Intoxicating

Uptown's newest fun palace proves you shouldn't drink where you eat

Tonic
1400 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
612.824.8898
www.tonicofuptown.com

You know what's fun? Drinking in the sunshine on a fine summer's day. This summer there will be no better place to do this than on the rooftop deck at Tonic, the brand-new, zillion-dollar, 17,000-square-foot, drinks-and-dining techno-looking carnival that has appeared in the heart of Uptown.

This deck affords a truly breathtaking view of the downtown skyline in all of its Emerald City glory, as well as a fascinating look at the Margaritaville crowd down on Bilimbi Bay's rooftop deck. And it offers the chance to see what happens as the ever-changing sea of twentysomethings nearby get hammered on top-shelf Long Island iced teas.

Million-dollar view: The rooftop deck at Tonic, Uptown's newest destination bar
Bill Kelley
Million-dollar view: The rooftop deck at Tonic, Uptown's newest destination bar

Now, I have had a personal journey with top-shelf iced teas. When I first learned of them, while being crushed to bits at the bar at the Redstone Grill, the man crushing me was bellowing instructions with the sort of volume and authority I previously associated only with foghorns during storms--Sapphire, Sapphire! I actually found myself checking my pockets for any stray gemstones with which to placate this chasm of longing.

At this early juncture, I must confess I thought these things, these $10 teas, were the absolute height of tackiness, the highball equivalent of embroidering the paper bag that holds your drink with the Louis Vuitton insignia. If you can afford it, why not just drink something worth drinking?

Years later, I thought: No. Very frequently in life one will encounter tree stumps that must be removed, concrete slabs that require illegal dumping, and kegs that must be hand-stood upon, and without the top-shelf iced tea, that wing of the species would surely die off. I mean, how else would those men, those men who speak without nuance, infrequently, and mostly at top volume during sporting events or in the dawning moments of physical altercation, how else would they woo their mates? What else would lubricate the wheels of conversation? And otherwise.

Now, though, my feelings about top-shelf iced tea have mellowed. Now I think that this drink is simply a post-adolescent phase, like thinking that Charles Bukowski is deep, or that clothing that proclaims Diesel! is wildly more sophisticated than clothing that announces Abercrombie!

Abercrombie. Diesel. Abercrombie!

And so of course at Tonic we have the Uptown iced tea, made with Grey Goose citrus, Bacardi Limon, Bombay Sapphire, Cointreau, sour mix, and Coke, for $9.50. We also have the Watermelonini, made with Grey Goose and Watermelon Pucker, for $8.50. And the Volcano, which has four sorts of rum, including two of 151 proof.

And what will mom say if you puke in her car? That, as they say in crime novels, is your pigeon.

But the rooftop deck is awfully pretty.

It's just too bad the dining part of the restaurant doesn't offer anything as attractive.

I've been to the restaurant six--six!--times now, so convinced was I that the faults I was finding originated with opening jitters, or my own mis-ordering, or galloping snobbery. But no. Unfortunately I have had to conclude that the food that comes out of the restaurant is almost entirely that awful thing produced when incompetence is exposed by overambition: It is embarrassing.

Tonic is the kind of place that serves a $28.50 Kobe beef sirloin steak, just like they do in the restaurants that movie stars eat at, but at Tonic the prestige steak, which is so pricey and renowned because of its tenderness, is served tougher than an old flip-flop. And it's served with carrots that are peeled so carefully that they look just like the carrots in magazine photos, except that when your fork bounces off them you discover that they have been served nearly raw. The final disgrace on the plate is a lump of sour-tasting mashed potatoes so mouth-sticking, so dense, so lukewarm, and so utterly unpleasant that it defies common sense.

It's bad enough that the sea-salt-roasted chicken ($14.95) is described on the menu as "baked in Fleur de Sel (French dried salt that flowers grow on)," which is both untrue--Fleur de Sel are large salt crystals that look a bit like flowers--and also just makes no sense whatever. Ever hear that thing about salting the fields? It's not the first step in gardening. And I wouldn't even bring it up if the chicken wasn't overcooked, sodden, greasy, and just generally awful.

Which made it about twice as good as the Seafood Beach, a $35.95 platter of chilled seafood that, the first time I ordered it, contained chilled, ammonia-smelling shrimp; dishwater-tasting seafood salad; a mealy and dissolving langoustine; other different overcooked and overspiced shrimp; and finally, undercooked scallops that were also violently overspiced with a mouth-drying layer of dust-tasting cumin and coriander seeds. This Seafood Beach was such a disaster that I actually went back three weeks later and ordered it again, because I would just hate to condemn a place on the evidence of some terrible night when, say, the cooler was out and the chef was in urgent care. However--alas, alack, alarm!--the Beach was nearly as bad the second time: The shrimp remained far from fresh, and the scallops were even more raw and unpleasant. And the seafood cocktail was even more dishwater-flavored, as though the mixture was tossed together while the seafood was still frozen and the water from the defrosting used as dressing.

Everything I tried was strange, tasted far from fresh, or both. The tomatoes in the chilled asparagus salad ($7.95) were fermenting. The croutons in the panzanella salad were about the size of golf balls and nearly as difficult to eat. The pepperoni pizza ($8.95) had lovely slices of pepperoni glued to a whole-wheat cracker crust that tasted like a very old Wheat Thin. The dressing on the Caesar salad ($5.95) was off-puttingly sweet. The Italian pasta nachos were a complete disaster: Imagine blue cheese dressing on those fried noodles that used to come with Chinese takeout and you'll get the general idea.

The restaurant's signature offering is something called Tonic Stones: Order it and you'll get a polished triangular granite stone, heated, says the menu, to 450 degrees, and placed on your table in an insulated container. For $5.95 you get to choose between Kobe beef, bluefin tuna, and vegetables to cook upon it. The tuna and beef both come in very thin slices on a chilled plate alongside intensely sweet sauces. Unfortunately, these fragile morsels are so very delicate that it takes mere seconds for them to become overcooked. And then it takes the merest hint of accompanying sauce to completely overwhelm the pricey protein. So now you've spent six bucks on a shriveled morsel of over-sauced nothing. It's depressing. But on the up side, it does make nigiri sushi seem like an absolute bargain.

Servers are not much help. While they're very good at refilling water glasses and ferrying cocktails, they're generally uninformed about the food and clueless about the wine. And I think they're fairly powerless to change this. One night one well-meaning young lady took a question about a wine all the way to two managers, and then had to report back that neither of them had tasted, or knew anything about, the bottle in question.

Desserts were no better. I tried the caramelized banana torte ($6.95) twice, because I could not believe that the stale, undercooked, floury bowl the thing is presented in was intentional. It is. Inside this nearly inedible shell is a reasonably tasty caramelized banana concoction, which is made off-putting by a scattering of slices of black licorice. There's a black licorice sorbet alongside, in case you really want to explore the varieties of unpleasant that undercooked flour, unctuous banana, and palate-clearing licorice can accomplish.

The cheesecake tower ($7.95) is three discs of cheesecake stacked prettily on top of one another, each covered with a separate sauce. But each tastes too sweet and too much like chemicals, like something purchased cheaply at a bad supermarket. The Bomb is the best dessert, and one of the very few items worth ordering. It's a ball of dark chocolate cake in a thick chocolate shell presented alongside a rich scoop of chocolate sorbet. It arrives at the table crowned by a sizzling sparkler--cute!

The weird thing is, there is something cute deep in this failure of a fine-dining restaurant. There's actually a plain-old friendly bar-food joint yearning to breathe free. You get a glimpse of it at lunch, in the very good Tonic burger or the braised short rib sandwich, or at dinner in the lobster fennel dip. That burger ($9.95) is the best thing on the Tonic menu by a country mile. It's a kind of meatloaf of a burger in which ground Kobe beef is combined with roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and cheddar cheese into a soft, rich charmer that just about dissolves in the mouth as you eat it.

The braised short ribs ($9.95), served on a focaccia roll at lunch, were long-cooked, plain, and nicely meaty and rich. Lose the abrasive mustard horseradish concoction that accompanied them, and we'd really have something. At dinner, the appetizer of lobster fennel dip ($9.50) is another almost there. It's a variation on artichoke ramekin; a hot bowl of lobster and cheese, which tastes very mayonnaisey and has the barest hint of fennel, and generally it gives you the chance to, you know, dip garlicky bits of bread which resemble pizza crust into a rich, cheesy thing. Which is part of why we leave the house, after all.

I do know that, you know.

I mean, it's not like I'm against tacky no-brainer fun. I'd love Tonic if it could combine fun drinks and that fun deck with some fun, adeptly accomplished snacks. It's the overpriced incompetence of its fine dining that strikes me as no fun at all.

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