3669 Galleria, Edina; 928-7888
There's a special ring of hell reserved for restaurant managers responsible for no-reservations policies. In this hell, the reservation-despisers are wedged together shoulder to shoulder in glass-fronted cages, and they're very, very hungry. Waiters glide by, holding trays of tantalizingly scented food at nose level. Through the bars the sinners are fed syrup-spiked tropical wine drinks which give them headaches. Bad '80s rock loops incessantly through speakers over their heads: In a big countreeeee! Pseu-pseu-pseudio! They are surrounded by starving, ungracious demons who re-enact scenes from the earthly restaurants these bigwigs controlled: "You gave those people the Nelson table!" shriek the demons. "My name is Nelson! How can you prove they didn't get my table?" "My sitter has to leave in 15 minutes! I've been waiting two hours! You said it would be 50 minutes!"
And there, over the screeching demons' heads, the managers see their real-life hosts and hostesses, who suffered so on Earth, receiving their just rewards. They recline in pillowy chaise longues while seraphim play glorious music and feed them painstakingly well-crafted treats. Sigh.
If you can't tell, I've been spending a lot of time waiting outside an outrageously popular new restaurant where--surprise, surprise--they don't take reservations. (Unless you've got a party of six or more.) Nor can you call ahead on your way out the door and put your name on a waiting list. No. You must go and stand there and wait. And wait. And wait. And if you are some people, you break up the monotony by shrieking at and threatening the poor hosts and hostesses. And if you are me, you imagine tortures for the unseen, Chicago-based management.
Big Bowl is the newest Twin Cities outpost for Chicago's enormous Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., whose local venues include Tucci Benucch and the Twin City Grill at the Mall of America. There are several Big Bowls in Chicago, all based on a concept developed by Asian-food expert Bruce Cost, author of Ginger East to West and Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients, and founder of influential West Coast restaurants such as San Francisco's Monsoon and Berkeley's Ginger Island.
The idea is fairly straightforward: Grab the most popular dishes from Asian restaurants (Chinese wok-seared noodles, Vietnamese spring rolls, Chinese-American Kung Pao chicken, Thai coconut curries and pad thai) and cook them from high-quality ingredients while taking the time to grate ginger and squeeze lemon juice and make chili paste, peanut sauce, and such from scratch. It's a good idea. If I could sit down with friends and feast on expert renditions of everything from pot-stickers to sesame chicken to shrimp coconut curry, I would. Me and every other person for 400 miles around.
In my experience, every single night at Big Bowl from Wednesday to Sunday is super-duper jam-packed. On Fridays and Saturdays, waits for tables can escalate to three hours. In this situation people stack up in the Galleria hallway like planes over an airport--circling, circling, watching tables, plotting meals, glaring, snarling at anyone who has the nerve to dilly-dally over their table through tea. The kitchen is in a constant state of full-throttle production, and the only people who can pace their meal in an ordinary fashion--ordering a drink, having an appetizer, enjoying the rather elegant, funky space--are those parties of six or more permitted to make reservations.
On the poor chefs' end, this crush often seems to steamroll any elegance or lightness in the dishes. On two separate hectic dinnertime visits, pad thai ($7.95 veggie, $8.95 chicken, $9.95 shrimp) arrived so lightly seasoned that lime juice or fish sauce were nearly undetectable. The Thai-herb calamari ($6.75) was wet and greasy, the ginger-spiced chicken pot-stickers ($5.25) were mushy and indistinct, the "super-chi energy rice" ($9.50)--made with black glutinous rice, ginseng, the herb astragalus, and red dates--was oily and unpleasant, and the much-vaunted shanghai noodles ($7.95, flown in fresh daily from California) were bland and underseasoned.
At dinnertime, service was always well-intentioned but nevertheless erratic. Sometimes the food came with an unnerving boomerang swiftness--dishes would appear within 45 seconds of ordering--while other times you might wait forever, or at least 45 minutes. "Someone keeps stealing your mu shu vegetables," complained a waitress one night. Could it have been because other servers, confronted with starving, crabby parties, had resorted to street-fighting techniques? And who could blame them? I've worked nearly every position in a restaurant, from line cook to pastry chef to waitress, and I can't fault anyone for resorting to extreme measures in patching Big Bowl's dikes against a tsunami of southwest-suburban hunger.
However, I also visited Big Bowl at a completely off hour, at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, and everything was fantastic. The Chinese broccoli with beef ($9.25), one of my all-time favorite comfort foods, was rendered beautifully with tender slices of flank steak and an oyster sauce that had the deep, wide saltiness you might associate with great beef broth. The "chicken-less" Kung Pao noodles ($7.95) were zesty, earthy with peanuts, and topped with plenty of cilantro to brighten the top notes. The pot-stickers that had been flat and lackluster on exasperating dinner visits were wonderful on this quiet afternoon, filled with fresh, contrasting textures of greens, ginger, and finely ground chicken.
So I'd like to make this as clear as I can, not just for Big Bowl but for every other reservation-shunning restaurant in town (this means you, Campiello!): Hosting and seating are critically important jobs in a restaurant. Hosts and hostesses aren't merely smiling turnstiles used to slot in diners. Well-paced seating is what everything else in the dining experience stems from: It determines the flow of orders to the kitchen, and thus how much attention can be paid to each plate. It dictates how much time servers have for their tables and whether customers sit down relaxed and expectant or stressed and unhappy.
From now on when I feel like Big Bowl, I'm going to have a good, honest face-to-face with my watch, and I'm going to ask my watch the hard questions, like: Is this a time when one would reasonably expect the good people of the southwestern suburbs to be hungry? And am I a party of fewer than six? If so, I cannot go.
CHERCHEZ LE CAFÉ: I don't know of a more relaxing or more pleasant place to have brunch than the New French Café. I was there a few weeks ago, slowly paging through my newspapers, savoring some exceedingly tasty smoked-chicken-and-red-bell-pepper hash ($8) when I suddenly remembered: This isn't the sort of see-and-be-seen trendsetting spot that's going to get me into C.J. What's with the career-stymieing lollygagging? Imean, this place has been serving the same meals to the same people--including the DFL mover-and-shaker pals of former owners Sam and Sylvia Kaplan--since 1977. (Despite my beeline for the pricier side of the menu, brunch prices at the New French are comparable to those in most neighborhood hash houses: Two eggs and garlic roast potatoes costs $5, while yummy French toast with real maple syrup or an omelette with potatoes sets you back $6.) So a few days later, I called up Thom Lowe, the chef-owner who bought the New French in October. He confirmed that the new-restaurant trendoids aren't lining up outside the airy white dining room: "I don't know how you make your place hip again when it's been around for so long. The perception that many people have is that with the white linen tablecloths and everything, the food is going to be expensive and it's going to take a long time, but that's not true. At lunch you'll spend more at the Pickled Parrot." A quick glance at the menu proves him right: Most entrées are priced at $7 or $8; a Mediterranean fish stew packed with seafood is the most expensive item, and at $12 it's a bargain.
Lowe says that his goals since taking over the restaurant have been too quiet to attract much attention. He has been working on service and consistency to get the lunches, breakfasts (starting at 7 a.m.), and brunches up to par with dinner. He is also considering expanding the popular three-course prix-fixe dinner of soup or salad, simple entrée, and dessert--$21--to include choices from the regular dinner menu, which strikes me as a great idea. So the next time you're facing a three-hour wait with the maddening crowd, remember the classics that are hiding in plain sight.
NAG, NAG, NAG: I know you don't have the time, but you simply must stop by Penzeys and pick up fresh cinnamon before you start your holiday baking: It makes such a difference. Penzeys offers four varieties of cinnamon, including the only true cinnamon you're likely to find in town. True cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon, is an interesting, putty-colored substance with a nutty taste; it stopped being widely used here early in this century when it got too expensive. Americans are mostly used to cassia, made from the bark of an evergreen related to the Ceylon cinnamon tree, and Penzeys sells three kinds--one from Sumatra called Korintje, one from China, and a third from Vietnam. I like the Vietnamese variety's nearly peppery zing, but the Chinese cassia is awfully nice, too--big and round and so much livelier than old supermarket cinnamon, it makes snickerdoodles stand up and dance. It's really worth the trip, and if you can't justify it any other way, just remember that little jars of spices make nifty stocking stuffers. Penzeys is at 674 Grand Ave.; 224-8448. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
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