Out of the Frying Pan

Stella's Fish Café turns a notoriously popular location into fishy, family-friendly gold

Stella's Fish Café & Prestige Oyster Bar
1400 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
612.824.TUNA
www.stellasfishcafe.com

 

I'd like to offer a second rule as to what makes a restaurant succeed, to be listed in your bibles right after "location, location, location." Or, wait--will this be a fourth rule? Well, critics can't count that high, so let's call it a second rule anyway: Restaurants are where no-brainers will bring a brilliant man to his knees.

Seriously. Getting a dirty fork off the table and clean again isn't rocket science. Any reasonably agreeable seven-year-old can do it. However, getting 700 forks back in circulation when your dishwasher is in the hospital with her appendicitis-struck kid, your best server is weeping in the walk-in over her latest breakup, the produce delivery truck broke down on the highway and didn't arrive until 5:00, the icemaker has turned itself into a solid glacier, the hostess you fired last week seems to have written most of tonight's reservations into next month's section of the book, and the critic at table 21 is showing a fatal interest in a stew made three days ago that you would have pulled off the menu if you hadn't been dealing with the intervening crises. That, my friends, is 15 minutes in the life of a restaurant. And if there's a rocket scientist in the house who thinks she can do it any better, she's welcome to grab an apron.

Those 15 minutes were, roughly, the story of Tonic, the last restaurant at 1400 W. Lake Street, one of the best restaurant locations in the rough box circumscribed by, oh, let's say the Rocky Mountains, the North Pole, Missouri, and Illinois. Tonic, however, managed to take that gilded location beneath one of the best rooftop decks in the state and generate such community hostility with its inedible food and raucous bar scene that it closed faster than you could say, "You know, I think Tonic is the New Coke of Uptown."

(Tonic will forever have a certain place in this critic's heart, because after I panned the place in print, they had the balls to take the dish I most despised, a vile presentation of mussels, and print up new menus in which the grotesquerie was rechristened with my name.)

In any event, that was then. Now the restaurant operations at this golden location have been taken over by Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the folks who developed Buca and later spun it off into its own chain, subsequently did the same for the Oceanaire, and otherwise have kept some of the Twin Cities best-regarded, and most-beloved, stand-alone restaurants humming along year after year. Parasole also owns Manny's Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Figlio, Muffuletta, and the Good Earth. If anyone has shown proof of overcoming the seething swarms of lethal no-brainers that do in good restaurants, it would seem to be the Parasole team.

So how is Stella's Fish Café and Prestige Oyster Bar, the restaurant they debuted in the old Tonic space? It's great, in its way. Basically, Stella's is a boomer-hipster's mid-price American seafood restaurant. It's aimed squarely at people who have been to the beach and would love to go back, wallet and time permitting. People who would love go to Oceanaire or out to sushi more, wallet and time permitting. Are you one of those people? Then you will probably really, really like, but maybe not entirely love, Stella's.

The reasons to like it are many. They have top-of-the-line oysters, usually very reasonably priced at around two bucks a pop. On my visits they've almost always had Malpeques, with their rich mineral weight, and usually a blowsy, briny East Coast option, like a Blue Point, as well as one of those meaty varieties of ocean fruit from the northern West Coast, like a Hammersley Bay oyster.

They have some great fast-food seafood. The po' boy and lobster roll are the best versions of their genres I've ever seen in Minnesota; I particularly recommend the catfish po' boy ($10.95), in which red-spiced catfish nestles in an enormous loaf of bread along with a creamy, mustardy rémoulade sauce; crunchy, salty, crisp refrigerator pickles; and plenty of lettuce and sliced tomatoes. This gargantuan sandwich offers everything good about the New Orleans street classic: It's spicy, creamy, bold, crunchy, salty. If they wrapped it in foil instead of serving it open in a basket, you could even eat it as the good Lord intended: for about an hour, with three beers. (The fried rock shrimp version, $13.95, is nice too, with fluffy-light little shrimp instead of the gamier catfish.)

The lobster roll ($18.95) bears good family resemblance to the stars of the seafood shacks of Connecticut and all points north: It's real, identifiable mottled red and white claw and tail meat, dressed only with the barest veil of mayonnaise and a bit of lemon, celery seed, and celery; simply delicious. If they served it in a plain old butter-grilled hot dog bun like they do in most roadside seafood shacks back East, instead of the fancier loaf of bread it's in now, you'd wear a hat for fear of seagulls.

The fish & chips basket ($12.95) and walleye platter ($17.95) offer fried fish that's golden and potato-chip crisp outside, and flaky, moist, and utterly tender within. It's fish to go head-to-head with any of your old favorites in town. If fish isn't your bag, the burgers are perfectly good, and the hash browns are gorgeous sisters to the king-of-the-mountain ones at Manny's, all crisp, tender, and fresh. Stella's also makes an absolutely craveable version of jalapeño poppers: giant fresh hot peppers, stuffed with cream cheese, battered and deep fried, and served with a sweet house-made jalapeño marmalade ($6.95). The desserts are fine: The key lime pie, in particular, is as sweet, as fresh, and as refreshing as the summer's first popsicle. Stick a pile of these seafood-shack American favorites next to one of Stella's 30 or so beers, which include favorites like Stella Artois on tap and PBR in a can, and you've got a great night out with the guys.

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