountain of lentil salad crowned with four bundles of prosciutto-wrapped grilled fennel, caperberries, and olives. I couldn't get too excited about the salads. Bagged mesclun with julienne carrots and spiced maple pecans ($5) just seemed terribly common.

At the same time, I can see how this very same enormous appetizer and good-enough entrée is going to be many couples' favorite date night: Put a bottle of highly structured, elegant Qupé syrah on the table ($28), that antipasto, some cheese ($8 for three pieces), a couple of baskets of bread, maybe salads and dessert, and your whole night, with sitter, will come in on the right side of $100.

Which is to say nothing of the utterly pretty, brightly colored glazed walls, various arches that separate rooms, playful, low-slung banquettes, and sense of polish that make n e thyme feel like a destination. Lots of other little touches are done just right: good coffee at brunch, fresh bread in the baskets at meals, servers who know what they're doing, a kitchen that gets the food out in a timely manner. I mean, all that stuff is hard to do, and shouldn't be underestimated. Even though I know this comes off as damning with faint praise.

The wine list is almost reason enough to go: four dozen bottles, priced $16 to $59. Most are around $30 and are generally priced a few dollars less than twice retail--very reasonable. Glasses run $4 to $7.50; there's also a $10 corkage fee if you're bringing your own wine. The list is global, with a bit of weight toward French whites and California reds, though what's most interesting about it is its grab-bag approach to the whole wide world: Austrian grüner veltliner, Spanish albariño, Oregon viognier, various reds from up and down Italy and the West Coast.

There was a time, back in the dark ages of last year, I think, when a list this wide-ranging would have been big news. But it seems like the tide is rising and lifting all boats so quickly these days that even with a list this good, in a room this pretty, the restaurant is just filling out the good side of the bell curve, and nothing you'd travel more than oh, let's say, 15 blocks for.

I guess that's not the worst thing that could happen. Is this already the big story for 2002? It seems like the restaurant story in 2001 was: Well-capitalized, ambitious locals swing for fences and...oh, dear (Red Fish Blue, Glockenspiel, Conga, etc.). In 2002 I feel like the story already is: B+ restaurants swarm about, handily fill holes in dining scene (Dish, Marimar, n e thyme, etc.). I guess we'll see. But everybody, be on the lookout for the following establishments: Shear-ly Better Than 1985; Common Grounds of Crème Brûlée, Mesclun, and Polenta; and N E Body Complaining About It, Such as Yours Truly, Can Suck an Egg.

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