Neighborhood Values

Who says living on a budget can't be sexy? New Uptown restaurant Duplex puts the date into cheap date.

2516 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

An editor of a local magazine recently called me a communist, because, over the years, I've labeled a few local would-be four-star restaurants overpriced. Me? A communist? With foie gras and Champagne in the fridge? And Sauternes in the basement? The mind boggles. For so many reasons. For one, if I were some sort of evangelical communist, I think hoping to convert people through a column of restaurant criticism would be like... like trying to practice ballet through a chosen medium of street paving. The medium and the message just aren't a good fit. I mean, a bourgeois wastrel, I'll cop to that, certainly, but a communist? You do realize that when I criticize a $100-a-head restaurant I am in fact no longer on the side of the hipsters, and that my mailbag fills up with thanks from various vice presidents of this and that?

Not your average neighborhood duplex: Chef Michael Hart and his wild mushroom tamales
Kathy Easthagen
Not your average neighborhood duplex: Chef Michael Hart and his wild mushroom tamales

Then again, price and value, price and value are always topics of abiding interest. For me, the daughter of a Wall Street economist, numbers and dollars are both endlessly meaningful, and simultaneously, kind of utterly meaningless, depending on the context. Take, for instance, three bottles of wine. One costs $9, and tastes fine, if over-oaked. The second costs $20, and is entirely well made and good. The third costs $129, and is marvelous, joyful, and profound. Which one is the best value, and has the best price? Obviously the $129 one—after all, what price, happiness? Outside of joy, however, it's all numbers.

In those numbers, though, you can also find true pleasure. Such is the case of duplex, a new Uptown restaurant with romantic atmosphere to burn, real stemware on the tables, real food on the plates, but prices only a titch higher than you'd pay at the corner Vietnamese joint, Mexican chain, or neighborhood burger bar. For everyone looking for a cheap date, with the emphasis on "date" —listen in!

You'll enter duplex, and find a real life classic Minneapolis duplex replete with the big front oak double window and the characteristic four-square room pattern, all of it painted romantic Valentine red. The bar and kitchen are where the dining room would be; most people sit in the former front parlor. You'll sit at one of the close-fitted tables, and contemplate the thrifty-minded wine list: In addition to the standard glass and bottle pourings, duplex offers three-ounce glasses, from $3. The wine list is a nice, usable, global, and food-oriented one, with bottles priced mostly in the $20-something range.

When you turn to the menu, you'll find that it's divided by price—the soups cost $5, the salads $7, more ambitious appetizers $8, and entrees cost either $10, for pastas, risottos, and such, or $15 for entrees including more expensive ingredients, such as duck breast or salmon.

Generally, I found the food at duplex to be good. Chef Michael Hart favors homey, forthright foods made with an edge of spice. Curried crab croquettes are big tater-tots of crabmeat, the dark breading made pretty with sesame seeds, and the plate given a bit of fire with a bright orange harissa sauce. Vegetarian wild mushroom tamales are earthy and uncontrived, but given a bit of perk with a fresh salsa and a bit of silk with a spoonful of a creamy sauce. A "classic split pea" soup was certainly that, the broth a deep green, the soup made smoky with long-cooked ham. A roasted butternut squash soup with lemongrass was so big, healthy, and thickly orange it seemed like you could rebuild 10 squashes from it. It was served with a crisp potato wedge on a skewer resting in the bowl, a "potato satay" that made the substantial dish even more so.

Hart does some of his nicest work with salads: His grilled radicchio slaw was a glorious thing: Here carrots and other root vegetables were julienned, marinated with pumpkin seed oil and balsamic vinegar, tossed with blue cheese, and fitted into a red globe fashioned from whole radicchio leaves. The globe was then set in a white plate sort of invisibly filled with a white blue cheese sauce; it was creative, fun, brisk, bold, and really altogether nice. His roasted garlic Caesar salad is a generous portion, and it hits all the right notes, with a little kick of garlic and plenty of good, just-grated Parmesan cheese.

The entrees were usually likable. A salmon roulade stuffed with fresh spinach and leeks was perfectly tender, the fish contrasting nicely with the herbal flavors of the stuffing; the plate was rounded out with remarkably generous quantities of sautéed beans enhanced with a little pool of béarnaise sauce. A fettuccini marsala with chicken, mushrooms, pancetta, and bits of fried garlic was sized to satisfy the hungriest linebacker, and was absolutely sturdy and unpretentious, with its little nibs of pan-seared chicken and al dente noodles barely dressed in the clear flavors of wine and good olive oil. A wild rice porcini mushroom risotto was chewy and well textured, and given interest and brightness with the first peas of spring, pale pearl onions, and bits of turnip.

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