Loring Kitchen and Ginger Hop: The hits and misses
"It's a good life," the website of the Eitel Building City Apartments proclaims, as a synthesized Miami Vice-style soundtrack streams in the background. And it is, when your apartment building's lobby looks like that of a chic boutique hotel and its rooftop Sky Park has its own hot tub, fireplace, and view of the city. The Eitel's new residential development on the east side of Loring Park has a massage room, yoga studio, and Zen Garden courtyard. The night I checked the place out, several residents had gathered for an Eitel-sponsored beading party: It was dorm life for the recently graduated and upwardly mobile.
Loring Kitchen, the restaurant on the complex's ground floor, functions, in part, as the Eitel's on-campus cafeteria—and also draws significant numbers from the neighboring apartment and condo buildings. On weekends, the restaurant serves eggs, pancakes, and waffles, and—get this, all you culinarily challenged readers—$4.95 bowls of oatmeal, Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes, or Rice Krispies with a choice of fresh-fruit toppings and a slice of toast.
Loring's sleek, all-window dining room couldn't have a more different look or location than the restaurant that initially inspired it: Birch's, a cozy, strip-mall eatery near the shores of Long Lake. (Loring Kitchen's owners David Bank and Bob Levine originally partnered with Birch's owner Burt Joseph to develop their concept, but Joseph is no longer involved.) The owners' task wasn't simple: Take a successful formula for serving scratch-made American comfort food to western suburbanites and translate it to an urban clientele.
Loring Kitchen isn't a destination restaurant, but one that appeals to its neighbors as a place to host group meet-ups, spontaneous stop-bys, and after-work drinks that might roll into dinner if a date seems to be going well. Its social function reminds me a bit of the Local, which has become the clubhouse of young Target employees more due to its convenience than its charms.
The Loring's menu, developed by chef Eric Strathy, formerly of Birch's, isn't so sophisticated by today's standards—there's little you haven't seen coming out of restaurant kitchens for a decade or more. But the owners seem to believe that the same hip, city diners who go out for tapas and sushi want to eat something more nostalgic when sticking close to home.
The menu's lighter items include a beet and goat cheese salad with a nice ginger vinaigrette that tasted fine but not necessarily special. I tried to order the ahi tuna ceviche on two separate visits, but both times our server forgot it. My group's entrées arrived at the table as if our initial request had never existed. Did the ticket machine have a penchant for losing appetizer orders like clothes dryers do socks?
The question of whether to re-request those plates was moot as soon as our banquet-size feast was set before us: fish, ribs, pizzas, and sandwiches all arrived in the hearty portions one equates with mid-priced chain restaurants. Cracker-crusted walleye, a Birch's specialty that's just as appealing at Loring, has a sweet, buttery breading and comes with thick stalks of grilled asparagus and a mountain of mashed potatoes. The short ribs are infused with the malty flavor of Guinness, and while they're tasty and generously portioned, I'm pretty sure $26.95 is the most I've ever paid for a plate of short ribs—that's edging into steak dinner territory. Also good and far less spendy: a side of sharp cheddar mac and cheese rich enough to double as a small entrée.
The kitchen also offers carefully made deli sandwiches, including the American Dip, which tucks sliced turkey breast, cheddar, caramelized onions, and basil aioli into a crusty, soft baguette. I also liked the fried chicken sandwich, but preferred its reincarnation as a pizza on the subsequent menu. As a concept, fried-chicken pizza sounds about as appealing as a spilled picnic basket, but it proved a delicious mash-up. Nubs of fried chicken were as pillowy as cheese curds and melted into a base of Tillamook cheddar, sweet-but-biting coleslaw, and honey-clove cream. The pizza's crust was sturdy enough to hold everything together but thin enough to stay out of the way.
Dessert choices are rather limited, particularly when you've ruled out the chocolate cake, which my group abandoned half-eaten due to its piercingly sweet ganache. The lemon bar is better—it tastes as if it's been crossed with slices of cheesecake and pecan pie.
The Loring's drink list is more extensive and includes such hybrids as Mexican martinis and pomegranate mojitos. Unless you specify that you want your cocktail in a martini glass, there's a good chance it will be delivered in a fancy little circular Turkish drink holder—an ornate ice ring that helps keep the goods cold, which the restaurant's designer, David Shea, discovered on his recent travels.
As my friend sipped a Loring Park—a mix of Hpnotiq, Stoli Ohranj, and pineapple juice, which he described as tasting "a little like drinking a candle"—he gazed longingly at its much-less-tropical namesake and wished for the day the restaurant's vast patio would reopen. "I feel like this is something you should be drinking somewhere with less clothes," he declared.
THIS FALL, the former home of the Times Bar & Cafe on East Hennepin was reborn as Ginger Hop, an "East-meets-Northeast" concept of Asian and American fare. The owners are the crew behind the original Thailand-in-Uptown concept Chiang Mai Thai, and they wisely capitalized on the neighborhood's notable lack of Asian restaurants. The space looks as pretty as ever. The bar has its same black-and-white checkered floor, polished wood columns, and barrel vault ceiling; the dining room now looks as if it were lifted from French Colonial Indochina, with its weathered window shutters and rattan chairs. For those with a group event or hot date in the works, the place also boasts a semi-private banquet room and a velvet-curtain-shrouded "kissing booth."
The menu skips, or hops, as it were, around Thailand, Vietnam, and China, and includes a few fusion items such as the Kimchi Kulakofsky, a Reuben sandwich stuffed with Korean-style pickled cabbage. It was great, but not an improvement on the standard sauerkraut version. I also didn't much care for the St. Anthony Sling (Polish blackberry brandy and pineapple juice), so maybe East-meets-Eastern Europe just isn't my thing.
Ginger Hop co-owner Charles Lodge notes that Asian food tends to attract a heavily female clientele, and he says the menu was intentionally designed to balance lighter, vegetable-based stir-fries and such with the heartier, meatier sandwiches that men tend to prefer. Several menu items feature ginger—I'd recommend both the Ginger-or-Mary Ann cocktail and the house-made ginger snaps with candied ginger ice cream—and a few others incorporate beer (hops, get it?), such as the chicken wings with Summit EPA hot sauce.
Prices are higher than at local mom-and-pop Asian eateries—the bahn mi will run you $8.75, which is about double what you'd pay on Nicollet or University Avenue—though Ginger Hop offers a classier ambiance than most spots with $10-and-under entrées. Unfortunately, several of the restaurant's standard Asian favorites lacked their characteristic flavor complexity. The Thai Tom Yam soup tasted predominantly of salt and lacked the expected spark of heat, sour zing, and umami richness. It was hard to get excited about flavors that waltzed when I'd expected them to breakdance. The Vietnamese pho had the same problem—washed-out broth—though it did come piled with lovely fresh herb garnishes and beef tenderloin strips. Even the cream cheese wontons were off; their wrappers were too dense and their filling supplemented with odd-tasting caramelized onions.
The Bodhisattva curry followed the pattern of the soups. Its mild, creamy sauce was infused with delicate floral and woodsy flavors, but I wished it would have possessed more fire, pungency, and bite. (This may be partially due to its vegan status, which rules out the use of fish sauce.) It reminded me of a knockoff designer purse: At first it seemed like the real deal, but on closer inspection none of the details were right.
Still, there are several big wins on the Ginger Hop menu, many of which are easy to pair with something from the well-sourced beer and wine lists. For appetizers, I liked the sweet potato fries with spicy ketchup and the beer-battered, deep-fried walleye satay with its plucky wasabi tarter sauce—it could beat out most of the State Fair's skewered foods. I also liked General Tsing's Chicken (again, made with beer), which is a more laid-back version of General Tso's saucy-fried delight that comes with steamed broccoli and jasmine rice. A crispy tofu rice noodle salad has bright, fresh flavors of crunchy veggies and herbs, as does the Hop Laab, or Thai lettuce wraps, made with minced chicken that's seasoned with lime, cilantro, and the nutty warmth of toasted ground rice.
Lodge says he and his crew hope to reopen the basement space—a.k.a. the old Jitters—any day now as a mixed-use venue intended for drinks, snacks, and entertainment. I think there's enough that impresses upstairs to inspire a subterranean visit.
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