Eli's East is a classy but casual affair
A whiskey old-fashioned is one of those unique cocktails that is as celebratory as it is dour. It's equally at home in a tumbler at the neighbor's annual Christmas party and in the hand of a melancholic old-timer who is drinking to forget. It's the drink of choice for Don Draper and your kookiest aunt. Whatever the motivation for requesting it, many people will tell you an old-fashioned is a cocktail you should never order from a busy bartender unless you intend to make an enemy. But at Eli's East—as at its forebear, Eli's Food & Cocktails in downtown Minneapolis—the atmosphere simply begs for the bitter warmth of an old-fashioned. With majestic, button-tufted booths and lamps turned down so low we saw more than a few diners use their cell phones as makeshift flashlights, it feels sacrilegious to just order a beer (though Eli's is one of the few places serving Boom Island's excellent local brews). No, you'll need something muddled, and even when the place is unimaginably busy, veteran bartender Richy Rivera, a transplant from Eli's downtown and the designer of the Eli's East drink menu, serves up the perfect old-fashioned.
As sure-footed as it is behind the bar, Eli's East is still in a somewhat experimental phase with its food. It's a wise decision on the part of owners Tai Ipsen and John McKenney to offer many of the dishes that made Eli's downtown such an institution. Devotees will be pleased to see that several signature items, including the indulgent penne and cheese, the black and blue burger, and the house-made pastrami, are still on the menu and are as good as you remember. Others lack bravado, like the jumbo lump crab cake, crisscrossed with a mustard mayo that would be better served on the side (as with any decent crab cake), the utterly drab Caesar salad (limp, whole-leaf romaine covered in dressing that was entirely lacking in garlic, and four—count 'em, four—croutons), and tomato-basil soup that had great flavor but, texturally, was like eating a cup of marinara sauce.
What Eli's East handles as well as its counterpart are the steaks. Though we experienced one misstep with a sorely undercooked strip, the other pieces, even the one that came tucked in a buttery bun on the steak sandwich, with super-salty blue cheese and sweet caramelized onions, were cooked to textbook standards. Still, there's an air of repressed desire in the "classic" dishes, as though the person preparing them, in this case executive chef Jeff Weber, wants to shake off the dust and reinvent. Perhaps that's why, as a group, the new small-plate offerings are some of the most successful on the menu. Chicken wings, in either a sticky honey-soy sauce, a Cajun dry rub (our favorite), or a weekly changing preparation, are crispy-skinned, meaty, and a popular choice for many diners. But the pork belly sliders should be a higher priority in the starters section. Thick cubes of fatty pork belly are coated in a sweet glaze and fried until crunchy, making for a multi-textured bite. The two mini sandwiches are finished with delightfully sour pickled carrots and onions and a subtly hot sriracha mayo. Even though the Asian flavors worked beautifully in the pork belly sliders, we were a little wary of the tuna tataki appetizer. It's rare to get tataki done well at a non-Japanese restaurant, but Eli's sesame-encrusted version was sliced pleasingly thin and seared righteously rare.
Aside from noticing the forward-leaning components like tamarind-spiked ketchup and tempura avocado, you can identify the newer dishes with an an easy rule of thumb. "Basically anything that doesn't say 'Eli's' in front of it on the menu is new to this location," our server explains. "The idea at the East location is that we're doing more upscale food in a dressed-down setting, whereas we were doing more casual food in an upscale atmosphere at the old Eli's."
Overall, the concept works, and judging by how many tables are occupied just a half-hour after Eli's opens, the residents of Northeast understand and appreciate it. "We are still seeing some of our regulars," manager Kate Maxey says. "But it's mostly people we don't know, and that's a good thing. We want this to be a place where you can come in after you've been doing yard work and want to get a steak or come after a wedding to get a PBR with your friends."
In addition to the ambitious small plates and a handful of satisfactory salads (quinoa gets used as more of a garnish than a salad base here), Eli's East is also aiming to include a wider variety of entrées in the "upscale home-style" category. They are, by and large, quite well done. Smoky, bacon-wrapped meatloaf is paired with a playful interpretation of tater tot hot dish, punched up with bell and jalapeño peppers. Coq au vin, with creamy mashed potatoes and more bacon, was tender but lacked depth. The pork tenderloin was nicely seasoned, moderately blushing, and accompanied by some admirably caramelized Brussels sprouts, but the potato pancake underneath it all was nothing but a pile of hash browns shaped into a circle, and the mushroom cream sauce was so thick and heavy it dragged down the whole dish.
The entrée-driven menu carries itself well enough, but where Eli's East's really flounders is in its vegetarian options, largely made that way by leaving the animal protein out and not offering anything substantial in its place. Non-meat-eaters will be transported back to the standard vegetarian selections from summer weddings: veggie lasagna, a portabella mushroom sandwich, and tagliatelle fresca. Eli's only needs to add a butternut squash risotto to round out the full cast of flat characters. Cumin-roasted cauliflower with a chickpea fritter and romesco sounded more promising, but when I showed my vegetarian dining companion the picture of her giving the rock 'n' roll horns symbol alongside the dish, she lamented, "If only that plate actually matched my excitement."
The dessert choices are straightforward without being entirely narrow. Though its crust was too pale and thick, the banana cream pie was tall, luscious, and almost boozy with bananas—a good choice if you have had lighter fare for your main meal. Pistachio cheesecake with a pool of dark raspberry coulis had all the qualities of a good gelato in cheesecake form, but it somehow didn't entirely satisfy. The best bet is the hazily titled "Something Chocolate," a spare and divided plate of refreshing and tart strawberry sorbet nestled between a split square of puff pastry and a piece of fudgy flourless chocolate torte. It's difficult to get everything to marry up, but eating each piece separately makes for a nice play of texture and a light, sophisticated end to a hearty dinner.
Service is sunny, affable, and unintrusive, so you will unquestionably have a good time at Eli's East, especially as a late-night dining option (full menu until 1 a.m.). In some ways you have to set your sights to a different (not worse or better) standard than Eli's downtown. The atmosphere is supper-club-casual, and the food, while catering to many palates, pushes toward global-but-familiar, with varying degrees of success. Like a worldly teen caught between winning his parents' approval and forging his own path, Eli's East simply needs a little room for experimentation. In the meantime, go for the classic cocktails, house-made limoncello, and that pork belly slider.
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