Devil's Advocate keeps it simple
Meatballs, like flatbreads, are one of those simple but sublime items that seem to be present in almost every global cuisine. You can get albondigas in Spain, kofte in Turkey, köttbullar in Sweden (and maybe at your grandmother's house), and thit vien in Vietnam. While the ingredients in each version may vary slightly, the spherical shape and ratio of protein to breadcrumb to binder remains the same. Meatballs may be a culinary constant, but at Devil's Advocate, the new meatball-focused bar just off of Nicollet Mall, our overall experience was more variable.
For those who remember this space when it was home to the Inn, an upscale bar and restaurant famous for its creative craft cocktails, the beautiful interior of the building with its exposed brick and rich mahogany will look very familiar, but the drink menu couldn't be more different. Though Devil's Advocate boasts a full bar and can mix up a very good martini or gimlet, it doesn't offer any signature drinks, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity at a place with such a strong name, aesthetic, and narrow culinary focus. I imagined all the possibilities for clever wordplay, fiery bloody Mary mix, and of course the myriad puns about balls (the restaurant does capitalize on its name at happy hour, when the menu features both deviled eggs and devils on horseback — cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon and broiled until crisp). But owner Erik Forsberg, formerly of the Warehouse District bar the Ugly Mug, decided to do an about-face to the bar program and highlight beer, adding 40 taps of American regional, Belgian, German, and Dutch beers, with a handful of British beers for good measure, though not so many that they try to outdo nearby stalwarts Brit's Pub or the Local.
To make the most of your drinking experience, go once the happy hour crowd has died down (though it was never crazy busy on any of our visits) or stop by later on a weekday evening and enlist the services of Solomon the beer whisperer, a brew-savvy bartender who made all the difference in our attempts to navigate the hefty beer list. He's got an uncanny knack for picking something that, based on description alone, you might never order for yourself, and swoops in with a well-timed sample of it before you mindlessly order one of your old standbys.
While the beer selection is extensive, the food menu, as previously mentioned, is focused on a single item: the meatball. So perhaps the team at Devil's Advocate is operating under Ralph Waldo Emerson's adage of "Do one thing well," hoping that the "and the world will beat a path to your door" part will follow, but that selective approach can create sky-high expectations from diners, myself included. In some cases those expectations were at least met, like with the garlicky beef meatball made with whole milk ricotta (which I recently learned is not actually a cheese — look it up), and the golden-crusted chicken meatball with fresh thyme and the recommended creamy mushroom gravy. The pairing made for an overall mild flavor experience but had a very high comfort factor, especially when placed on a squishy butter-griddled bun. The pork meatball was sometimes dry, sometimes too bready, but was always pleasantly spicy and a good match for the Sunday gravy, which is actually a tomato-based sauce. Forsberg explained that the concept of the Sunday gravy came from an Old World tradition of simmering all your meat scraps from the week in a broth from morning to evening while the family went to church and completed the weekend chores. By suppertime you'd have a thick, rich sauce that tasted silky, spicy, and luxurious even though it was made from odds and ends. Devil's Advocate's version uses Minnesota co-op-raised pork and beef, and that homemade idea and slow-cooked flavor is definitely present in its most successful sauce.
Devil's Advocate unfortunately seemed to falter the most when it came to the unconventional balls, with the worst offender of the bunch being the falafel. I understand wanting to have a vegetarian offering, but this salty, pasty, texture-free mass wouldn't fulfill anyone's needs, vegetarian or not. It lacked the lovely balance of brightness and depth that falafel usually has, and due to being undercooked each time we tried it, didn't nail that fluffy and granular consistency you look for in a great falafel ball.
The ordering concept at Devil's Advocate is not complicated, but the unnecessary options made it feel like it was. It's a basic mix-and-match and add-a-side setup that got confusing and muddled when our server presented us with both a formal menu book with pages of ornate illustrations describing the food and a laminated sheet attached to a clipboard and a grease pencil to mark down what we wanted. When we asked what the protocol for ordering was, one server eschewed the use of the boards, saying, "It's much easier if you just tell me what you want, and you get it faster that way," while another claimed that "If you order on the sheet, that's easier for me, and I won't miss anything." The board-ordering system's purpose was unclear. It would make sense to use it during very busy hours so customers who know what they want could just leave their order on the table for the server to pick up on his way to the kitchen, but even when we used the board ordering, our server still came by, read our sheet, and marked it down on his own pad. That kink should be worked out (or phased out, more likely), but basically there are five kinds of balls and five sauces to go with them. You can have a meatball, sauce, and cheese as a single slider, a mini-hoagie with two meatballs and sauce, or a full-size hoagie with three balls, and you can add one more for just a buck. Don't dig on having that much bread? You can do a bowl of balls (four of any type) with sauce or go with the Chef's Sampler, a tasting bowl with one of each kind of ball paired with its recommended sauce.
Sides help round out your meal, including a creamy but edging on too-soft bowl of polenta with cheddar cheese, kale at its height of heartiness braised with slow-cooked pork and finished with a sour note of pickled ramps, and some very well executed skin-on fries.
Desserts were fine: simple shakes, ice cream, and little crescent-shaped fried pies, which were pretty hard to resist. The sour fruit of the cherry version struck a nice balance with the sugar-dusted pastry but were too sweet overall. Instead, go with this bar's strong suit for your last course and ask Erik Forsberg to make you a delicious concoction of his own design: a chocolaty and slightly smoky Russian Imperial stout topped off with some framboise lambic. The raspberry in the lambic sets off the beer beautifully and almost has the effect of a liquid truffle.
Maybe Devil's Advocate's meatballs aren't to be talked about in superlatives, but it's refreshing to see a new downtown spot open with a full menu of items all under $10, and it's good to have the meatball-only trend rolling into Minneapolis. Hopefully Devil's Advocate will continue experimenting with new flavors and other interpretations of what a meatball can be. It can be a wise move for a restaurant to allow a little room for improvement. For now, its exceptional beer list, served by a knowledgeable staff with reverence and personal attention, is the icing on the cake. Or scratch that — let's start a new trend: It's the sauce on the meatball.
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