Master of the Maki Maze

Dan Monick
Café della Vita Sushi Bar
615 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis;
(612) 752-9537

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 4:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. (Open daily from 11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. to Minneapolis Athletic Club members only.)

How long have we been waiting for Café della Vita Sushi Bar? Well, break out all your fingers: Tengo left Fuji Ya in January, and the first published reports forecast the opening day for April. Then June. Somewhere in there, Tengo's sideman from Fuji Ya, Sefu, left Fuji Ya for Café della Vita Sushi Bar, too. Then July came and went. Well, the place finally opened in August and, Bunky, the wait was worth it.

For those of you who haven't been on the edge of your seat, here's the reason for the hullaballoo: Tengo--born Teng Thao, but rechristened behind the sushi bar--is an absolute wizard with the fresh fish. He made his name during the six and a half years he spent behind the bar at Origami, where he won all kinds of awards and founded a loyal following. After that he carried his reputation, and his followers, with him to Fuji Ya, where he won some more awards. But then, last January, he left. Darkness settled upon the prairie. In a land where sushi is consistently inconsistent, Tengo was beloved for sending out only the most carefully made food--nothing unfresh, nothing sloppy. To gild the lily, Tengo is a raucous, jovial, and irrepressible force behind the bar: Wherever Tengo is is always a lot more fun than wherever Tengo is not. To make math out of it: beautiful sushi + fun guy = cult following.

Well, the cult should be singing now. There's plenty to love at Tengo's new showpiece: Loads of dark marble and subdued, modern lighting give the place a rich and ritzy feeling; the no-nonsense, serious sushi menu gives respect to patrons who know what they want; and the fact that the restaurant is in a truly obscure and out-of-the-way corner means that only real sushi die-hards will ever know this restaurant is even here.

To get to Café della Vita Sushi Bar--or, as everyone's already calling it, Tengo's New Place--first, fasten a compass to your belt. Then, find the big brass marquee of the Minneapolis Athletic Club and the Grand Hotel on Second Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets. Walk up the steps into the lobby of the hotel, cross the lobby (ignoring the check-in desk and that one guy at the phone at that one desk--the bell captain?). Find the staircase at the back of the lobby, follow the carpeted steps up. When you get to the grand piano, hang a right. Head toward the elevators, and take a right down a counterintuitive little hallway into what looks like a sports bar, all flat-screen televisions and tap beer. The first time I found the place I felt like I was winning some madcap game of scavenger hunt--what, no door prize?

The prizes came soon enough. There were pretty plates of sashimi cut with utter delicacy, and jewel-like pieces of nigiri sushi, where a stripe of fish is layered on a bed of rice. There's supple and resilient toro (fatty tuna, $10), glowing, ocean-scented hamachi (yellowtail, $4.50), chewy, sweet, rich akagai (red clam, $5), unagi (Japanese imported freshwater eel, $5) served hot, grilled in a silky marinade, and so tender it nearly melts.

Once you've whetted your appetite with the pure stuff, there's plenty of fun to be had in the more substantial, highly inventive rolls. Like the Crunchy Roll, the Whopper Roll, the Unique Roll, the Mystery Roll, the Idon'tknow Roll, the Idon'tknow 2, the Idon'tknow 3--you get the idea. These are the improvisational rolls that Tengo and Sefu (born Xao Yang) make up out of whatever's fresh, when times are slow. The Crunchy Roll ($12.95) was a wonder. Sefu made an inside-out roll around tempura-fried shrimp, packed some minced avocado and a whole lot of secret ingredients around it, and then coated the roll in some species of super-crisp fried crumbs. It was a beautiful thing--rich, creamy, crispy, sweet, spicy. It made me smile from ear to ear to have it. Sefu also made the Whopper Roll: Shrimp, scallions, lettuce, and secret ingredients all bound together with a spicy mayonnaise-based sauce that Sefu jokingly insists is "Whopper sauce." "I used to work at Burger King," he quips. "I stole the recipe. They came looking for me to get the recipe back, they'll never find me now back in here."

Tengo mostly makes Idon'tknow Rolls. One of the most glorious was basically an inside-out roll that featured alternating strips of salmon and unagi on the outside, and minced spicy tuna and avocado within. The underside was glazed with powdered seaweed and bright green wasabi-flavored flying-fish eggs. Just remembering it makes me feel like a bobbysoxer thinking about Frank Sinatra.  

I know that some might find these super-rolls overblown, like one of those ridiculous, groaning French banquet dishes--a cow stuffed with a pig stuffed with a goose stuffed with a rabbit, sauced with a reduction of cow stuffed with a pig stuffed with a goose....But my feeling is that if you can extravagantly defy gravity, dazzle the senses, and do it all on a single plate for under $15, by all means, go, go, go!

I encountered a few start-up hiccups at the Sushi Bar at Café della Vita: Cold sakes, from the good--but not great--sake list were never served at the right temperature. Our waitress said there wasn't anywhere to chill them yet. Desserts weren't yet available. One night we ordered a few rolls from the specialty roll section of the menu, the caterpillar roll (eel, cucumber and avocado, $10) and the dynamite roll (chopped spicy yellowtail, chopped red Thai chilies, and vegetables, $5.75). And for a few horrifying moments were turned over to a chef I call the Sushi Intern, who made such incompetent, loose, sloppy rolls I wondered if I had made them myself. Nope, no rice under the fingernails, guess I hadn't. I quickly started demanding Sefu and Tengo return their attention to their improvisational specialties, and matters returned to perfect.

Other than that brief interlude, the only thing to complain about is the same thing that had everyone scratching their heads when the first press releases hit the stands: Why does a top-flight sushi bar need a sports-bar accent? I mean, yes, those are really wonderful televisions, but still, it's like topping a perfect black suit with a backward baseball cap.

I guess the main obstacle for the restaurant to overcome right now is the Café della Where phenomenon. When I talked with Tengo on the phone for this article, I asked him if there's any special message he wants to get out to the fans. "Tell them we're here!" he said. "It's so beautiful here, they spent so much money on it. It's the most beautiful bar I've ever seen with my own eyes, but no one knows we're here. No one! Even my friends couldn't find it. Every day people ask, 'Is it for members only?' No, it's not for members only! I think it's going to take awhile for people to find us. Or maybe they never find us, and I get fired, and I get to take one of the plasma TV's home. That would be okay."


BON VOYAGE & COME BACK SOON: Steven Brown, longtime chef at the Local, has left that restaurant, instead of steering it to its new all-pub destiny. "I walked through the restaurant on my last night and the writing was really on the wall," he says. "The bar was wall-to-wall twentysomethings, and there were maybe five tables in the dining room." So, what's next for Brown? I spoke to him on his second day of unemployment and his phone was already ringing with offers, but he says he hasn't decided on anything just yet. In the meantime, Brown says, he may go out to New York or Napa Valley to work in a kitchen and soak up some different culture. But he's coming back, right? Right? Steven? You're coming back, right? Somebody, do something.

MAKE WAY FOR FISHLINGS: Say goodbye, too, to the original Table of Contents in St. Paul. The owners are packing up their pans. Not too surprising, considering the success of the bigger Minneapolis branch and the fact that the bookstore the St. Paul ToC shares a space with has changed drastically over the years--no longer the scruffy independent Hungry Mind, it's now the mature, forceful, and space-hungry Ruminator Books. What is surprising is that the ToC gang is packing up its stoves and sinks too, and rolling the whole kitchen across Grand Avenue to a new location, where it'll be reopened as "red fish blue: an ocean diner for the people." Huh? "Think Fog City Diner," explains Philip Dorwart, executive chef of all of the ToCs and a part owner, referring to the San Francisco oak-and-marble restaurant, which calls itself "diner" but is more turn-of-the-century dining car than jukebox-and-malt shop chrome. "Except we'll have red-stained oak, murals, a lot of color, and a much more affordable menu." The restaurant will seat about 100, and will have a party room. They'll start out just serving dinner, but will eventually expand to brunch and lunch as well. Most entrées will be in the $9-$13 range and will be fusion-accented seafood classics: fish and chips with traditional and fusion sauces; fried oyster po' boys; clam chowder thickened with white bean purée instead of flour; whole lobsters in the rough; paella served in large pans to share; and several versions of bouillabaisse, ranging from a garlicky French traditional version to a fusion bouillabaisse made with ginger and lemongrass. "We've been handing out funky little comment cards at the [St. Paul] restaurant, asking what people think, and we've got back about 300 of them," says Dorwart. "A lot of it is people who feel like we're betraying them. They're very, let's say, boisterous about their opinions. It's definitely a double-edged sword--we think we've got all these cool ideas, but a lot of people are just pissed off. I mean, closing the Table of Contents in St. Paul is melancholy for all of us, and I guess we're flattered that people are so pissed off that we're changing." Want to get your two peeves in? Stop by the St. Paul ToC (1648 Grand Ave., 651-699-6595) sometime before the first week in November, when the caravan of stoves and comment cards is scheduled to roll.

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