From Loaves to Fishes
2550 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 871-2799
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 9:00 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
I've heard lots of crazy theories and rumors in my day, and one that keeps coming my way is this thing about matter not being able to be either created or destroyed.
I mean, let's just say that it were even remotely true--then how could Phoenix, the new Chinese restaurant at the super-prominent, long-cursed corner of Nicollet and 26th, serve some 200 dishes? How, tell me how. They'd need a pantry the size of Wisconsin to house all the ingredients--ducks, chickens, lobsters, Dungeness crabs, whole sea bass, frogs, shrimp, jellyfish, nearly every pork part imaginable, oysters, quail, pigeon, beef, squid, mussels, clams, scallops, sharks, abalone, sea cucumber, a few dozen sorts of greens, a dozen kinds of noodles, a half-dozen sorts of nuts....I'm hyperventilating with the Noah's Ark-ness of it all.
Einstein be darned, I'll never believe you can provision a banquet hall with the conventional laws of volume and mass in place. In fact, the last couple times I've been to Phoenix, I've been sort of watching the kitchen door for any telltale jazzy light shows, à la Star Trek, indicating matter/anti-matter converters, or, um, stuff. Just doing my part for science, that's all. Least I can do. Especially when I'm feasting on scallops and sea bass and chow fun noodles and pork and duck and and and... But I get ahead of myself.
Probably the first thing Minneapolis old-timers want to know about the new Phoenix is: Isn't that where that coffee-shop-bakery thing was? Yes, this is exactly where the old Upper Crust was, kitty-corner from the Black Forest Inn. And yes, this is the restaurant that finally got up the courage and the dollars to get rid of the old bakery cases and wall-sized ovens that dominated the space for, what, the last million restaurants that occupied the place? What Phoenix has established is a big, cheerful traditional Chinese banquet hall, full of tables suitable for 12 with giant lazy susans in the center and cheerful streamers overhead. They've got extraordinary--for Minneapolis, anyway--hours (Phoenix is open till 11:00 most nights, and a whopping midnight on weekends). Once they get the beer and wine license they hope for, I'm predicting they're going to be as locally beloved as Nicollet staples Rainbow Chinese Restaurant & Bar and Quang Restaurant.
What's so lovable? First and foremost anything off the specials board that hangs in the main room. I had a whole sea bass once that was nothing short of bedazzling: A two-foot-long whole gray fish, steamed plump as a fresh nectarine and featuring a similar skin, resting in a platter of absolutely graceful black-bean sauce. You know the glop of fermenty black beans that often defines black-bean sauce? This had nothing to do with that. Instead, it was a coffee-brown broth floating a filigree of curly strips of scallions and wisps of lemongrass, with just enough black beans animating it to give it some piquant oomph. Spooning off some of the fish flesh, I found the bass perfectly done, tender as a custard, the nutty, sweet fish perfectly accented by the complex sauce with its notes of onion and herb. If I've ever had a better fish, I can't remember when, and for $17.95, this one's going in my scrapbook. (When they had them, bass were priced by size. My $17.95 "small" one easily served four. I think they must use a bathtub to serve the $21.95 large one.)
Another treasure is the "two combination platters" ($7.95) from the appetizer list. It offers a generous portion of skin-on roast pork that's as delectable as anything I've tried: Crackly golden brown skin that crunches like a potato chip between your teeth is stuck to luscious, salty pork by a layer of fat as delectable as butter, foie gras, or whatever fatty analogy you might supply--yes, a big mouthful of pork fat, somewhat nasty, but oh, so good. This crisp roast pork arrives on a bed of pickled daikon and carrot strips, perfect vinegar foil to the fat, and next to a cappuccino-colored quarter of barbecued duck. Next to a side of rice, I hasten to note, this makes a meal fit for a king.
Especially if you pair it with the sautéed pea shoots ($9.95, called here "garlic peapod sprouts"), a gorgeous plate of emerald-green pea shoots studded with little lentil-size pieces of sweet garlic. Any vegetarian whose short list of favorite local dishes boasts Rainbow's green beans needs to try these pea shoots. When I tried them they were sweet as May peas, fresh as dawn light, silky in the mouth with a bit of cornstarch--perfect.
My last of Phoenix's superstar picks to click is the inglorious-sounding "pan-fried whole scallops" ($8.95), an unbelievable bargain of a dish. The two times I tried it, the plate offered a generous pound of perfectly cooked scallops, deep fried, then draped in a light brown sauce, the combination creating that distinct mouth-feel of simultaneous silk and crisp that Chinese chefs prize so highly. I liked it because the scallops didn't taste of chemicals the way the cheapest scallops will. They were plump and tender, and after a girl gets used to paying $18 a plate for a diver-caught scallop or two, the opportunity to gorge on scallops seems like you're getting away with murder, or you've moved to Boston or something.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't fall in love with Phoenix easily. It took me four whole visits to finally pledge my heart, which is highly unusual, as I commonly only make three visits to a restaurant for a review. Yet on my first three visits I kept hitting a roughly 50-50 ratio of duds to wonders. Was it bad ordering, or bad cooking? It's always the question at a place offering so much, and eventually I decided the problem was me. Avoid at all costs the "beef salad" ($8.95) from the appetizer list. It's basically chow-mein-hut green-bell-pepper beef with shiitake mushrooms, and just sort of goopy and salty. Avoid the Peking-style spare ribs ($7.95), slices of deep-fried pork chops with a cloying sweet-and-sour sauce (but then, I find all things in the bright orange sweet-and-sour tradition cloying). I found bell-pepper-heavy squid with preserved vegetables ($8.95) wasn't as good as Rainbow's puckery version. And I bet there are a dozen more shirkers lurking in the menu.
And doubtless a few dozen glories that I never thought to try: I saw another table with some whole Dungeness crabs served on a bed of noodles that looked great. Also, a dish called "scallops vs. scallops" ($12.95) has caught my fancy now that I'm rereading the vast menu to write this story. It's apparently a battle pitting spicy scallops against fried scallops. (My bookie, Ivana the Brainerder, is calling a spicy-scallop victory. My money says we'll see.)
Overall my sense with Phoenix is that four encounters left me intrigued, more curious than ever, and with a sense that I'd barely scratched the surface: Isn't that some sort of dating-manual tip? When your fourth date still feels like your first, it could be something special? Who knows. All I do know is, matter might have its own rules about creation and destruction, but crushes on restaurants spin out of evidence of great food and hints of treasures to come, and I'm thinking a crush has been created.
WINE COUNTDOWN: Can you remember where you were when you first heard buzz about Solo Vino? I can't. Feels like an age ago. I can remember one Cathedral Hill dinner party last winter where half the people were doing cartwheels with delight at the news that a wine shop was about to be opened by local wine-world smarties Sam Haislett (longtime Zander Café wine program director, former New French Café sommelier), Robert Strunk (since-it-opened Zander waiter), and Chuck Kanski (recent Pazzaluna wine-management bigwig, former wine program director at the Vintage). The other half weren't delighted; they were sort of standing around, rolling their eyes and chewing their leashes--imagine telling a roomful of kids at Christmas that they'd have to wait till Easter for presents. Like that.
Why? Because Solo Vino promises to be the sort of manageable-size, mostly wine liquor store where all the bottles are chosen on purpose by people who know their stuff. And you can talk to those people, and get good wine, without, you know, spending tons of cash or committing wine encyclopedias to memory. And you can even--imagine--taste the wine, taste the wine with food, and then buy the wine! How is such a thing possible? Because Solo Vino is essentially an outgrowth of Zander Café, and now--you know that building that Zander is in? Well now the far right-hand part is going to be Solo Vino, the middle part is going to be Zander's new wine bar, and the left-hand part will remain Zander Café. You will be able to eat dinner at Zander, see what wines you like with various dishes, and then go to Solo Vino and buy them. You will be able to go to Zander's new wine bar, see what wines you like without food, and go to Solo Vino. On Mondays, when Zander is closed, you will be able to go to Solo Vino classes held in the Zander Café, then go back to Solo Vino and buy wine!
If you don't think this is a miraculous set of events in local wine buying, you obviously don't buy wine locally. Buying wine locally is a constant exercise in floating from store to restaurant to store and finding a different buyer with different taste who has set up special private deals that are irreproducible elsewhere. Which is nice, on some levels, life being a constant unpredictable adventure and all. But this will be nice in a completely different way!
"Between Zander [Dixon, chef and now building owner], Chuck, and myself, you have got a lot of guys in here interested in food and wine who have been working with pairing food and wine every day for, I don't know, a couple dozen years between us. This is going to be the place to come and say, 'Hey, I'm having osso buco,' or 'I'm having something with a lot of rosemary, what should I have?'" says Sam Haislett. "We're all about making wine as accessible as possible; wine with food, wine on its own, scheduled wine tastings in the shop. Yeah, we'll have a few high-end wines for birthdays and anniversaries, but hopefully Solo Vino is going to work as one of the easiest ways to make wine a part of your everyday life." Unless something weird happens, watch for Solo Vino to be open. Want to be put on a mailing list? Give them a call: Solo Vino: 517 Selby Ave., St. Paul; (651) 602-9515. Zander Café, 525 Selby Ave., St Paul; (651) 222-5224.
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