New Chef Rising

Love Relocates a Great Chef to Minnesota and the Mall's Napa Valley Grille

Food writers talk a lot about umami, a taste that ranks along with salty, sweet, sour, and spicy as one of the elemental big ones. Umami is the sensation of meatiness, the thing that makes ham and salami so hard for carnivores to give up. The mushroom pasta dish has umami to burn. The weighty, concentrated mushrooms, the lilting marjoram, the salty, funky cheese all combine to wallop your senses in a sensuous, gratifying way. If you're a vegetarian who has been wondering, Why exactly did I decide I can't have a porterhouse steak?, well, now you can, in a way. It's certainly the most delicious vegetarian dish I've had this year. I called Fogarty to tease out the details of his cooking, and learned that he has also taken over the kitchen at the Napa Valley Grille's sister restaurant, the California Café. He said that if I liked his mushroom pasta, I have to try the California Café's mushroom sloppy joe with smoked paprika and white-cheddar tater tots. I think I will.

Not that Fogarty only works well in winter vegetables. We don't often see blue crab cakes ($11.50) in this town, but the NVG's version is reason for Chesapeake Bay transplants to rejoice. Here the sweet, briny meat of those Atlantic sea-floor dwellers is beautifully showcased in two plain, confident, pan-seared discs. The lemony fennel salad with mint basil vinaigrette that accompanies them shows off the fresh minerality of the crab without any excess fireworks. A frito misto ($10.75) of semolina-crumb-coated rock shrimp, calamari, and slices of fennel, all deep fried and served piping hot, is an elemental bit of Italian bar food that is just plain and good but also cries out to be paired with a glass of bubbly—or three, available in one of the restaurant's many wine flights. Order the $16 bubbly flight of vintage Schramsberg 2002 Blanc de Noirs, Scharffenberger non-vintage brut, and Kenwood Yulupa brut, and your server will bring three glasses, each numbered with a silvery little tag that hangs on the stem, and a printed card with a few lines of information on each wine. It's certainly a spectacular way to start a meal, or a charming consolation prize when you're stuck on holiday shopping errands.

Which leads me to the only things I don't like about the Napa Valley Grille, all of them very mall-ish. Televisions over the bar, for instance, were all going all the time, even though the bar had no patrons. I think during my lovely meals here I watched that taco commercial where people take ecstasy and eat silly-string about 19 times. If hunger is the best seasoning, I'd call forced televised taco ads the worst.

The decor at the NVG needs freshening, immediately. A poster of hot-air balloons in one alcove brings to mind nothing so much as inexpensive transmission shops and failure.

Desserts were pretty good. A cheesecake made with goat cheese ($7), for instance, was sweet, tidy, and had just enough tang with the Chèvre to give it character. Service, in my experience, was excellent, though I was never there when more than 10 tables were occupied, so I can't vouch for how things might be on a busy night. While the food has been uniformly strong on my visits, there has been a sloppy edge to the dining room. I'm particularly thinking of dinner one night when a server's assistant dragged a huge garbage bin back and forth through the dining room in the middle of service. This, I thought, is why you need one of those classic French chefs storming around with the vein in his forehead about to pop.

I take comfort in the fact that there's probably some sweet native daughter (or son!) out there falling in love with him right this very second.Ê

NAPA VALLEY GRILLE

Mall of America, 2nd Floor, Bloomington
952.858.9934www.napavalleygrille.com
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