A Delightful Downscaling
931 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis; (612) 904-1000
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; kitchen open till 10:00 p.m. (closed Sundays through mid-June)
How long does it take before you get the face you deserve, find the identity you mean to keep, the friends you won't let go?
It takes a few decades for most people, so it's only fair that it takes some restaurants a few years to pin down their final self. In the case of the Local, it has taken about three and a half years and should be complete this summer. Restaurant watchers may recall that the place opened in the dawning days of 1998 to great fanfare: An expensive renovation of a dilapidated, grand old building had been completed to reveal two elaborate spaces. One half was all oak-carved bar and intimate snugs, a design that delivered crowd, intimacy, and creamy Guinness in the same space--an instant favorite. The other half was a sophisticated candlelight-and-white-tablecloth restaurant with soaring velvet draperies and an ambitious menu and wine list reflecting Dublin's new prosperous, cosmopolitan face. (Think rare artisanal Irish cheeses, lamb, salmon, and 400 wines to go with them.)
But the Guinness always overwhelmed the candlelight; the not-quite-ceiling-height wall that separated the two spaces let noise and smoke travel. And eventually the formal dining room was shuttered. Tears were shed, but probably not by any regular customers (never underestimate the effects of smoke and noise on people intent on tasting cheese). Instead, the folks who were crying were those who loved the dream of sleek, upscale Irish cuisine in an oak-and-velvet palace. Like me. I think of it much akin to that mournful bit of adolescence when you realize you'll never be that stunning combination of Jimi Hendrix, Wayne Gretzky, and Dashiell Hammett you were aiming for, and you might just have to settle for being a good guy with a few strong passions.
Nowadays, the strong passions at the Local have been effectively narrowed to beer and bar with a few flourishes of pub food, which seems all for the good. Instead of letting the old dining room languish in place, the space was closed down and replaced with "Willie Reilly's Pub." An entire new bar, room dividers, and wood paneling were shipped over from Ireland, assembled in Minneapolis, and--badda bing, badda boom--a whole new bar with a lighter, more contemporary feeling to it. This means that the Local's 10,000-plus square feet now host a good 150 feet of running bar top, which might well be a Twin Cities record. Upstairs on a large balcony where the private-party area was, there is also now a darts-and-pool area. And once you're up there you'll see an ornately carved Irish billiards table resting on a scarlet carpet--pretty foxy.
If you're foxy enough, you can get away with a lot, so I didn't much mind that the food at the Local runs from really pretty good to really pretty bad. The very best things I tried included an appetizer of grilled cross-sections of sausage served hot along with a vinegary cucumber salad and a tomato chutney ($8). I know it sounds weird, but it tasted good, the cucumbers acting as a sort of elegant sauerkraut, the chutney as the fanciest ketchup, all of it uniting in a way that was sophisticated, playful, and tasty. I also really liked the fish and chips ($12), an exceptionally light version, the chips small moons of fresh fried potato. A ham sandwich ($8) stood out because of the excellent thick, soft rye bread--if only I could have had the chips from the fish and chips with it instead of once-frozen-tasting shoestring fries, I'd have been totally happy. At dinner one night I tried a roast chicken that was very nice ($15). It came with a good pound of mashed potatoes and a savory sage gravy, as well as a bizarrely sopping wet stuffing. Chocolate cake ($4.99) was fresh-tasting, distinguished by a lush ribbon of chocolate ganache between the layers.
Similarly, the things that were weird were pretty weird. The Local's spinach dip ($7) is made with potatoes, spinach, red bell peppers, and goat cheese but is so bland it tastes more like a side dish than a dip. The roast-beef sandwich ($8) is an odd version: soft, tasty meat served without gravy on buttered white bread accompanied by potatoes sauced with some of the worst gravy in memory. It tasted like A-1 steak sauce, butter, and flour. And the cheese plate, the cheese plate has really gone to the dogs. What once was a boutique selection of strange and rare artisanal cheeses was, when I tried it, Swiss, brick, and blue cheeses, and the Swiss and brick tasted bland and the same and mostly like raclette, and the grapes were shriveled up. Not a friendly environment for grapes anymore. At the Local, all things grain kick the butt of all things grape, and the ho-hum wine list won't be making any waves.
The weirdest thing of all was a "pub pie." If you ever wanted a Hot Pocket at a restaurant, now's your chance. I ordered the lamb-curry pub pie ($6), but got chicken tarragon instead; picture chicken-breast cubes, cream cheese, and tarragon in a buttery roll of puff pastry and you'll get the idea. When I didn't eat it and told our server about the mistake, she countered that the kitchen was always like that when it was winding down for the night, and declined to take the uneaten pub pie off the bill. So now her snafu gets memorialized in black and white forevermore, and we all go home happy.
Really, we do. I'm totally happy to see the Local with its new, less ambitious, less successful menu. It's doing everything you could ask from a bar. There's a pint glass in every hand (18 beers are on tap, including creamy, nitrogen-gas-pumped Guinness, Caffrey's, and Boddington; pints cost $5). The place still offers a nice selection of single-malt whiskeys as well as some usually overlooked Irish ones, they don't charge a cover, and there are so many, many different rooms that you could effectively execute every possible maneuver you might want in a bar. Why, you can spread out with a large group, hide from an ex-spouse, snuggle up with a new honey, spy from the balcony on your ex-spouse and his or her new honey. Truly, you could even go to the phones near the bathroom, page yourself, and ditch out on your new honey.
And if you can do it all with good fish and chips and chocolate cake in your belly, so much the better. In a lot of ways, the new totality of the Local just makes me think that the possible is often richer and more interesting than the fantasy.
FANCY IRISH STILL IN REACH: If you are mourning the absence of fancy, upscale Irish food around town, please point your wallets to Elegant Irish Cooking, by Noel C. Cullen ($35, Lebhar-Friedman Books). This cookbook is one of my favorites of the past couple of years, and the reason I'm going to give may seem patently absurd: There just seem to be a lot of similarities between the locally available ingredients in Ireland and here. Yeah, despite the whole encircling Atlantic Ocean thing. So many of the 160-some fancy plates here could be put together in a single sweep down an aisle at the farmer's market--dishes like bacon-and-leek flan, potato-and-sorrel soup, lamb pie with parsnips, duck with a rhubarb-honey sauce, venison sausage with rutabaga purée and apple, minted turnips, and beef with a cream-and-watercress sauce with champ (mashed potatoes flavored with scallion-infused milk).
I just can't think of the last time I saw so many recipes easily made with local ingredients in the dead of a Minnesota winter. The foundation of nearly all these recipes is dairy and root cellar. Is it just me, or doesn't it sometimes seem like cooking California or southern European in Minnesota requires too many flown-in ingredients? Artichokes, capers, olives, oranges, Parmesan and prosciutto... Of course these things are all marvelous, but it's nice to see a collection of dress-up foods that basically are our native foods. (Except the oysters and the salmon and such. We must ignore seafood if my thesis is to hold. And my thesis must hold.)
ROTI RETURN AND PERSONALITY PLUS: Meanwhile, another island's cuisine is also on the move: Harry Singh is about to reopen his signature place, Harry Singh's Caribbean Restaurant, in uptown Minneapolis in the old Paisano's space, roughly betwixt the Uptown Bar and Urban Outfitters. Those with a taste for Trinidadian cuisine and an elephant's memory recall that Harry Singh opened his first eponymous spot up on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis back in 1983, moved to the corner of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue in 1988, moved again to Cedar Avenue and 36th Street in 1993, and finally closed the Cedar location a few months ago, having never liked the off-the-beaten-path location.
"I've been trying to get back into Uptown for five years," said Singh when I talked to him for this column. "I had my devoted customers who followed me for so many years, but no one ever liked the last location. I put a sign up (in the old Paisano's window) this weekend and when I looked later so many people were gathered around I thought the glass was broken or something. But when I looked, it was my old people, and I was so happy, so happy."
The new location will have what the old one did, such as Singh's signature rotis--flatbreads available plain or stuffed with a variety of stews and curries--spicy signatures like jerk chicken and lamb, seafood calalloo, baked clams, and tropical nonalcoholic beverages like mango and soursop drinks. (Cross your fingers for a future wine and beer license.) The one thing that will be different in Uptown, says Singh, is that the entire restaurant will run as vegan one day a week. Barring licensing snafus, Singh says the restaurant will open in June, "and I hope I stay here for a long, long while."
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