5607 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.825.6900
BOB'S WEST BANK PIZZA
1501 Washington Ave., Minneapolis; 612.339.4333
771 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; 651.690.1173
Did everyone hear the news about how Americans nowadays are having more children than we have for 30 years--a whopping 2.13 offspring for every woman of childbearing age? That news was quite a relief to me, as I've been slaving over my list of Hot Trends for 2002, and right at the tippity top was this whole continuing-the-species thing, which I think is going to be just super-big, all the way through 2005, when children will be replaced with peasant blouses in fun-filled tropical shades. But until that saucy, saucy day arrives, kids are In.
They're certainly in at several Twin Cities restaurants; why, I had a gratin of children in a marvelous Cheddar-infused--oh, wait, that's next week. My apologies! This week we'll be looking at cooking for children. Specifically, two new restaurants that offer surprisingly extensive children's menus and, while I'm at it, a remodeled spot that doesn't offer a kids' menu but is legendarily family-friendly.
At First Course, a new neighborhood bistro in the Diamond Lake neighborhood of south Minneapolis, aggressively grown-up dishes--littlenecks and mussels in a white wine and garlic broth, mahi-mahi with mango salsa--are listed side by side with a kids' menu: 12-and-unders get their choice of a quesadilla and vegetables; peanut butter (with or without jelly) and vegetables; pasta with Parmesan and butter or with tomato-basil sauce; chicken nuggets with vegetables; or a corn dog with vegetables; along with vanilla ice cream and (optional) sprinkles, or a Twinkie. For three bucks!
The first time I went to First Course, owing to the no-reservations policy I waited at the door for about a century before I was seated. But I didn't mind a bit, because right in front of me was a table of six: two parents and four boys ranging in age from infancy to about ten. Admittedly, Mom did have that spooked look you mostly only see on someone hanging horizontally onto a pole in the middle of a hurricane, but what I liked most about the scene was how the eldest boy had made a menagerie of pipe-cleaner animals and arranged them around his plate. Once the two youngest had fallen asleep, Dad paid the bill and the two hustled the little 'uns off to the car, leaving the boy to gather his pipe-cleaner critters with the most exquisite expression on his face, one that was a perfect blend of exasperation with the hurry-up world of adults and absorbed concern with the rounding-up and protection of pipe-cleaner creatures. He had tucked various ones in various pockets, and when he finally rushed out the door, the last one held aloft, caged with his fingers in the palm of his hand as if it were a live butterfly, I thought First Course was the most charming place I'd ever been.
With that sort of intro, I guess it wasn't too surprising that I continued to feel positive about the place. Most of the food isn't fancy like mahi-mahi; it's basic stuff like salad, bruschetta, antipasto, grilled salmon, and pasta. But the kitchen seems to have an intuitive sense of how to do these simple things cohesively, and with concentrated flavor. A bowl of angel-hair pasta with a simple tomato sauce was cooked past al dente but perfectly tasty; a salad topped with chunks of grilled portobello mushrooms and charred asparagus was earthy and attractively plain. And that mahi-mahi special was perfectly done, the simple tropical salsa on top neither too sweet nor too dull.
Rotating specials like that fish keep the menu lively (prices range from $4 to $9 for appetizers and salads, and from $7 to $15 for entrées). The list of two dozen mostly Californian wines is fine. The room, finished in rich, dusky colors and warm-looking laminated plywood, has a casual but pleasant pulled-together edge to it. As far as neighborhood spots go, if you're in the neighborhood, go.
I wasn't in the neighborhood, but I went to Bob's West Bank Pizza anyway, because somehow I had got it into my head that I was going to a restaurant. Instead I found myself at a sports bar. I can't imagine why I thought I was going to a restaurant. Something about how the place is the new project of Bob Faegre, onetime owner of Faegre's, which I've been hearing about since I was knee-high to a peasant blouse--hearing that it was such an important pillar of the early Minneapolis dining scene. So I imagined that the pizzas at Bob's West Bank Pizza would be wood-fired, cracker-crusted, composed of figs and dried tuna, something. Nope! Bob's is just your average college-kid-crowded Seven Corners sports bar with lackluster food.
But it does have some pretty good chicken wings--salty, crisp, anise-touched "Susie's 5 Spice" wings, for $7.95 a pound or on a platter with another pound of good Buffalo wings for $12.95. Which is probably how they should be consumed, along with a million beers to quench the salt. Bob's also has a good, straightforward burger (from $4.95) with a good bun and pleasantly charred-tasting meat, and fries. Which go great with television, and also beer.
The pizza (from $4.95 for a wee cheese pizza to $20 for the Viking, which starts with bacon, pepperoni, and sausage and keeps going) is also very salty. The crust is thin but doesn't taste like much, and the cheese mixture tastes like it contains a good deal of Parmesan, resulting in a pizza that's sort of like a single nacho chip: salty and dry. Which is one thing, but it does sort of make you want to run through all the dozen beers on tap.
Now that you've done that, consider this: Is it ever too early to start children enjoying a sports bar?
The obvious downside: the smoke, the booze-soaked atmosphere. And yet, I can't honestly say that I feel that anyone is ever truly too young to drive. Or why did God make the Geo? Or all these zany no-driving-when-you're-too-drunk-to-see laws coupled with these fascinating no-booze-for-kids laws? Clearly, an intelligent design has been wrought. And mine is not to question His plan. No, mine is just to report that the kids' menu at Bob's covers half a dozen items and ranges from $3.50 to $4.95 for offerings such as mini corn dogs and fries, spaghetti with sauce, garlic bread and cheese, or a quarter-pound hamburger with fries.
All this thinking about kids' menus got me to wondering about what goes on nowadays at the Highland Grill, that classic in the hipster parent's repertoire. Last I checked, the place had closed for renovations. Then I forgot to go see how it turned out.
Well, it just looks great. Gone are the 1970s tile and the cramped alley of a room. The redone Highland Grill is at least twice as big as it was, bright, colorful, and filled with sparkly silver booths. The tables seem neatly sized for families: Two adults and one car seat on the table fill a booth, while long Formica tables for six perfectly seat a family of four if you balance the car seat on the last table. One Sunday night when I was there, there seemed to be a baby sleeping in a car seat on every single table in the house. Which was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the little girl who had taken the last of her toast, shredded it into thumbnail-size blocks, and laid out the blocks as a grid while Mom and Mom's friend talked. Is this what all the hip kids are doing? I read Jane! Why wasn't I informed? I thought it was all about boho white this season, and now I discover it's toast grids!
Once my dining companion pried me off the ceiling, I was delighted to find that everything at the Highland remains exactly what I'd come to expect from the Highland Grill/Edina Grill family of upscale neighborhood grills: quick, smart, well-made diner basics with a little flair.
Main courses are pretty much all under $10 each. The grilled cheese is lovely--crisp, well-grilled sheets of bread surrounding sharp Cheddar and a sweet spoonful of chutney. Fish and chips features planks of fish as big as my arm in a slightly sweet batter that coats them like a lacquered balloon, and faultless, skin-on potato wedges. The marinated flank-steak salad showcased meat that was perfectly crisp outside, rare in the middle, and perfectly savory. The only off note was a bizarre black-bean falafel: five ice-cream-scoop-size balls of deep-fried black beans with a nice pineapple salsa that unfortunately wasn't enough to help them.
There's a no-nonsense wine list, on which everything's $5.50 a glass or $24 a bottle. (I like Cline zinfandel with my burger.) Desserts are nothing special, but for $4.95 you get a plate-size brownie sundae mounded to the sky with whipped cream, drenched with chocolate and caramel sauce. Who needs a kids' menu? If I know anything about the shorter, blankie-engaged members of the culture, this is sure to travel the wires as very big news indeed.
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