1010 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
If six months ago you had told me that the one thing that downtown Minneapolis most desperately needed was a jazz bar that serves ice cream sundaes, I would have advised you that the worlds of Louis Armstrong and Beaver Cleaver were best kept quite distinct and separate, thank you very much.
But now, now that I have run a spoon through some snowy Sebastian Joe's ice cream, steered it on to some cinnamon-touched, house-candied walnuts, and zigged it a little off to one side to catch a few tart Door County cherries, and generally enjoyed the hell out of that which is most innocent and good, while, off on their spot-lit stage brilliant jazz people have done their brilliant jazz things, and generally enjoyed the hell out of that which is most sophisticated and good, now I tell you, now that I have seen these two intuitively dissimilar things support one another in a nice, urban, "we're all in this together" sort of way, I really have to conclude that ice cream sundaes in jazz clubs may be the kind of counterintuitive bright idea that downtown really needs. Not just to be commercially successful, but to be, more enduringly, lovable.
I speak, of course, of the bright idea that is the new Dakota, which opened recently on Nicollet Mall in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, neatly fitting in with the better sorts of culture down there, like the orchestra. And nicely standing in intelligent opposition to the worst sorts of culture down there, namely the crap chain restaurants that multiply like rats safe in safe-deposit boxes, if you can imagine such a thing. Which I can, and if rats multiplied in safe-deposit boxes they would all serve nachos and barbecued chicken-breast sandwiches, I can tell you that much. But I digress. More relevantly, the Dakota, a nationally regarded jazz club and northernmost American restaurant, had spent the last decade living in a luxurious train shed off to one side in St. Paul. But now they have packed up all their pans and microphones and relocated to a smartly designed space in downtown.
How smart is the space? Very smart indeed: Walk in and you encounter the smoke-free bar, where the stage is. The ground floor has a bunch of cocktail tables nearest the stage and then a ring of raised booths around that. There's a second balcony level up above that, and all of it makes for the most comfortable jazz spot imaginable, with clear sight lines in every direction and a feeling of intimacy in a room with such high ceilings and such copious amounts of non-smoking that you can always breathe freely.
In the bar they serve a limited but good little menu, with super-crisp house hand-cut fries, served by the pound, and with a house version of béarnaise sauce that tones down the tarragon and amps up the mellow gravy-cum-ketchup notes to brilliant effect. More interesting to me, though, is the bar's dessert carnival. And not just because of fancy crème brulées like the pumpkin one with the stewed apples and candied ginger ($7.50), and not just because of fancy pies, like the individual apple pie with its irresistible crumble topping. Oh no, not just that. There are also fancy restaurant kitchen-driven sundaes, as aforementioned, and one with caramelized bananas that has my name on it, but, more to my fascination, a world of intriguing American dessert wines and dessert spirits. Look here for such rarities as Mer Soleil late harvest Viognier ($10 a glass, or $55 for the dessert standard 375-milliliter bottle), or pear eau-de-vie from Oregon.
It was actually this dessert wine celebration that gave me the greatest hope for the new Dakota dining room. Because to tell the truth, the old Dakota was a place I respected, but never liked. I respected it because of chef Ken Goff's pioneering early commitment to Midwestern ingredients and farmers. But I seemed to have bad luck whenever I ordered anything there, and tended to think of it as a big-volume, nothing-special kind of place that catered to the kind of people who like to go hear jazz in the middle of nowhere. But now, after a couple of visits to the new Dakota, I can report that the restaurant is a solid asset to downtown, a place with original and reliable cooking presented by competent servers that offers downtown a handful of things it needed.
Like what? Like skyway-accessible, reasonably priced business lunches carried out in a soothingly non-skyway environment. Like a decently priced wine list that has plenty of intriguing members marching in its almost all-American parade. Like a spread of forward-looking comfort-food dinners particularly well suited for dining with people whose demand for quality is high but tolerance for wacky foods is low.
Macaroni and cheese, for example, is not so wacky. At the Dakota you can get American kids' favorite bowl of noodles for either lunch or dinner, and while they're gourmet-ified by the addition of whole sautéed black trumpet mushrooms, and the parmesan that tops them is enhanced with a whiff of garlic and a judicious bit of smoke from some Niman Ranch bacon, the dish is above all likable and comforting, offering that taste of calm, rich, and earthy that one associates with being fed by moms in toasty kitchens. The walleye and smoked whitefish chowder is likewise comforting; it's not one of those awful chowders that's thickened with gluey gobs of flour, it's just homey and warm, full of good milk and potatoes and just the exact amount of fish needed to give it character, without making it the least bit aggressive. In fact, the Dakota's fish chowder ($7.95) might be the best clam chowder in town, if you follow me. It's authentic and simple in a way that most chowders round here aren't.
A few of the Dakota's salads uphold this standard of authentic, simple, and good: The zingy Caesar ($7.95) has enough garlic to stand out from the downtown pack of mayonnaise-dressed salads, but not enough to scare your co-workers. The pretty bowl of bright leaves is topped with a house-made crouton that supports a happy mound of real anchovies, which I am always so pleased to see. The spinach and arugula salad is dressed with fragrant rosemary oil and tossed with hickory nuts and a forest floor's worth of nubby, exotic mushrooms, and further bejeweled with a spoonful of very young, very fresh chèvre. Charming.
Just as charming is the chicken pot pie ($17.95), in which pieces of chicken so tender you can cut them with the side of your fork float in a mellow sauce of nutty chanterelle mushrooms and sweet carrots, all of them peeking out from beneath a crisp, buttery, pie-crust hat. The pan-roasted flatiron steak in red wine sauce with crisp, crisp French fries is an irresistible version of steak frites, tender but meaty, forthright and plain, but enriched by a potent sauce. Good stuff and, at $21.95, one of the better steak bargains downtown.
Considering what wine to pair with that steak or chicken pot pie is a particularly pleasant task. The Dakota's list is, as I said, almost all American (the exception being a lone bottle of bling-bling Dom Perignon), and does yeoman's work in the land of reliable but not famous California wines that have both balance and noticeable fruit. I tried the Trefethen '00 dry Riesling ($35), which paired nicely with everything from the salads to the pot pie, as its backbone of acid stood up to the vinegar notes in the salad, and its fruit crept forward to complement the buttery chicken. If I was on a date having steaks, I can't think of anything sexier than the Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel-based blend ($64), a deep-flavored, inky, thickly textured spice thunderstorm.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the Dakota is flawless. One time there I got a "prime rib of pork" pork chop that was so overcooked it had gained the consistency of sawdust. Another time a bowl of squash soup had something desperately wrong with the seasoning and was just bursting with that stale taste of elderly spices left too long in the cupboard. An appetizer of grilled polenta in tomato sauce was so mild that it was more like plain porridge than something meant to stimulate the appetite. Yet it is a solid, mid-priced, nice restaurant off the skyway and would be my first choice when dining with meat-and-potatoes men, or groups where some of the members might be food-timid. And like I said, downtown really needed one of those.
But not as much as it needed the main music room and bar, a spot that threatens to act as a welcoming meeting place for people from all races and ages and walks of life. A place where jazz education takes place on Saturday afternoons (check the website for details). A place where you could take your teenagers for ice cream and a chance to hear a real live vocalist sing the classics, sometimes for as little as a $5 cover. A place to see the various geniuses of jazz as they tour through town. A smoke-free bar downtown for grown-ups to go where they won't have a pint of beer dumped on their head by a lurching frat-boy. In short, a jazz bar that serves ice cream sundaes.
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