Loto Lowdown

New Lowertown restaurant caters to everyone and no one--in the same place

Whatever you do, do not order the soup: One night my table had both the lobster bisque and the tomato basil (both $3.50 a cup, $5.75 a bowl) and they were nearly indistinguishable: Both were dark brick-red, salty as Campbell's, and offered neither the taste of lobster nor the tang of tomato--they might as well have come from the same can.

The entrees generally fall into two camps. Half are plain and perfectly fine, such as the steak (both good quality and cooked to temperature when I tried it, at $12 for a six-ounce portion or $18.50 for nine ounces), and the cappellini Caprese ($12.50), angel-hair pasta topped with chopped fresh tomatoes, squares of buffalo mozzarella, and a chiffonade of fresh basil.

The other half are more ambitious and, when I had them, absolutely incompetently done. I tried the potato-crusted walleye ($15.50) twice: The first time I received a fish fillet topped with a bundle of shredded hash browns so oily that the oil ran down off the fish and pooled as you looked at it; stick a fork in the potatoes, and they slid right off the fish. The second time the potatoes were cut more thickly, and did in fact adhere to the fish, but they were still very oily, and the treatment made the fish taste thick and sodden. The ahi tuna steak ($18.50) was thin, seared beige, and profoundly salty; it was served on a bed of black beans garnished with a sort of corn salsa, which contributed nothing. I attempted to order both the lemon-roasted chicken and the lamb shank on different visits, but each time the kitchen had run out of them. If you order the "teriyaki linguini," you're on your own.

Finally, relievedly, your nice server will finally clear away your strange dinner entrees, and you find yourself safe again in the realm of desserts, drinks, and coffee.

If you are the kind of person who is given to thinking too much about restaurants, you might wonder: Why would you design a menu like this? Why would you sabotage your profit-heavy appetizer section like this, all but guaranteeing a lower than possible average check? Why would you design a menu that's going to be incredibly difficult for the staff to prepare? The complex entrees, such as the walleye, require a skilled, and therefore expensive, chef on hand, yet a talented chef is unlikely to stick around if the majority of her year is spent making club sandwiches. Why would you have contiguous counter-service and fine-dining areas that serve the exact same food, so that at two adjoining tables you might have, say, a business lunch with someone trying to impress clients beside a table-squatter with three newspapers and a long-drained cup of coffee?

Now who's bedeviling who with pointless questions, sucker!

In the end, perhaps none of that really matters. LoTo certainly isn't the restaurant of anyone's dreams, but if you find yourself on the east side of downtown St. Paul when there's work to be done, it works quite well.

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