Cooking by Numbers

Craig Lassig
253 W. Seventh St., St. Paul

One thing becomes clear after a couple of years of restaurant criticism: namely, there are many, many ways to skin a cat. You'll never learn why cats are skinned, unless it's to replace the skin inside-out to protect your good suit, but then it seems like when the cat jumped in your lap you'd get cat blood all over your good suit instead of cat hair, which is, after all, easily removed with a lint brush or masking tape, or, in a pinch, your best friend's wife. (Deny everything.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah--restaurants. So as I was saying, there are many, many ways to open a restaurant. One thing you could do would be to just sort of unlock the door and cross your fingers. This approach is surprisingly popular. You might be a giant company with a name like Squash You We Must, and then you could sort of load up a transport plane with a SWAT team of chefs and managers and land it in a suburban parking lot, open, and leave town as soon as possible. What this lacks in popularity it more than makes up for in piles of cash. Or you could split the difference and hire consultants specializing in restaurant concepts, development, and consulting to determine what sort of concept would be successful.

"The Ansari Group specializes in restaurant concepts, development, and consulting," says Anoush Ansari, of the Ansari Group. "The client came to us to research what sort of concept would be successful. We developed the Downtowner Woodfire Grill. People are looking for new ways to eat the same food, so that's what we are doing: We call it new American grill food. We have had great success with this concept."

The foods that people are looking for new ways to eat are, judging by the Downtowner's menu, these: burgers, pizzas, steaks, salads, calamari, fish, and potatoes. There is a nice beer list, with ten draft beers (including Bass, Summit, and Red Hook) and another dozen bottles (including imports like Chimay Belgian ale, $5.25, and Newcastle Nut Brown Ale, $3.50). The wine list is some two dozen globally sourced bottles priced at about twice the suggested retail list price (BV Coastal merlot, $24, generally sells for $8 to $12), most in the $20 and $30 area and representing a greatest hits of good wines from reputable wineries: glasses like Xplorador cabernet sauvignon ($5.50), bottles like Honig sauvignon blanc ($28) or Gundlach Bundschu Bearitage ($29). The room itself is modern--stacked raw rock façades make it craggily sculptural, and it features several inviting fireplaces. The all-day food-service hours are very convenient. The lighting is quite flattering. The room is festive and active, without being too noisy. The servers are eager to please, and eager to comp drinks or desserts if something goes wrong.

There is nothing at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill to object to. If you started objecting to things, you would be splitting hairs, and you would be doing it to be disagreeable. The things you could object to are subtle and esoteric, like the fact that there is no sense of place or personality at the Downtowner. You might as well be anywhere where there are Americans with money: Aspen, Phoenix, Canada.

The kitchen produces food that is neither very bad, nor very good. The calamari and vegetable appetizer plate ($8.95) was onions, calamari, and string beans fried till greasy and served with an unobjectionable red-pepper mayonnaise; the mushroom dip ($7.50), cooked in a wood-fired oven, seemed like a casserole in search of noodles, garlicky sliced mushrooms in a vast dish of bubbling cheese. But the salads are good. A baby spinach salad ($6.50) with Maytag blue cheese, roasted cubes of potato, and bacon vinaigrette was nice because of an extra kick of lemon juice that made it lively; at least it wasn't sweet and cloying like so many of those blue-cheese/bacon salads are.

Pizzas were fine, and I recommend them over the other appetizers. That wood-fired oven somehow doesn't give them enough smoky taste, making for pizzas that are good, if not great. The roasted apple and blue-cheese pizza ($8.50) was nice because of the contrast of flavors. The fresh mozzarella and tomato pizza ($7.25) had fresh basil and seemed like it would be a perfect meal after hockey. The burger ($6.95) with fries had a nice soft bun and was cooked to temperature.

The best thing I tasted was probably either the nice and lemony fire-roasted game hen ($13.95) or a steak--the wood-fired sirloin ($15.95) had the nice taste of char to it, was a decent cut of meat, and came with either good fries or nice mashed potatoes, your choice of zippy horseradish, sweet roasted garlic, or blue cheese. The worst dish was probably the grouper ($16.95) a big piece of the white fish that was crisply seared but tasted suspiciously and unpleasantly fishy.

Desserts were lackluster. The chocolate cake had a too-sweet icing, but I bet if it were warmed up it would have been better. The apple crisp was like a big clump of sweet and buttery, which will leave some people very happy but tasted to me like something Sara Lee and once-frozen.

There is a hint of something real and unusual at the Downtowner, but I almost hesitate to mention it, because maybe you'll think it's more prominent than it is. But here goes anyway: The fries are dusted with cumin. There is one section of the menu, entitled "Persian Fire Roasted Meats," where you can get lemon-, olive oil-, and herb-marinated chunks of critter roasted on skewers, but served off-skewer--beef tenderloin ($14.95); game hen ($13.95); chicken ($12.95); and shrimp ($18.95)--on a bed of basmati rice with grilled vegetables. There's also a distinctly Persian salad, the "chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, and mint salad" ($6.50), which, Ansari told me when pressed, was a traditional dish called a "Shirazi" salad, named after an Iranian city where mint grows abundantly. Then he told me it was the same place where the shiraz grape comes from. (Also called syrah, this grape has seen its geographical origins hotly debated. Some say it comes from ancient Persia, others say it hails from Sicily, and most believe it's indigenous to the Rhône.)

The next time I went, I really concentrated on the bread, which tastes sort of like a cross between a fresh flour tortilla and pita. I tried the Shirazi salad, added a bottle of 1999 Wynn's Shiraz from Australia (soft and chocolatey with just enough acid to keep it from being thoroughly flabby) and followed it with the Persian fire-roasted beef tenderloin. Somehow this meal ended up still seeming like one that could be had at Sidney's--or anywhere. I wished for seasoning of the plain rice, and the meat was nothing more than chewy and dry. The lemony treatment I liked on the game hen killed the filet mignon, which is a cut that responds to coddling, not challenging. I wished it had been lamb. I think cumin on fries makes them taste funny, not good.

So, aside from the good Shirazi salad, which isn't even called that, my adventure in trying to put together a Persian meal was basically a failed experiment. It just didn't hold together in any way that made it seem anything more than "new American grill food" with, like, a three percent Persian shadow of strangeness. Which for me is a shame because I've had at least one lovely Persian meal at downtown Minneapolis's Atlas Grill, the other restaurant owned by Moe Sharif, the force behind the Downtowner. Now, Atlas started as an expense-account restaurant in the Pillsbury Center selling lots of steaks, fish fillets, and caesar salads. And it's basically still that, except eventually Persian specials were added, customers loved them, and the section grew. And that's how Minneapolis got some good Persian food.

I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened here, and then St. Paul got some. After all, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

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