French Fries for Oenophiles
1624 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis
Putting aside all questions sociological, economical, historical, cultural, temporal, and astrological, let us ask simply: Is Café Lurcat a good restaurant? If you go there on a date or in a group, will you have a good time? Will you be served things you will like to eat, and be treated nicely, and return home feeling that your life has been enriched?
I've been going to Café Lurcat a lot lately. Long enough even to see prices fluctuate (the sea bass up a dollar, the prime rib down two). And so I can confidently report that kinda, sorta, almost, and probably very soon, Lurcat, the restaurant that resulted from the most controversial local real estate deal since the Louisiana Purchase, is going to be a good restaurant.
I especially like the wine list, and the fries.
The wine list is everything you could want in a new place: diverse in region and varietal, wide-ranging in price (and starting below $20 a bottle). The 200-bottle assembly, which is available in both bar and restaurant, is one of those rare lists where everything I recognize on it I know to be good, and the things I didn't already know turned out to be good. Try the salmon tartare appetizer ($7.50) with the King Estate pinot gris ($3 for a two-ounce tasting, $6.60 a glass, $30 a bottle) and I think you will be very happy indeed: The salmon tartare is lush and buttery, and made to seem even more so by the addition of nutty toasted black mustard seeds, the whole complemented prettily by a bit of astringent caper tapenade spread on little rounds of toast. The King Estate pinot gris offers a rich nose of pineapple over a nicely acidic body and goes well, too, with cute little breaded fried oysters ($9), which decorated a plate one night like so many crisp flower blossoms. The steak tartare is very pleasant also, rich, full of bright, tart additions like capers, and delightfully unafraid of onions, which lay atop it like the fallen rings of Venus. Best of all, the steak tartare ($10) comes with some glorious French fries, crisp, golden, beautifully crusty things that have the look of true French double-frying, a technique that elevates fries from potato to art. What on the wine list couldn't go well with these fries? The vanilla-edged, round, and floral Vina Diezmo Rioja ($41)? Sweet and urgent Bonny Doon Riesling ($24 a bottle)? Who knows--try them all, I say. At $6 a plate on their own, they're sure to become a beloved draw in the bar. While you're at it, if you find anything besides beer that goes with the house pickle plate ($6.50), e-mail me immediately. Because that is one of the nicest things on the Lurcat menu: a platter full of new versions of old American classics, like watermelon-rind pickles bursting with all the spices that go into mincemeat, like allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon; or baby carrots made bendable by vinegar; or squiggles of leek, as floppy as linguine.
The concept at Lurcat is "New American Cooking," which is supposed to be light and lively interpretations of American classics. Sometimes this works, such as in the Wild Acres Young Range Hen ($17), a crisp-skinned whole chicken that was as lilting and tender inside as the skin was crisp without. Usually, unfortunately, the concept isn't well executed: The hanger steak ($16) was salted intensely, braised and served in a hot pool of oil, and tasted like your worst vision of farmhouse fare, plain and ruined. I tried the Pipestone Farms pork tenderloin with sweet and sour onions twice and found it to be nearly flavorless both times--though the onions are okay. The pot roast with red wine ($15) was merely profoundly salty too; I could see vegetables in the bottom of the pot, but no one at the table could taste them. The sea bass marinated in miso ($19.50) was another thing I tried twice, and it arrived spine-straighteningly salty both times. Other things improved over the course of several visits: Roasted wild mushrooms ($10) were really roasted the first time I had them, and they were reduced to tough little inedible nuggets; six weeks later they were sliced, sautéed, tender, and delicious. Roasted green-top carrots also improved radically, and so did a few other things, so I'll hope that the place is finding a vision of its own.
Up till recently, the vision has seemed to be mostly about borrowing ideas from Craft, the Manhattan restaurant that Lurcat is rather brazenly modeled after, from the concept of tribute to American artisanal producers, to the look-alike geometric serviceware, to the braised side dishes presented in copper saucepots on the tables.
I hope that one day soon Lurcat will want more for itself than to be the Mandy Moore to Craft's brighter Britney, and that it will want to do the hard creative and artistic work that this requires, and ask itself: Why serve a hanger steak simply braised in a pot of oil with a few herb sprigs? If it's not a good treatment of the cut, if it doesn't reference another cooking tradition--why?
I even bother asking because a few times recently I thought I saw some sparks of creative ambition making their way onto the plates--in the marvelous spiced figs, for example, which accompany the ham crêpes: darling little cut, spiced things that burst in the mouth like a winter flower. Or in the turnip pickles, sliced to look like little squares of burlap, or in the elegant caper tapenade that comes with the salmon tartare.
If the restaurant can let that spirit free, and squelch the one that insists on taking Nobu's famous, ultra-simple sea-bass recipe (Google Nobu, miso, and bass and you'll have it) and turning it into a salt lick, we'll really have something here. I'll admit that sea bass "in the style of Nobu" is an easy target for me: I've had this dish at Next-Door Nobu, and it was like eating a dream, as lush, sweet, and fine as anything you can imagine. I've had a version of this dish at downtown Minneapolis's Nami--they call it "butterfish"--where the exterior crackles and the middle is cream. In fact, I've had this simple dish so many, many times, that to find it done poorly probably grates on me out of all proportion. Unimaginative desserts that have the dull taste of sugar out of the bag (see the butterscotch pudding, $5, or chocolate cream cake, $6, for example, though the brioche French toast with caramelized bananas, $6, is almost good) and oysters (at $2.50 a pop) that come mangled and full of shell, or mashed potatoes so unappetizingly buttery that they coat a spoon like gravy are just as frustrating. Why? Because things like opening an oyster aren't difficult, while things like writing a wine list are. And the restaurant has successfully dealt with so many other thorny problems--organizing an excellent valet service, putting together a masterful service staff of old pros--that the contrast of such frequent poor execution of simple things becomes slightly maddening.
Yet, like I said, the food just kept getting better, so I will keep my hopes up. The first time I went to Lurcat I ordered the pork-belly appetizer ($7.50) and got a leaden, sodden serving of something that looked to have been sitting in a 200-degree oven since that guy first brought fire to the cave. But the last time I had it, it was light and springy, and the Vermont Cheddar grits beside it were a heavenly little hill of piquant and creamy white topped with a curly wig of scallions--a droll and lovely composition.
So what about the elephant in the room? By this, of course, I mean the Loring, the local restaurant that built the Lurcat location from scratch, lived there nearly 20 years, became closely tied to the identity of a city that, over those years, grew from a dying post-farm hub to a thriving white-collar brain trust. Then, last spring, the Loring got booted in a highly public extravaganza, and a local restaurant power by the name of D'Amico & Partners took over, and now we are here. Which is where questions historical and cultural might enter.
I don't know. Honestly, for me, it's definitely sad to see the old Loring bricks peeking out around the new Lurcat ductwork. I've heard a hundred opinions on the décor, but to me, Lurcat just looks exactly like the Loring, cleaned. Out with the filthy ficus trees, in with the sparkling palms. Out with the girls in white silk who give off the disturbing scent of unkempt dreadlocks, in with the girls in white silk who give off the disturbing scent of full-leather interiors. C'est la vie. Que sera sera. And such. I am almost surprised how unemotional I feel about it, actually. Perhaps it's generational. I do come from a generation in which divorce is normative, a world where loss, upheaval, and the fallout of other people's opaque emotional calculations regularly descend on the shoulders of the unsuspecting. I generally feel that either you roll with the changes that come your way, or you get rolled over. The things I like about Lurcat--the wine, the fries, the salmon tartare, the hope that whatever spirit made the turnip pickles will become free and ascendant--are the things that have little to do with the Loring, or the other D'Amico incarnations, or anything except the wine, the fries, the salmon tartare, and the hope, which springs eternal.
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