Cheap Date Heaven

Chris Becker

Mighty Fine Dining Cafe
1304 University Ave. N.E., Mpls.; 623-4211.

"I hate people who are always talking about how poor they are, when it just isn't true. It's insulting and stupid. There is a big difference between being poor and being broke. I should know, because I'm not poor, but man am I broke." That's a quote from the latest issue of Cometbus, an autobiographical zine detailing the life of chronic wanderer and one-time Minneapolis resident Aaron, a spiritual seeker with a loathing for convention.

Being broke certainly isn't as bad as being poor, but it does have its own particularly painful nuances--for one thing, when you're broke you tend to be intimately aware of what you're missing, and while it's not one of life's tragedies, switching from imported Parmesan to that powder in a shaker-tube can be particularly galling. So here's a tip for all the world's grad-schoolers, recent home-buyers, parents of private-college students, and others in penny-pinching situations: The Mighty Fine Cafe is cheap-date heaven.

It starts with the walls, which were cleverly done by local painter Kim Lawler. The top five feet or so of the 20-foot walls are adorned with a wonderfully fanciful mural depicting well-muscled Greek gods and their fun-loving dogs, and the lower parts of the walls are painted in dark red faux curtains. Tables are set fairly far apart, and this, coupled with the high ceilings, makes for a feeling of luxurious intimacy. The red-painted walls combine with the far-off overhead lights to provide some of the most doggone flattering lighting I've ever seen. Even by day, the room, which has a few south-facing windows, has the sort of roseate glow that erases eye bags and other unromantic blemishes. A naturalistic painting of a very relaxed-looking female nude on a tatty couch adds to the sybaritic atmosphere, and the way the menu encourages sharing, through enormous portions, clinches the tête-à-têteness of it all.

Appetizers are tasty and very big, and if you ordered one per person you'd never have room for dessert. My favorite was a heaping soup bowl of Baked Francisco Artichoke and Cheese dip ($6.95), served with what must have been half a loaf of French Meadow French bread. The dip was run through with rich, heady fresh pesto that contrasted nicely with the mild artichokes and creamy cheese. The Mighty Fine's version of chicken satay--Excalibur chicken, $7.25--must be half a pound of chicken breasts marinated in a peanut sauce with a nice ginger kick, served with side dishes of a thick peanut hoisin, chunky homemade salsa, and a pile of tortilla chips. Sometimes when I'm in a restaurant that seems to be doing everything right, I order a dish that I think sounds terrible, just to raise the hurdles, and that's the skeptical spirit in which I ordered the veggie nachos. I was shocked to find that the dish was quite tasty, chips still crisp under their garlic-laced cheese-goo canopy, alongside quarter-sized slices of piquant green olives and chunks of fresh tomatoes that, with a parsley- and caper-studded salsa, made this ordinarily characterless dish special.

As far as entrées go, the Mighty Fine does best when keeping it simple; the Devinnci Pasta ($6.95) is a garlic-enhanced macaroni and cheese, and it is delectable. An uncomplicated preparation of pasta, fresh veggies, and a spicy garlic red sauce called Pasta Rouge was another winner ($7.95), though if this was a big date I could see the expediency of bringing a toothbrush after this pungent concoction. In keeping with the artsy atmosphere, the Mighty Fine has named a mighty number of its dishes after famed painters. The cleverest is the Edward Hopper ($8.95), a plate of straightforward, fresh-roasted turkey breast served with delicious, butter-drenched, skin-on mashed potatoes, garlic gravy, and veggies. It reminded me perfectly of Thanksgiving leftovers, in a good, unpretentious way. The salmon burger ($7.95) is another great choice; it's a well-seasoned, moist patty served with a fresh dill sauce and a plate full of roast potatoes, very hearty, very good. The priciest item on the menu was the most disappointing; the salmon Cézanne ($14.25) is a salmon fillet baked in a pesto-crumb crust. It was terrifically dry, and the rosemary-enhanced sautéed veggies it was served with were a jarring accompaniment, since they contrasted so powerfully with the salmon. The Michelangelo ($9.50), penne pasta served with fennel-rich sausage chunks, has the same great sauce as the Pasta Rouge and is equally good, though it is, oddly, also served with a side of those veggies.

The wine list is most notable for how cheap it is; three bottles are offered for $13, and while there aren't any selections that are too dazzling, sometimes it's liberating to drink wine like it's no big deal. Mighty Fine also offers a nice variety of beers, like Spaten, Guinness, and Red Hook. The service is swell--not exactly the invisible white gloves of fine dining, but in my experience, always eager to please and attentive.

But what if you're too broke for food? Then, of course, it's time to eat cake--and Mighty Fine's pastry chef Sandra Garrett serves up some doozies. When I say cake, I don't mean dessert, so don't come here looking for parfaits, sorbets, wine-scented baked fruit packets, or any sort of sauce painting whatsoever. Every offering I've ever seen here is real American cake, in all its glory. Options change often, but some of the treats I've had here include a three-layered Queen of Hearts cake, a devil's food layered with pretty pink raspberry mousse and topped with a glossy chocolate ganache ($2.95), an old-fashioned feather-light maple-pecan chiffon cake with a maple-cream glaze ($2.35), a classic candy-sweet peanut-butter chiffon in a handmade, delightfully lumpy chocolate graham-cracker crust ($2.95), and a simply fabulous layered angel-food cake with fresh strawberries and snow-white whipped cream ($2.95). All the desserts are served in huge portions, and the very rich cakes--like the Queen of Hearts, the Peanut Butter Chiffon, or the Black Forest torte--shouldn't be attempted alone.

Mighty Fine is also a prime player for your breakfast dates--they serve eggs, pancakes, excellent hash browns, and the like until 2, though this lovely brunch is no secret, and you might have to wait for a table on weekends.

All told, the best thing about Mighty Fine is that two people can share a luxurious three-course dinner and a bottle of wine here--while looking fabulous in a relaxed atmosphere--for a couple of sawbucks. It's true that all anyone really needs is enough food to keep heart and soul together in the same package. But it's nice to be able to add on all the heartwarming frills too.

(Cometbus can be bought at local indie spots like Oarfolkjokeopus and Dreamhaven, or directly from BBT, P.O. Box 4279, Berkeley, CA, 94704, for $2.50 per issue, cash only.)

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