Crave, Cooper, and Icon bring convenience to St. Louis Park
Back in the day—before Twitter, before 30 Rock, before voice mail—the only sustenance found within a shopping mall's walls was the occasional baggie of Cheerios stuffed into Mom's purse, or something from the food court, where teenagers fueled endless hours of loitering by carbo-loading on fried rice and cinnamon rolls. (Did teens burn more calories back when they talked with their mouths instead of their thumbs?)
The Mall of America was the first local mall to wager that shoppers buying clothes or electronics or wedding chapel services would also be willing to spend money on a decent dinner. While the Galleria's Ediner was still serving burgers and malts, the MOA's Napa Valley Grill upgraded to chardonnay and ostrich.
Today it seems restaurants may be taking over department stores' role as the anchors of new retail complexes: Dining is the destination, and shopping the afterthought. The new West End development in St. Louis Park follows that model, with three major dining spots already in place, and more on the way. Here's what to expect at Crave, Cooper, and the ShowPlace Icon movie theater.
WITH CRAVE RESTAURANTS already in the Galleria and the Mall of America, a West End location was a natural choice for owners Kam and Keyvan Talebi. The brothers were investors in the former Bellanotte and also own the View, and the new Crave is positioned somewhere between those two concepts, infusing a little nightlife glam into a relaxed dining experience.
Crave's menu combines upscale but accessible American fare with a large selection of sushi, which cultivates reasonably expensive check averages for dinners, at least. A casual ambiance positions Crave as a weekday sort of place, even though its entrée prices mirror those of special-occasion restaurants. It first strikes one as being likeable and popular: Applebee's for yuppies.
The space is a looker, with lots of big windows and a warm color palette of ruddy, coppery hues. There's a pretty bar—with a booming bar scene—a giant glass wine cube, an open kitchen and sushi counter, and a cool private table shrouded in red velvet curtains.
To most people this will register as lovely. To others it arouses suspicion. "Is this just another American restaurant trying to justify its price point with decor?" my friend asked as he gazed toward a chandelier filled with colorful glass baubles. I'm all for ambiance—even if the beaded glass wallpaper in the restroom might cost as much as a used car—as long as it feels like it's not making up for disappointing food. At Crave, this can sometimes be a problem.
Not with the sushi, though. The standard sushi rolls are competent, and Crave offers all sorts of the elaborate, experimental ones too. Though the Minnesota roll, stuffed with smoked walleye and green onions, will never displace the California roll as a national standard, I did love Crave's crispy rice bars, which are basically a rice cake piled with spicy tuna and sweet roe. The unctuous fish tames the aggressive crunch and heat in a way that reminded me of that delightful seared tuna with puffed rice appetizer they used to serve at the old Chambers Kitchen. I could have eaten several more, had the coin-purse-size cakes not cost $5 apiece.
Entrée selections include several steak and seafood options, among them the Tuscan New York strip that I ordered. It was served with a mushroom and tomato ragout that was pungent with capers and garlic and a risotto cake that almost tasted more like warmed blue cheese with salt and pepper. The steak had a grana padano cheese "crust," which was a thick-ish, melted skin with a Parmesan-like sharpness that overwhelmed the underwhelming meat. Overall, the dish felt heavy-handed, and if that had been what I was looking for, I would have spent my $35 on four cheesesteaks at the Uptown Savoy.
Among the seafood entrées, the $29 miso-glazed sea bass I tried also seemed a little overwrought. The fish had a nice, buttery flesh with a salty ocean tang, but it was oddly paired with highly peppered bok choy, an earthy ponzu sauce, and sweet pickles. And while I'm happy to see Crave bringing a philosophy of "fresh, local, and organic" to a broader audience, it seemed a little hypocritical to tout the restaurant's sustainability efforts and then serve Atlantic salmon, which has spent many years on the Monterey Aquarium's "avoid" list.
There are much better places to drop $100 for dinner, but I do think Crave is a nice lunch spot. The bento box I sampled wasn't as good as ones I've had at local Japanese restaurants, but it wasn't a bad value at $10. (On the plus side, a hot, moist towel preceded the box; on the minus side, I found a strawberry with a big brown mushy spot in the fresh-fruit compartment.) Among the soup-and-half-sandwich combos, the New York pastrami piles rich, pepper-trimmed meat onto griddled caraway rye, and the chicken and wild rice soup tastes light and fresh. Pair those with a shot glass of lemon-mascarpone trifle and you'll be perfectly happy—and set back only about $15 with tax and tip.
ACROSS THE STREET is Cooper, Kieran Folliard's latest restaurant and bar, which was created with similar attention to its aesthetic. While the dark wood and the etched glass and mirrors look like a traditional Irish pub, the rest of the decor—ornate moldings, carved curlicues, Baroque-looking figures painted on the ceiling—makes the place look a little like a cross between Tavern on the Green and the Sistine Chapel. The bar's circular shape resembles a carousel, which seems to suggest that Cooper is fun—a playground for adults.
The food is far less elaborate than the space, mostly traditional Irish fare with a few new creations like the Reuben fritters, which convert the sandwich to tater-tot form, to ill effect. The fish and chips plate is one of the best things on the menu—the fillets are flaky, crisp, and lightly salted, with a little kick of pepper at the end, though the thick, pale fries are only okay. Most everything else falls into the category of comforting but a little bland, more useful for sopping up a Guinness, Smithwick's, or Boddington's than thrilling the palate. A plate of pork sausage, a steak and mushroom pie with a swirl of mashed potatoes on top, and a mild vegetable curry all made about the same impression: meh.
One simple dish—a plucky tomato soup—turned out to be the evening's star. The bright-red puree was lively and acidic, and it contained hidden globs of molten sharp cheddar: the classic grilled-cheese-tomato-soup pairing combined in one bowl. But another basic, bread pudding, which is typically a slam-dunk, was the worst I've ever sampled, as its surface bread hunks were dried out and tough.
As with Folliard's other establishments, Kieran's, the Local, and the Liffey, Cooper seems more of a place for drinking than dining, but it's still notable for its playful attitude and hospitality. When asked about a lucky stone that sits in the middle of the dining room, a server explained that it could be used to make a wish: "Touch it, kiss it, just don't pee on it," he said, as he rushed off to deliver another pint.
EVERY FEW YEARS somebody tries to cash in on the captive movie-going audience by trying to get them to eat more than popcorn and Junior Mints. (Including me. My never-pursued get-rich-quick scheme from a while back was called "edamovie" and involved serving salted edamame to moviegoers as a healthy alternative to candy and butter-drenched popcorn.)
Roughly a decade or so ago, I endured one of the most terrible meals of my life at one of these dinner-and-a-movie combos, the old Yorktown Cinema Café in Edina. I believe I had some sort of grease-soaked quesadilla, but my friend's meal was arguably worse: an overcooked burger on a dry, hard bun with a side of frozen mixed vegetables that included cubed carrots and lima beans. After her first bite of the arid burger, she decided she wanted some ketchup, but the movie had started and the server was gone, so she ended up missing several minutes of the film as she wandered back into the kitchen and found it herself.
By that standard, the Icon's offerings are a major improvement. The theater sells a limited number of VIP balcony seats that provide access to a more substantial food selection, at a $2.50 matinee and $5 evening premium. Before the show—I'd recommend arriving at least a half-hour in advance—you can stop into the second-floor bar-lounge and place an order, which they'll deliver to your seats. The bartender I talked to was a little vague on wine recommendations, and my stemless wineglass was water-spotted, but the French pinot noir he poured was totally respectable for its $6 price and helped take the edge off during the battle scenes in Avatar.
The menu is short but sophisticated: appetizer plates, pizzas, panini, a few sides and desserts. While sopressata, mortadella, and taleggio might not be familiar to all theatergoers, the mix-and-match meat-and-cheese plates are a good value at $8 and $12. The Neapolitan-style pies aren't Punch-worthy, but they're perfectly good. The prosciutto panini comes on walnut-cranberry bread with arugula, quince jam, and gorgonzola—and it's served with a side of house-made potato chips. The sandwich was tasty but a little dry, though I suppose the last thing you want to be eating in a theater is something juicy.
So even though the food at the Icon was pretty good, I still struggled with the fact that I was eating in a theater, not a dining room. (Next time I'd probably just eat in the lounge before or after the show.) The food makes the theatergoing experience more social, by encouraging conversation with your seatmates, but it does induce a bit of awkwardness.
The tables are positioned between pairs of seats, but in my row, at least, tickets had been sold so that twosomes shared tables with strangers instead of one another. It's a little uncomfortable to turn sideways towards the stranger as you eat, but the other alternative is to put your plate on your lap. As the lights dimmed, the woman next to me expressed concerns about that approach. "You'll get up and it'll be all over you," she warned.
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