Cooking For The Crowd

Appetizers that sports fans and salsa dancers can agree on: Chef Walter Buffalo serves up calamari and baby back ribs
Fred Petters
500 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis

Today is today, and not yesterday, and not even last week, and now that it is today I think the best thing to do is to run right over to your neighbor's house and give those neighbors a big hug and celebrate! Because finally, after years of national strife and turmoil, after years of seeing the American dream questioned and pummeled, after having the idea of family values perverted and embattled, after near-impeachments, Supreme Court decisions, and a fog of war that has metamorphosed gorgeously into a fog of life, why, after all of that, we are finally on the other side!

Yes, as one, Americans can finally all agree on one thing, which is that it doesn't matter whether you are in the market for a spouse, a best friend, or a president, there is really only one quality that matters, that inspires, that wins! And that is to be all things to all people. Oh, glory day! I mean, think about it. What is more soothing than to look at someone and to know, deep down in your bones, that you will only ever see what you wish to see? Hugs for all!

If you are feeling all last week and thinking that you don't like things that are all things to all people, that is because you haven't been to Nochee, which pulls off this feat with remarkable style. You don't buy it? Well, I am telling you, I have been to this new restaurant on the edge of downtown quite a few times, and have seen it work as a nifty sports bar, as a fine business lunch, as a hopping nightclub, and even as a nice place for dinner. If you don't believe me, you can stuff some ribs and drummies in your ears and whistle "La Bamba."

Yes, I said ribs and drummies. Baby back ribs ($10) are one of the specialties of the house at Nochee, and the time I had them I found them to be shockingly good. Picture a big, gooey, well-sauced half-rack of ribs about the size of a trade paperback, made in a slightly Asian style, with hints of soy and anise, so well cooked and caramelized that they glisten like stones seen beneath the surface of a stream. Lift one to your mouth and the meat falls away from the bone with an almost theatrical tenderness. Follow a bite of the sweet and rich meat with a bite of the kimchi that accompanies it, and the fiery Korean cabbage slaw illuminates the richness of the meat and fires the senses for another round. I tell you, if folks figure out that these ribs are within walking distance of the Metrodome we will see tailgating redefined in our lifetime.

As a sports bar, Nochee excels. They have wonderful calamari, pale as dawn light, scantly breaded, quickly fried, and just as buoyant as a breeze. Lots of flat-panel televisions, a long bar with lots of bar-stool seating, and a big patio with an ever-burning fire complete this aspect of the experience.

Nochee (rhymes with gnocchi) is also, every single night, a nightclub. There are live, energetic, loud, real bands, usually with a Latin accent, here every single night, and once the bands take to the full stage that occupies one corner of the dining room, cuties in spandex and men in business casual stream in for margaritas and twirling in the dark. Most nights there are also live bands playing softly during dinnertime, which gives the olive-hued environment something of a Ricky Ricardo meets Structure vibe. There aren't that many places in Minnesota to go for dinner and dancing, especially if you don't care to move the car in between, and so already Nochee has joined the first rank of those particular nightclubs. If you're not a dancer, you can hang out in the neon-accented lounge by the front door and survey the lasses skittering back and forth from the ladies' room on their thin high heels, and while you do you can smoke a $40 cigar ordered from the cigar list. Please note that it is no fair to throw banana peels in hopes of playing the rescuing hero.

Overnight the staff does something miraculous to vanquish the cigar smoke, and by lunchtime they do a standup job of putting out a highly competent, budget-friendly, fully enjoyable business lunch. I had a lovely bowl of squash soup one day ($5)--it tasted biscuity and roasty, like something rich with chestnuts--and an odd, but still enjoyable, version of niçoise salad in which a tuna and olive dressing coated a pile of poached haricots verts ($9.) My lunch date had a perfectly nice crisp sandwich of prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella that came with a vast pile of thin, crisp French fries ($9). I couldn't help but notice how desperate this part of town has been for a good business lunch spot; the nearest equivalent restaurant is all the way over in the IDS center.

In fact, it's really only as a dinner destination that Nochee fails to cohere. And when I say, "fails to cohere," it is because I am trying not to say, "explodes disastrously." And the reason I don't want to simply say, "explodes disastrously" is because it doesn't quite do that either. It's one of those restaurants where three out of four people are having the time of their lives, and the fourth person is mysteriously eating in a terrible restaurant across town.

Imagine: You, your date, the night like a beautiful bowl waiting only to be filled with memories. You might order a plate of warm and woodsy sautéed mushrooms ($10), chanterelles sautéed till russety and golden, accented with roasted garlic and leeks, tossed with silky, just-wilted spinach, and with each bite you might find yourself thinking lovely thoughts about the subtle flavors of the forest. Or you might get a perky, unusual salad of peppery watercress, well-caramelized, grilled scallion, and sweet, slightly charred corn, cut fresh from the cob ($8), and you might find that each bite is enlivening and exciting.

Meanwhile, your date might have the curry-seared moonfish ($11), in which slices of pallid, dense, flavorless pink fish are made unpleasant with an acrid, stale-tasting spice and paired with chilly, sour grapefruit segments. It's like eating things that fell off a shelf and happened to land together on a plate. Or, your date might end up with a bison carpaccio ($10) in which large, paper-thin sheets of meat taste merely cold and sweet from being drizzled with a gin-flavored simple syrup. Imagine flat bison sherbet, and you'll get the idea.

Other courses follow this pattern. A pan-roasted halibut ($25) is among the best halibut preparations I've ever had in Minnesota. The fish was in exquisite condition, as light as foam, seared so that it had a crust as brown and crisp as a veil of bacon. It fell at the touch of a fork into wide ivory flakes, and yielded a flavor as subtle and light as the notes of flutes. The orzo pasta it rested on was dressed in a simple, clinging sauce of spicy andouille sausage and bits of green and red bell peppers, the heartiness of which only served to emphasize the lightness of the fish--truly amazing. Meanwhile, the same table saw an absolutely inedible beef cheek ragù ($16), in which tender sheets of pappardelle pasta were made to taste like razors of salt. Lobster ravioli ($17) was sweet, mild, and absolutely undistinguished. Lake Superior trout ($20) was served perfectly, the oily, meaty fish cooked in such a way that it was covered with pinpricks of char, which worked to accent the meaty, savory aspects of that most underappreciated of local fish.

I mean, think about it: You started your evening with this empty memory bowl, and now yours is all half full and lovely, and your darling's is half empty with regrets about moonfish and pasta. Do you really dare to go home with this person?

Of course, you could patch it all up with the only dessert I found at Nochee that I liked very much, the cookie plate ($6), in which four large warm cookies, fresh-baked and stuffed with chocolate chunks, are served arranged around a little bowl of vanilla gelato. I suppose I don't need to describe fresh, warm chocolate cookies to you, but you should please note that these are the kind that bend when you try to break them, and that the chocolate chunks come apart in that particularly gooey way that rivets the attention of seven-year-olds and CFOs alike. And if you think you can't please all of the people all of the time, it's only because you haven't tried to do it armed with warm cookies and ice cream.

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