Filling a Neighborhood Niche
3070 Excelsior Blvd., Minneapolis; (612) 920-2800
Hours: lunch 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (seating in bar till 11:00 p.m.), 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday
Do you know what would be really, really hilarious? A review of strip-club buffets. You know how often I hear that? Monthly. At least. Do you know what I hate? That hipper-than-thou cliché of a life of easy targets and snarky sneers. Ugh, I hate it. I hate it I hate it I hate it.
You know what I like? The distinctly strip-mallish, rather suburban Three Fish, a clean, well-lighted restaurant in an actual strip mall on the western side of Lake Calhoun. I mean, the place doesn't have a name chef, doesn't embrace the things I generally get riled up over, like organic, locally produced ingredients. Worse, it features every greatest-hits menu chestnut of the last decade--calamari, rare-seared tuna appetizer, crème brûlée--and doesn't even do them that well. What gives? And yet it's got a really kick-ass wine list, puts out a number of pretty good things, and you know what? Sometimes that's enough. If I had parents of a certain age, the kind who show up in separate cars and quail at the thought of parking anywhere that's not big enough to do Escalade doughnuts in, Three Fish would leap to the top of my list of places to meet them.
And I'd probably get the steak. But more on that in a minute, because what I'd really get is the wine. If all quiet mid-price restaurants around here had wine lists like this, we really would be living in an earthly paradise. Created by Dieter Geerts, the restaurant's Dutch general manager who made his name designing the local California Café's wine list, back when that list was bedazzling. (Anyone remember that but me? You do? Give yourself 20 extra credit points, you pathetic geek.) Geerts' ever-changing list at Three Fish is a model blend between the personal and the audience-pleasing.
The list of wines by the glass starts beer-cheap (hooray!). Currently with two stand-up $3.95 glasses, a white from the Languedoc (a $16 bottle!) and a red Montepulciano D'Abruzzo. Just before press time Geerts added Montevina's reserve wine Terra d'Oro zinfandel, an old-vine, hard-to-find zinfandel from Amador County that I'm eager to try, as it's supposed to be a definitive old-style California zin, in this case made from fruit from almost-50-year-old vines. At $6.95 a glass, what do I have to lose? From there, it moves into some rather interesting and glamorous territory. More than a dozen half-bottles--like Honig's fish-friendly 1999 sauvignon blanc for $15--encourage even wider-ranging tasting, while the low prices on a couple of the ordinary bottles might completely drive you to drink. A lot of Three Fish's list is priced just $10 or $12 above retail. For example, a bottle of Mer Soleil chardonnay, the Central Coast's perennial Wine Spectator darling, is on the list here for $48. I've seen it retail for around $40--as low a markup as what you'd hope to pay for a corkage fee.
"The chef tries to be creative with the food," says Geerts. "I try to be as creative with the wine and compete with him. We have advantages over a big corporate restaurant where a wine list has to stand for six months. Here I've changed the list four or five times since we opened [in May]. I know I can take a smaller quantity but make a great deal for the guest. And I know I'm not making much profit on half bottles, but they might buy two half bottles, buy a full bottle next time, or who knows? We're happy giving people the opportunity to try great things they might not otherwise."
Me, I'm convinced. Co-owner Jennifer Jackson-King, who owns and runs Three Fish along with husband Elliot King, hopes the bar develops its own clientele, instead of just being overflow seating and holding pen for the restaurant, which it seems to be now. If it does, she says, they'll extend the bar's hours. So consider this your invitation. My two cents' worth is this: If the bar served a couple of the restaurant's existing menu items in snack-size configurations--a basket of those addictive garlic-parsley fries; separate portions of some cheeses, grilled vegetables, and other antipastos?--I think the world would beat a path to their door. Or if not the world, perhaps the people who drink at Dixie's Calhoun and Figlio.
Not that drumming up traffic seems to be much of a problem. Every time I've been to the restaurant it's been pretty well packed. Jackson-King says those elbow-to-elbow folks are mostly regulars from the nice condos in the neighborhood, many of whom are eating at Three Fish three or four times a week. In my book, that's the definition of a neighborhood restaurant, and the menu must seem appropriately comforting to the expensive-furniture, minimal-lawn-care crowd that lives nearby.
The best things I found were the simplest. Steamed mussels with a chipotle saffron broth ($6.95) were textbook tender, and I really liked the chunks of crisp grilled bread that arrived in the bowl. A roasted-vegetable salad, the "vegetariana" is available by the platter at lunch ($8.95) or as a side salad at dinner ($5.95) and it's perfect: paper-thin slices of zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, and big chunks of roasted red and yellow bell pepper sit in pretty little piles on a bed of lettuce, managing to be delicate and earthy at the same time. Nothing else was too thrilling: Bruschetta were competent versions ($5.95); the appetizer of cumin- and coriander-crusted slices of ahi tuna ($7.95), served jewel-red and perfect-looking, tasted like nothing whatsoever, the way tuna around here sometimes does. If you piled a lot of the green-olive-laced "puttanesca salsa" on them, however, they tasted perky.
The restaurant's claim to fame is inexpensive seafood, apparently a case of convergent evolution with Mac-Groveland's Red Fish Blue, with seafood entrées at dinner priced from $12.95 for seafood linguine to $17.95 for sea bass. The best things I tasted were invariably scallop dishes, like the diver scallops ($13.95 at dinner, $12.95 at lunch) with green-olive risotto and a saffron emulsion sauce. They tasted buttery, a little smoky, a little more buttery--what's not to like?
Otherwise, the seafood and I couldn't quite make peace. Halibut ($16.95) simply dressed with herbs and olive oil was rubbery and overdone. A crisp cod cake ($13.95) with lobster was merely fluffy and bland. The worst was a marlin steak ($15.95) dressed with a warm pineapple sauce and crowned by onion rings. The evening I ordered it not only did my server forget the dish in the kitchen--someone else served the rest of the table entrées--but when I complained that the plate was ice-cold, the kitchen apparently reheated the same piece of fish. Eventually I was served a brick-hard slab of leathery marlin surrounded by a cloying pineapple sauce and topped by a too-sweet salsa.
There are a handful of non-fish dishes, and the best are served at lunch. I was really very impressed with the Tuscan salami sandwich ($7.95) a stack of tip-top quality ingredients such as peppery salami and fresh, tender slices of ricotta salata that I wished were available in some form at dinner. Garlic-parsley fries ($1.50 extra with sandwiches) are scrumptious--salty, spicy, and fresh, they're everything you want in a fry, with garlic! The sole reason I'd get the steak for dinner the next time I go to Three Fish is those fries. The rib eye with Gorgonzola demi-glace ($18.95) would probably be perfect with some of those wines, too.
I would never again get the grilled duck breast ($17.95), a chewy, uncomprehending rendition of the beloved bird. It's hard to even put my finger on all the things wrong with this poor duck: It was chewy, yes, but also oddly tasteless; even though it appeared rare it lacked any gamy, irony notes; the skin was, to the eye, crisply fried, yet doughy on the tongue; and the "maple-orange glaze" that filled the plate tasted strongly of soy sauce. The chunks of duck confit that speckled the plate were delicious. But then again you'd have to hold your nose and jump up and down thinking about Trent Lott's underwear for duck confit not to be delicious, no?
Desserts ($4.95-$5.50) were fine. At first I thought it was funny that the server offered "vanilla custard crème brûlée with a hard-sugar top, which you pierce with a spoon" but on second thought decided that was a fine way to welcome everyone into the tent. The raspberry-rhubarb tart is served as an orange-size ball of dough surrounding an egg-size bit of filling, which seemed odd the first time I got it, but I felt very let-bygones-be-bygones about it the second time. I don't know why. Maybe because they've got good coffee, and I never seemed to be able to spend more than $35 a head, even ordering way, way too much food and plenty of wine.
Or maybe because if you do this long enough, you start to see that different neighborhoods have different needs, and different restaurants different strengths, and when they mesh as perfectly as Three Fish and the west Calhoun area seem to, you and whatever feelings you have about strip malls matter as little as a dumpster full of hip.
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