Talk Of The Town

A trifecta of impending restaurant openings, and one departure

Like most Minnesotans, I recently took one of my precious, fleeting, God-given days on this earth and used it to drive a ridiculous distance to a store about the size of the world-feeding potato field it replaced. Once inside, I enjoyed comparing various file cabinets that had been made in China with glue, dust, staples, and plastic veneer in a way meant to recall the glories of the British Empire, or the hand-labor apex of pre-War America. I stood there and considered how much of my daily labor would be translated into purchases that would start as a compromise and turn swiftly to disintegrating rubbish. It was such a depressing moment, it and spoke so eloquently of a culture at the tail end of all natural resources where a shell game of easy credit fuels a global circle-jerk of lack of accountability, that I concluded that God, personally and with amazing specificity, hath directly commanded unto me to leave my filing on the floor.

Later it occurred to me that I could just publish some of the information I've been hoarding. And so, without further ado, news!

 

Talkin' Bout Town Talk: Remember the good old days, when all the cars had fins, all the girls' hair was up in beehives, and all the malted milkshakes were health food for growing boys? Me neither. Nonetheless, I can't wait for the rebirth of the dear, long-departed Town Talk Diner. Yes, Minneapolis's most beloved and most photographed abandoned restaurant is about to light up anew, as...the Town Talk Diner. Not the old one, the new one.

While the name will be exactly the same, everything else should be exactly different: The restaurant is the first by three young partners with more fine-dining experience than any other group of Gen-X/Gen-Yers I can think of: Tim Niver (the sweet, slick former general manager of the Minneapolis Aquavit), Aaron Johnson (onetime restaurant and bar manager of Cosmos, the Le Meridien hotel restaurant), and chef David Vlach, who spent two years working at California's beyond-legendary French Laundry and cooked at Levain for Stewart Woodman in that restaurant's opening days. These three young-uns, who have more rarefied, ultra-fine-dining experience than you'll find in many of our local white-tablecloth hot spots, are trading in an obvious future in squab and mother-of-pearl caviar spoons for a less obvious one in burgers, malts, "canned beer and hard-core American food," as Niver told me.

Canned beer? From people who emerge straight from the world of kitchen-steeped fresh wasabi-aquavit and cauliflower panna cotta? Well, there will be bottled beer too, but I think it's safe to say you can expect a beverage program as ambitious as the ones at the big-ticket restaurants downtown, but built along everyday south Minneapolis lines. Think $3 and $4 everyday picnic wines by the glass, as well as homemade Cherry Coke floats (don't ask me, I don't know how that'll work either) and, for dessert, a few shakes and malts made with (don't tell the kids!) special grownups-only ingredients, like orange vodka in the Dreamsicles.

"The general idea we're working with is, good and tasty, but also light and lively," explains Niver. To wit, options on the opening dinner menu will include crowd-pleasers like smoked-tomato soup with a grilled cheddar-cheese sandwich, as well as more highfalutin, but still down-home, choices like a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with endive jam and cherry sauce.

If you remember the old itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny Town Talk space, you should know that the new diner will have an additional attached dining room, bringing the total seat count to about 80. "We're hoping that this will be the kind of place that people can come into three times a week and not break the bank," says Niver. "It will also have great, well-trained service. Hopefully people will sit there and think, I can't believe we're getting this incredible level of service in a diner."

The new Town Talk is hoping to open in mid-August; keep an eye out for the big sign--when it's lit up, that will be your chance to see what our youngest generation of up-and-comers can do when they pay for the griddle, and thus get to decide what to do with it. (TOWN TALK DINER, 2707 1/2 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.722.1312; www.towntalkdiner.com.)

 

Natty, Nifty Nouveau Nordeast:Do not shed a single tear for the linen industry. While the new generation on the South Side may be taking a bold turn away from white tablecloths, the new generation in Northeast will be boldly flourishing them. I speak here of Fugaise, a restaurant that's scheduled to open this fall right across Hennepin Avenue from Surdyk's. Fugaise will be brought to us by an actual family, Don Saunders, the well-reviewed chef de cuisine from À Rebours, and his business partner and sister Robin Ryan. Will Thanksgiving dinner at the Saunderses' ever be the same? Probably not, now that the kids will be too exhausted to cook or perhaps even to eat, but one family's losses in cranberry consumption will be nothing compared to the benefits reaped by every other family in the area: Ahoy, neighbors, your first bona fide Champagne-and-caviar restaurant is coming!

If you've eaten regularly in fine-dining restaurants in the last decade in Minneapolis, you've likely eaten something Saunders has cooked. In addition to his recent spell at À Rebours, he also cooked at La Belle Vie and Vincent. When I reviewed Saunders's cooking at À Rebours, I was particularly struck by his elegant use of vaporously light sauces. One particular concoction of vanilla and crème fraîche that accompanied a fried soft-shell crab was so ethereal and joyous, the mere memory of it makes me smile. Saunders says the menu at his new, very own restaurant will be 80 or 90 percent based on classic French haute cuisine, which he likes to make simpler, lighter, and more avant-garde. One opening dish will be roast squab with a lobster custard, for instance.

"I like to cook something that has always worked, and tweak it until it's elegant and surprising," Saunders told me when I spoke to him for this item. Expect entrées in the $20 to $30 range, a precisely selected Old World wine list, and polished service. Someone I won't name for fear of getting him fired from his current prominent position will run the front of the house. (Hey, that's what it means to be a young up-and-comer in restaurants.) You can also expect Fugaise to open sometime this September. And when it does open, they'll be serving lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch, and every single couple celebrating an anniversary. (FUGAISE, 308 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.436.0777; www.fugaise.com.)

 

The Heavy Hitter:And what about Five? Five, lest you have forgotten, is the long-awaited Stewart Woodman project. And Woodman, of course, was the opening chef at Levain and, before that, had big-restaurant super-New York credentials, the likes of which we just don't ever see in the Midwest: He was the opening sous-chef at Alain Ducasse's formidable Essex House, for example.

Okay, so Woodman's planned restaurant, Five Restaurant and Street Lounge, in the old Fifth Precinct police station on Bryant Avenue South near Lake Street, is now scheduled to open in mid- or late August. He will open the street lounge first, which will feature a short Asian bar menu with items such as his version of pho, as well as a more substantial sit-down American bistro menu, which will be something like "Levain, but less expensive." Does this mean that instead of pheasant poached in cream we will have plain chicken poached in cream? I do not know, but can't wait to find out.

Woodman says he himself does not know. Once the dust has cleared and everything works in the kitchen, he plans to spend 14 days just cooking up a storm alongside Chris Danskey, formerly a cook at Solera and Aquavit, who will be the sous-chef. Woodman says that after a few months he plans to turn over the day-to-day kitchen at the Five bistro to Danskey and then to move upstairs to the 150-seat fine-dining space, where he will cook the really big news, the utter next level in Twin Cities fine dining: super fancy prix fixe meals that stem from the French tradition. The fine-dining space may be open around Thanksgiving, if all goes according to plan.

When I talked to Woodman, he said he had just finished up the wine list, with the help of legendary local foodies Bob and Sue McDonald. The list's focus will not be on big-name wineries, but on gathering deep holdings of outstanding vintages when they bloom in their various regions.

It's no exaggeration to say that this restaurant has been the most highly anticipated opening in Twin Cities food life since the debut of Levain and Solera. Is five the luckiest number? You'll know sooner rather than later, so stay tuned. (FIVE RESTAURANT AND STREET LOUNGE, 2917 Bryant Ave. S.; www.fiverestaurant.com.)

 

Marianne Miller Has Left the Building--Again:On June 19, exactly 11 days after I gave chef Marianne Miller's cooking, and in general Bobino, the restaurant where she had recently begun working, a rave review ("Chef Driven," June 8, 2005), Miller was fired. In the review, I said that long-dormant Bobino had suddenly vaulted into the top 10 restaurants in the Twin Cities, despite a distinctly dismal wine list and haphazard service, all because of Miller's considerable talent in the kitchen. Anyone who pays a lot of attention to Twin Cities restaurant doings would have known that this was something of an act of faith for me, since the last time I gave Miller a rave review, "The Many Shades of Red", June 2, 2004, she was fired some 19 days later.

This upset me because I realized that lots of readers would have made reservations based on my spanking new review, but would now be walking into a restaurant that was nothing like what I described, which damages my own credibility. The pastry chef I also liked so much at Bobino, Christian Aldrich, has likewise left the restaurant. So, what is Bobino like now?

Without the delightful Miller signature of dollhouse detail and unique butter-and-meadow fireworks, it's not like much.

I visited Bobino after Miller and Aldrich had left, to sample one of the restaurant's last Sunday brunches. It was a mess. I started off with the exact same cheese plate I had been so enchanted with weeks before. Where once it had held a little Noah's Ark lineup of adorable pairs of individually spiced nuts prepared in the kitchen (two almonds, two cashews, etc.) now there were just soft, stale mixed salted nuts scattered listlessly about. Where once the accompanying grapes were cut into careful four-grape clusters, now there was just a pile of uncut, mushy grapes. Literally, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, the pecorino Romano cheese on the plate was in fact a long section of rind from the bottom of the wheel, with barely a millimeter of cheese to eat. "I can't believe this is happening," said my date.

The rest of the meal only got worse, with an unchewably tough beef stew masquerading as a breakfast hash, and a pasta carbonara that had none of the custard cream the dish should have, but was merely buttery angel hair with peas, lardons, tomatoes (yes, tomatoes, for some reason), and the kind of parmesan cheese that had a plastic-like mouth feel and never melted into the pasta, reminding me of the pregrated, anti-caking agent-coated stuff you pull from a bag. Not what you expect in a restaurant where dinner for two easily tops $100.

In fact, it was the same old Bobino I negatively reviewed years ago, food for people who don't know any better. I glimpsed the wine list, now a dozen bottles shorter, and the new dinner menu, on which guests paying $12 for mussels and $27 for an entrée will now get to pay an extra $1.50 for a second basket of bread. And I really had to wonder how hard you have to work to take such a golden moment of victory and twist it into such bitter defeat. (BOBINO CAFÉ; 222 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.623.3301; www.bobino.com)

 

Maybe, Just Maybe, One Day...But I hate to end on a down note, so here's a little happy news for your Someday, Over the Rainbow file: A replica of the Statue of Liberty has reportedly been commissioned for the old Jimmy Jingle building on Minneapolis's East Lake Street, at 13th Avenue. Why? So it can stand outside of "New York Plaza," a new variation on the Mercado Central idea with lots of food stalls sharing a single building. This plaza will not, however, be Mexican; it will be largely or entirely Latin American, featuring six to eight small restaurants serving regional specialties from the likes of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and such. So, when will it open? One day. When's that? In the future. When? About the same time I get my filing done, pal, don't push it.

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