Fun with Food

Can't find anything amusing at Dish? Sure you still have a pulse?
Kathy Easthagen
1310 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

If you are bored with the new menu at Dish, you must be bored with life. Dish, the new restaurant that the Table of Contents folks have debuted to replace ToC, serves risotto tater tots and escargots with fried prosciutto in Japanese lacquered Bento boxes. Take that!

And if you are bored with the cocktails at Dish, life is bored with you. My heavens, the cocktails at Dish! There are eight champagne cocktails, like the soda-pop-red Scarlet Letter ($7), served in a Sixties sort of retro squat goblet/saucer thing--so festive. There are almost two dozen novelty cocktails, like the remarkable Kristini ($7), a potent blend of vodka, Kahlua, and espresso. If Red Bull runs in your veins, here's how to up the ante.

The last two times I was at Dish, the bar was absolutely thronged with members of Generation Y, all of whom were putting away amusing cocktails as fast as the staff could blend them, which warmed the cockles of my heart, wherever those might be. Me, I hate being this old and easily hung-over. I love to see the kids going at it. I think one day I might roll my bed up to the plate glass and just watch them all from the outside, like the seniors do with the parakeet cages at Our Lady of the Perpetual Catheter.

Dish is a good place to frolic. The décor is playful, with big beanbag-cloud things that hover near the ceiling, tables that look candy-coated, and dim, sexy lighting. The service is all old-pro and entirely competent. Most of the appetizers I tried were really quite good. Calamari ($7.75) were better than just about any I can remember, the coating particularly crisp and textured, the squid itself tender, and the plate was an equal balance of tasty little baby-squid bodies and those bland rings. (Three cheers for baby-squid leg bundles! They're the best.) Mu shu duck, available as either an appetizer ($7.50) or an entrée ($14) is also very good. Vinegar-laced, tea-smoked duck is served with sautéed red bell peppers and carrots. The combination of the vinegar and smoking renders the duck not at all greasy, but entirely tender. Accompanying French crêpes work even better than traditional mu shu pancakes, as they don't get as brittle, and a trio of accompaniments, balsamic hoisin sauce, chile sauce, and cinnamon-pickled jalapeños, make it possible for every bite to be different.

But the very best appetizer has to be the remarkable lobster cocktail. It costs a steep $13, but I had it twice and once it came with about half a lobster's worth of meat, and the other time a whole lobster's worth. Imagine red roses of tender out-of-the-shell Maine lobster served on skewers arranged around the rim of a cocktail glass of incredibly tasty, emerald-green wasabi-laced cocktail sauce. The cool, sweet lobster meets the hot and zesty sauce, and the plate is adorned with salty flying-fish roe that can be stuck to a skewer of lobster dipped in sauce, yielding hot-cool-sweet-fiery-salty...holy cow. Escar-a-go-go ($8) is escargots made with lots of garlic, big strips of prosciutto fried in such a way that they taste like bacon, and fresh slivers of basil. It's a ridiculously assertive dish that's sort of fun, but it's even more fun if you order it as part of the "TV Dinners"; multi-sectioned lacquered Japanese Bento boxes filled with four items ($17) or five ($20). The $20 box comes with a ladle of coconut tuna tartare, those escargots, a small kebab of a perfectly done scallop, a shrimp, a bit of grilled pineapple, rice, and a small piece of the fish of the day and its accompaniment. This all feels very deluxe and fancy--something you'd never, ever, in a million years make at home. And even if I didn't think that each part was successful (I think the tuna tartare with fresh ground coconut is too sweet and the coconut gives it a weird texture), I thought it was successful as a fun thing to do at a table, as every other forkful brought new sensations and amusements. In fact, those boxes are so entertaining I don't know why you'd get any of the regular entrées, over which I found much to bitch about, except maybe the gargantuan pork chop ($15) stuffed with spinach and dried cherries, or one of the steaks ($20-$29), which come with an addictively cheesy and buttery side of potatoes gratin made with smoked Cheddar--rich for my personal taste, but if I know Minnesotans, I'm calling this another nominee for a hall of fame.

So, the troubles: There was something slightly wrong with just about every entrée I tried. The freestyle lasagna ($14.50) was strangely gamey and off-putting. Venison osso bucco ($18) was served as dry as a steak and far too salty. The roasted chicken ($13) was very close to being good. The bird itself was fine, but then the whole thing was thrown off by a ladleful of "spicy-honey-lavender jus" which didn't taste like spice, honey, or lavender, but just strangely salty and metallic, like it was made with commercial stock or in a really problematic pan or something.

Desserts were more uniformly successful. Chocolate dim sum ($7) were good: Imagine cream-cheese wontons filled with a potent, dark-chocolate truffle and served with a trio of dipping sauces. Interactivity is a recurring motif: The dense, cakey homemade doughnuts come with a tabletop fondue setup, featuring a warm vat of lemon curd for dipping. Cinnamon-sugar doughnuts don't actually benefit from warm lemon curd (they did better in the dim sum sauces), but I think I speak for everyone when I say it's nice to have doughnuts around.

I've got to say my favorite dessert was the outrageous three ice-cream cones ($5). You know how if you go to an ice-cream parlor there are sugar cones, and then the next level up is the waffle cone, and you know how big those are? Well, imagine getting three of them filled with homemade ice cream. The ice cream was good, but I think I mostly liked this because: When you get stuck home with a sitter when you're eight, on some level this is what you figure your parents are up to. Going places, petting puppies, and having three full-size ice-cream cones at a sitting.

Can't imagine topping dinner off with three ice-cream cones? Mmm, you might be a bit elderly for Dish then. Have some more drinks and see if it sounds any more likely. How's it now?

Speaking of drinks, the wine list is pretty good and mostly crowd-pleasing, but featuring a praiseworthy 18 bottles at $22 or less. Look carefully in the "wines we dig" sections, for those hold the best bottles. (One might ask why wines they don't dig are being sold, but whatever.) Prices run pretty much a solid twice-retail--except when you look at the most popular wines in America, like Ravenswood Vintner's Blend zinfandel, which sells for $28, when I usually see it for $10 retail. I don't even really know why you would put that wine on your list; it's like a big kick-me sign for anyone who has ever entered a liquor store. Then again, maybe it's there as a foothold for the nervous diner. The list has an annotated last few pages that bend over backward to explain each and every wine in accessible detail, which I think is a nice try at comforting the wine-uncomfortable.

Which seems to be the point. Whatever failures in detail Dish served up, overall I was quite charmed. Restaurants serve different functions in the world. There are those that elevate food to a higher plateau, and there are those that serve good sandwiches on the fly, and those where you take your parents from Delano the first time you're picking up the check and you want to say, "Mom, Dad, welcome to my world, it's different from your world, and I'm comfortable here. Have a bento box of snails and some doughnuts!"

Dish is that restaurant.

Which seems great. Dish seems to be rather successfully pursuing a vision as the Twin Cities' first Generation Y destination restaurant, which is a need that no one else is meeting. You know, strangely enough, if anything, I almost wished they'd just turn up the volume on the funhouse a notch or two. Why not have Deltron 3030 and Garbage on the sound system and video screens blinking with weird montages? I mean, I love all our food-destination restaurants, with their sophisticated wine lists and menus of infinite finesse and subtlety, but by no means do I wish for all restaurants to aspire to that state of museum-ness.

Frankly, if I were a 23-year-old in the Twin Cities right now, I don't know where the hell else I could possibly go on a big celebration date. I've racked my brains, and everywhere seems too fussy, stuffy, and highbrow, or too cheap and casual. Meanwhile, Dish seems fun, friendly, fancy, and oiled at every corner with social lubricant: If you and your date can't make conversation from all these silly and cutesy things on the menu, from all those cocktails, from all the eye-catching bits of décor, you and your date must be bored with each other.

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