It's All Your Fault
5325 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 827-7376
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday 11:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Frankly, I blame you. Yes, you. And don't try sneaking off now--we're going to have a little talk. Oh yes, we are.
See, I went into this job a mild-mannered reporter, dedicated to showing you the highs and lows of Twin Cities food life--what? You don't think I was all that mild-mannered? Well, nits to you, buddy, I was meek as a spring lamb, and if you don't believe it, choose your weapon and we'll meet in the alley.
Where was I? Oh yeah, meek. Meek as daisies in May. Then came millions of meals. Billions of meals. Trillions and gillions and hillions of meals, every single dastardly one for you. And now I've got a hide as tough as last week's crostini. A heart as black as the bitterest tapenade. And expectations--ugh, you don't even want to know. I've got expectations like a prom court at midnight. I'm ruined. Wrecked. Chewed up and spit out.
It all hit me the other night coming out of Prima. "Well?" asked a friend, knowing that I had just finished my final visit. "I don't know," I sniffed into the evening air, "I wish they used fresh pasta." Fresh pasta! When I was a dewy-eyed child, did I ever think about fresh pasta? Fresh pasta was like spring hail to me--I knew it was out there, but we crossed paths infrequently. Out of sight, out of mind.
But now I cross paths with fresh pasta all the time. In fact, it mistakenly filed a restraining order against me last spring, but like I explained to the judge, anyone can break into the wrong hotel room and hide in the wardrobe. Besides, that's another story entirely. What I've got to ask, now that I know that making fresh pasta is not that big a deal, and buying it is even less of one, is this: If you run a restaurant that focuses on pasta, why not make that small effort?
Not that I haven't had some very good food at Prima. The vegetariana salad was excellent--greens dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette and jazzed up with slices of marinated, roasted eggplant, zucchini, and red pepper, topped with a crunchy little cloud of shredded carrots, all making for vast variety and interest in a simple vegetable composition. A caprese salad of tomato and mozzarella also gave evidence of skillful, thoughtful preparation: The fine balsamic syrup drizzled over the dish really made the ripe tomatoes pop. (All Prima salads cost $3.50 for a smallish half order, and $6.95 for an enormous full order.)
A few of the appetizers stood out, too. Crisp, but not hard, crostini slices made a good platform for a blend of cooked fresh spinach and plump little golden raisins, again dressed with that sweet, potent balsamic syrup ($3.95). Grilled eggplant roulades were tasty little roll-ups of that grilled, marinated eggplant around a chèvre mixture.
But on a menu as brief as Prima's--only two dozen dishes, based on few ingredients combined and recombined à la Chi-Chi's--the flubs are magnified. An herbed garlic bread ($2.95), two pieces of bread wiped with pesto and topped with melted cheese, is the sort of mushy home cookin' you expect in rural supper clubs. Prima's Caesar salad is shlumpy in the extreme: The gooey, mayonnaisey dressing has no zing, kick, punch, or otherwise noticeable flavor. The bland Parmesan decorating it dangerously resembles that pre-grated, anti-caking-agent-coated stuff that comes in bags, and I wasn't any happier to see it on pastas like the rigatoni bolognese ($8.95), large tubes of pasta dressed with an otherwise competent meat sauce. Or on the penne alla puttanesca ($6.95)--smaller tubes of pasta with an otherwise fine version of the piquant tomato sauce featuring cured olives, capers, and anchovies.
One of the big draws at Prima is supposed to be the bargain factor: In fact, the menu announces, "In an effort to offer value-added pricing, we are unable to accept credit cards." And while the puttanesca, at $7, is certainly a fancy-restaurant best buy, it's hard not to notice that the same money could have fed a family with a tub of sauce and a pound of fresh pasta from Broder's: Just add boiling water, drain, and combine.
Other pasta dishes resembled nothing so much as a college student's first effort at a dinner party. Spaghetti with white clam sauce ($9.95) was memorably clueless: Thanks for topping the dish with six fresh clams in their shells, but no thanks for boiled spaghetti with about a teaspoon of fresh parsley and the barest hint of garlic. If you can't make this classic dish big, full of clams, and stinky, why bother? Penne alla salsiccia--pasta with bits of sausage, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and ricotta ($9.95)--were fine, if nothing special; ditto for the fish specials I tried at Prima, like a crusted, fried fillet of halibut ($15.95) in lemon sauce, served alongside some odd mashed potatoes mixed with corn.
So if I'm so smart and all this is true, why has the place been jam-packed since throwing open its doors in April? Ah, shaddup. Opening a successful restaurant in southwest Minneapolis is like shooting fish in a bouillabaisse. That part of town could support another ten restaurants serving healthy, reasonably priced food--especially salads, pastas, and glasses of wine, because that's what upper-middle-class people have for dinner these days.
Kudos to Prima on their snazzy décor, good service, and a wine list well chosen for value and likelihood to complement food. The only thing I might suggest is that each glass be served with a complimentary sound-dampening blanket, because Prima has the lousiest acoustics this side of Ciao Bella. This place needs baffling the way Michael Jackson needs another hit record--desperately, and fast.
I'm not black-hearted enough, though, to resist the seduction of Prima's charming little trio of desserts. In fact, my hard-boiled palate was so thrilled at the morsels, I hefted an oversized pepper grinder over my head and led the dining room in a celebratory conga line out onto Lyndale Avenue, where we stopped traffic in an ecstasy of spontaneous dance. Or at least I almost did that.
Anyhoo, the restaurant's bread pudding ($3.95) is a tender square of moist yumminess brimming with juicy, bursting blueberries and set in a pool of vanilla-bean-flecked sauce, and in that pool another dozen or two blueberries bob like leaves floating down nearby Minnehaha Creek. The very good crème brûlée ($3.95) is a very large portion cleverly served in a wide, oval dish that shows off the crisp, caramelized sugar topping. A warm slice of doughy chocolate cake, which they call a torta ($4.50), was scrumptious, though modest: It sat there all simple and lovely in its cloak of Marsala custard sauce, confident without superfluous icing, without showy layers, without even a thought of its legion cousins, those coal-dark, flourless things that lurk in every fancy pastry case in town. And as I gazed at it in wonder, this week's lesson reached up and bonked me on the forehead: There's no winning. Set lofty goals, and you're judged by how close you get. But set modest ones, and you're expected to be perfect.
TEMPEST IN A PIZZA PAN: Thought the opening of the Lyn-Lake Pizza Lucé would be a pacific affair? Guess again. In this corner, wearing the black trunks, the undefeated champion--city hall. Over here, in the white trunks, that scrappy hometown favorite, after-bar pizza.
Or at least that's how Scott Nelson, owner of the beloved downtown eatery, has been seeing matters since learning that the new restaurant, which should open this month, will have to close by 1:00 a.m, not 3:00 a.m. like Lucé's downtown location. "Lisa McDonald is trying to turn [Lyn-Lake] into Grand Avenue," Nelson sputters, furious that the lucrative Uptown after-bar restaurant crowd and pizza delivery gold mine is closed to him. "But what she doesn't realize is that that's where our customers live: They've been begging us to come in there forever. When they can't get pizza late at night, we're going to give them her phone number, and she can explain the situation." Nelson plans to distribute information on the brouhaha at the upcoming Lyn-Lake Street Fair, and says he "can't wait" to throw his weight behind a challenger for McDonald's Tenth Ward seat next election.
By then, that weight should be considerable: Within the next five weeks, Nelson also plans to open a 75-seat bar in the space adjacent to Pizza Lucé's downtown location. "We're going head-to-head with the Loon [Bar]," he says. "We're going to take them all on."
But if McDonald is quaking in her boots, she fails to let on. "If Scott can't make money running his business from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., then what that says to me is there's something wrong with his business," she says, her voice steely. "My position is that Pizza Lucé is a great addition to the neighborhood, but as to staying open till 3:00, it's a moot point: We're not going to allow that. [The neighborhood has] had a fairly consistent policy the last six or seven years: We don't allow late-night hours, particularly for establishments that have alcohol or are in the middle of a residential area."
So who's right? I'd hate to say, but to this reporter it looks like Lyn-Lake is in for a round of identity politics: Does the neighborhood want to be more like Uptown, or more like tony, if silent, southwest Minneapolis? For the answer, check this space in about 2004.
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