Forum is reborn in stunning art deco space
One of my favorite things to do at the Forum Restaurant and Bar is to seek out diners who look as if they might be old enough to have visited the place between 1930 and the mid-1970s, when it was the Forum Cafeteria. Many such diners frequent the restaurant; one of the servers I spoke with estimated that 95 percent of his customers had dined at Forum in its previous incarnation. Don't plan on doing your inquiries on a Sunday night, when you may very well be the only party in the restaurant, but at any other time a little light conversation with someone at the next table may well tease out fond memories of the storied downtown canteen.
Those tales involve diners queuing up beside a row of small, clear doors with plates of food behind them; when you saw something you wanted, you opened the door and put the item on your tray. The Forum's heyday was an era when streetcars rattled and squeaked in their tracks and women wore white gloves. And the Forum was a place where young Minneapolis children were treated by their doting grandmothers. It fed the masses a quick, inexpensive lunch, the McDonald's of its day.
The new Forum, which opened this spring, has restored the cafeteria's towering ceilings and etched-glass chandeliers, its shiny tiles in shades of green and onyx, and its oversize mirrors painted with stylized North Woods motifs. Some of the imagery portrays pine trees and waterfalls, others Viking ships. Stalks of yellow grain crop up as decorative accents. To the contemporary eye, the effect is like the Hamm's Bear having lumbered into 1930s Hollywood. "What a Wonderful World" plays on the stereo, but it might just as well be a recitation of The Song of Hiawatha.
The striking decor originally belonged to the lavishly appointed Saxe Theater, and historians have said it's the best remaining example of art deco design in the Twin Cities. In the 1970s, after the Saxe's original building was demolished, the interior was reassembled next door in its current City Center location. When the cafeteria closed, the place was remade as a disco called Scotties on Seventh. "I fell down the stairs many times when it was Scotties," a woman at the next table told me one night, pointing to the place in the floor that had formerly opened into the basement. "I even lost a shoe."
After Scottie's, the space was home to the Paramount Cafe and a restaurant called Micks. Most recently it housed the famed Goodfellow's, which closed in 2005, around the time that restaurant's former chef was convicted of having robbed the larder.
The space sat empty for several years until Jim Ringo, a former Cargill executive turned restaurateur, toured the space when he was searching for a location for a restaurant concept based on changing global destination menus. Ringo didn't think the Forum space was right for that restaurant, named Ringo, which he opened earlier this spring in a new mall in St. Louis Park. But Ringo was so taken by the Forum's charms that he decided to launch a second restaurant.
His revival of the Forum makes the tiered dining room feel far less pretentious than it did as Goodfellow's (the name alone, not to mention the astronomical prices, always made that restaurant seem like an unwelcoming boys' club). The dull fabric panels of the Goodfellow's days have been pulled from the walls to reveal more of the deco, and a large oval bar has been installed. It's a little like Grandma's costume jewelry: pretty and fun, if a little gaudy.
The Forum's menu concept is similar to Ringo's, with a base menu of American fare, plus a rotating menu of dishes from regions of the United States (Ringo's destination menu is international). Ringo tapped chef Christian Ticarro, of the former Canyon Grille in Coon Rapids, to lead the kitchen staff in turning out classic steaks and chops alongside a few regionally specific dishes such as Southern gumbo and Puget Sound clams. The Forum's first destination menu featured New Orleans, the second, Santa Fe. July showcases Ketchikan, Alaska, and August will focus on our very own Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Among the rib eyes and filet mignon, the Forum's Cider Apple Jam Pork Chop offers the more interesting meat preparation. The bone-in chop is Duroc pork, a heritage breed with well-marbled flesh, which is brined overnight to make its meat nearly as tender and succulent as braised pork shoulder—a generous pat of boozy compound butter on top probably helps.
The steaks and chops run between $24 and $38, so if you're on a tighter budget, look to the pastas for good value at a lower price. For $14, the small portion of macaroni and cheese ($25 for large) is not small at all, particularly for its richness. It suggests the luxury of the original Saxe: creamy, sharp, salty, and pungent with white cheddar, pancetta, and truffle oil—three heavy-hitting flavors that somehow leave space for the briny whisper of the lobster meat. Gourmet mac and cheese may well be the most overdone dish of the last decade, but this is one of the best versions I've tasted, and it makes the idea seem as fresh as it was at the turn of the millennium.
It's easy to see why the Forum gumbo earned a spot on the permanent menu after a stint on the New Orleans list. The smokiness of grilled chicken blends with spicy sausage to leave a slow, warming burn. The sticky ooze of okra blends into the Cajun dirty rice to make the dish resemble a soupy jambalaya, studded with plump bites of shrimp. For $12, it's one of the menu's best bargains.
Ticcaro also offers many a Minnesota crowd-pleaser, including walleye on a stick and wild rice soup, which is as creamy as Byerly's though not as atrociously salty. A high-quality house-made stock is the key to the soup's depth of flavor, and its only fault was arriving at the table lukewarm.
The Steak House Burger is as good as it is considered, starting with the onion bun from Mainstreet Bakery in Edina. Most hamburger buns are little more than structural elements, but this one adds enough flavor to play a more supportive role. The patty is studded with diced onion and capped with thin strips of pepper bacon, fried onions, and brick cheese to become a rich, juicy mess. In that same vein, on the Santa Fe menu, the Mainstreet bun was served stuffed with a generous pile of smoked brisket, smothered in salsa verde and roasted peppers. Think Jewish deli transplanted to Mexico, the language of Katz's spoken with a Spanish accent.
But the chicken mole, a Southwestern standard, didn't cut it. The spicy sauce lacked its typical soul and didn't penetrate the tough, cottony breast. A steak salad was soured by its strangely bitter vinaigrette. Equally bitter was the Forum's Rhubarb Negroni, and I thought it was odd that our waiter recommended it as a populist drink, without acknowledging that Campari isn't really a flavor with broad American appeal. The Saxe cocktail is a better choice: Consider it a summer alternative to mulled wine, made with pear vodka and grape juice with notes of clove, ginger, peppercorn, and allspice.
Older patrons may miss their favorite pies from the Forum Cafeteria—prune chiffon, anyone?—but the desserts are still very much worth sampling. Some, such as the terrific tres leches cake, will make only fleeting appearances. Others, like the seasonal cobbler, have a permanent place. The strawberry-rhubarb version tasted as good as it looked, served in triptych on a rectangular plate. The bubbling cobbler arrived in a tiny cast iron crock between a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a tiny bowl of cinnamon-tinged agave nectar to pour on top.
The Forum does a nice job of blending old Minneapolis with new, illustrated also by plans for the upcoming Minneapolis-St. Paul menu. Ticcaro says he hopes to serve lutefisk—who's eating lutefisk in August, I'd like to know—as well as some sort of hot dish with a chef-inspired spin, and likely a dish from either the Hmong or Somali traditions. The pressure's on for Ticcaro to execute the cuisine of Minnesota's newest immigrants as well as possible, as it may be an introduction for many Forum diners. "This might be the only place they would ever try it," he says.
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