Mission: Accomplished

From bar snacks to foodie finds: Mission's fried catfish and a glass of Dr. M Prum '01 Riesling
Bill Kelley

Mission American Kitchen & Bar
IDS Center
80 S. Eight St., Minneapolis

Americans are divided on many important topics. Which steward of hereditary millions should send our young rural poor to Iraq? What trait should our automobile lord over our neighbors? Financial strength? (Escalade!) Physical strength? (F-450!) Moral strength? (Prius!) Should Ronald Reagan's image be graven on the ten-cent piece, or, more simply, just branded onto each of our foreheads? Such are the divisions that rend us.

Yet, on one topic, we are undivided.

It is this: When poppers are served, like, wooooo!

Whether they're jalapeño poppers at the sports bar, amyl nitrate poppers at the leather bar, popcorn poppers in the rec room, or Champagne poppers shooting streamers on New Year's Eve, this much is certain: When the poppers come out, dismay goes on the shelf, and Americans smile as one.

So why don't you check out the olive poppers ($4) at Mission American Kitchen & Bar?

Here's what they are: green olives, of average size, stuffed with blue cheese, breaded, and fried till they bounce around the plate like little worlds of salt and pop. Toss one in your mouth and every cell in your body will turn as one to look at the beer taps. Woooo!

No matter that your eyes see a tasteful room of terra-cotta and cinnamon colors, of plush booths, white tablecloths, visible wine cellar, and copper wall art, your cells respond: Hey, it's time for dismay to go on the shelf--we got poppers here!

Mission American Kitchen is the new restaurant that has taken over the old Aquavit space in the IDS Center, and it's a very likable, plain American restaurant that, if you can imagine such a thing, sort of splits the difference between a businessman's expense-account destination, a 1960s cocktail party, a soul-food shack, and a place your wife will find acceptable on your anniversary.

I mean, for the ladies, Mission offers attractive lighting, a lovely wine list, oysters, and a chocolate soufflé as memorable as an onscreen kiss. For the expense-account crowd, Mission offers comfort foods tailored to the most crotchety elderly client (roasted chicken and scotch), to his diet-obsessed wife (steam-fried salmon and chardonnay), to your most rambunctious new hire (barbecued ribs and a beer), and to your most status-obsessed boss (ask for the soon-to-debut reserve wine list, or content yourself with Far Niente cabernet, $140, if you must). The dimensions of a 1960s cocktail party can be uncovered once you set some creamy deviled eggs ($4) and potato chips with sour cream ($3.50) next to your martini. Finally, as for the soul-food shack: The place makes fantastic fried catfish, and truly notable pork ribs.

Whichever aspect of Mission most appeals to you, it's unquestionably a nice addition to downtown. At dinner, you can start your Mission experience with some nicely creative but appealingly unflashy original cocktails designed by Dona Culver. The Mission Manhattan ($8), made with cherry-infused Woodford bourbon, is a charming version of the classic, with the cherry released from its traditional role as garnish and freed to fragrance, but not dominate, the whole drink. The Mission Statement martini might be the martini of the year. It's a traditional martini, terrifically dry, made mostly with Shakers Rye vodka, and, instead of the classic vermouth, perfumed with a touch of Inniskillin ice wine, and garnished with a trio of fat, dangling purple grapes. The touch of ice wine lends the drink the slightest honeyed, apricot sort of nose, but doesn't interfere with the brisk essence of the classic martini, which is, above all, dry.

For appetizers, you can stay crisp and clean with oysters on the half shell ($2.50 each) or individual shrimp ($2.75 a pop). Although most of the rest of the options are rich snack foods, like the plate of decadently lush, incredibly filling deviled eggs, or a big bowl of golden and brown, crisp and curling house-made potato chips presented with a bowl of sour cream for dipping. (There's also a fairly dull plate of house-made crackers presented with a small dish of warmed chèvre, tomato dip, and a basil spread to enhance them, for $8.)

Salads like the tomato, bacon, and dill ($7) are good, though also rich; I was surprised at first that this salad had no greens--order it and you receive a sculpture of two halves of a tomato clapped around two crisp strips of bacon, the whole thing dressed with a creamy house-made dressing and liberally garnished with clumps of dill--tasty, tasty, tasty. And hey, if you don't tell your mom that we are now calling bacon and dressing a salad, I won't tell my mom, and we'll see if this one won't fly under the radar.  

A few of the entrées are truly delicious, like the catfish and the ribs. Now, over the last decade I have become something of a connoisseur of soul-food, chicken shack-style fried catfish. I have seen it served dry as a plank, crisp as a potato chip, rich and gamy, wet and frightening, but never in all my days have I seen it so very white, plump, plush, and tender; never have I seen it so golden and curling; never have I seen it as pale as cod, as light as bubbles. Now I have! I think we can verily crown the new catfish kings of the upper Mississippi: Mission! For $15 you get that catfish, as well as a whole pile of homemade fries, which are fresh, crisp, and tender, and just very, very good.

The country-style pork ribs ($18) are another standout: sweet, tender, the meat gliding by guide of fork off the bone, gilded by just the right amount of spice to give them character. The final hall-of-famer on the Mission dinner menu is the breathtaking veal chop ($35), an enormous Flintstones-looking portion of meat in which the bone of the chop is left attached, but the meat is pounded thin until it's as big as a platter, then the whole thing is breaded and fried in butter and olive oil until it's a deep golden color. Every bite is soft as a brownie, rich as ice cream, lush with the cream of the meat and a hint of herb and garlic in the crust, and just utterly beyond delicious. It's the buttercream-iced 10-layer cake of meats. (It must be noted that one aspect of the dish is, no matter how you cut it, a lot like spooning butter straight into your mouth.) The "steam-fried" salmon ($18) was nice. It's a sort of amplified teriyaki salmon, given a little zip with black beans.

The only real disappointment I found was the roasted chicken with an arugula bread salad ($20). The chicken was almost too salty to eat, and also dry as could be. The dressing on the arugula salad tasted sweet, and the croutons in it were unpleasantly dry. Another night the sirloin steak ($21) went awry: It too was violently oversalted, dry, overcooked, and otherwise uninspired; the Italian-derived sides of chopped eggplant, roasted peppers, and a sauce of freshly ground herbs seemed to have little to do with the steak; and that about wraps that up.

Mission offers a whole page of side dishes, like a large basket of fresh, golden fries ($4.50) that should soon have their own cult following, as well as a wonderful dish of just-sautéed baby spinach in garlic ($5). Braised greens with smoked ham ($5) were the only real dud I found; they were merely irony, briny, and thin. Strange, for a place with such stunning catfish. Go figure.

If you don't have a more interesting topic, feel free to consider that while you enjoy the Mission's old-fashioned array of charming desserts. There are amusing cane-sugar floating islands ($6): poached meringues that look like pyramids, taste like maple marshmallows, and float cutely in a custard sauce among crunchy toasted pecans. The root beer float is another old-timey dessert that's fairly irresistible. Here, a tall, footed glass holds a generous scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream and is presented to you alongside a chilled bottle of Stewart's root beer. Delicious, and a top bribe when Take Your Daughter to Work Day turns into Daddy Needs a Stiff Drink Day.

The king of all these old-fashioned desserts is obviously the chocolate soufflé for two ($12). It takes them a half-hour to whip the thing together, but boy howdy, is it worth it. Order it and your server will eventually toddle out holding up a white pot with a lofted, trembling poof of chocolate rising toward the sky. Seconds later he or she will spoon it into portions for you, gild it with raspberry and vanilla sauce, and you'll put a forkful in your mouth and: Oh my. It's buoyant, it's fudgy, eggy, homey--no wonder home cooks of yore used to tear their hair out trying to perfect the thing.

Finally, the wine program at Mission is all you could hope for, in an expense-account place downtown. They've got more than 150 bottles on their half-American, half-global list, with a number of nice choices in the $20-something range. With the oysters or catfish I can't recommend the Dr. M Prum '01 Riesling ($29) enough; it's clean, zingy, racy, and has enough steel to cut through that rich catfish, but enough floral qualities to show off the minerals in the oysters. For the ribs, I think I'd recommend the Trevor Jones Boots grenache ($29), for its spicy cherry and chocolate, or, now that I think about it, also the Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé ($117). How sexy would that be, you're sitting around, drinking French Champagne, eating pork ribs? Dude, call the harbormaster, your ship's come in.  

On Tuesdays all of the Mission's bottles from their regular list are half off, and the list is pretty much the current definition of fantasy baseball, wine geek-style. Anyhoo, I really appreciate the wines with the lower prices, and I think everybody on the office-birthday circuit downtown will appreciate them too. I mean, why not have your next birthday drink with workmates over a $19 bottle of the light and melony chenin blanc by South Africa's Ken Forrester, the Petit Chenin '02? And on Tuesday it's half off and... oooh.

So you can see, aside from a few oversalting problems, I don't have a single complaint about Mission. I should especially make a note here of how wonderful the hosts are, eager, helpful, accommodating; they seem, more than at any restaurant I can think of, to really have a hand on what's going on in their dining room. You forget what it's like to deal with hosts who greet you on a Friday night with anything but blind panic and exhaustion. The servers, too, are tops; they know quite a bit about the menu and are otherwise willing to find answers to near any question. They seem to get a little overwhelmed with all they're supposed to juggle sometimes, but you can definitely tell they're trying to be helpful, which is all any of us can really ask for.

So, oversalting: the one real flaw.

However, here's one unreal flaw, or, at least, one hopelessly extra-referential criticism: To me, there's something slightly depressing about the low, safe culinary ambitions of Mission. Selling potato chips, poppers of any sort, ribs, fries, and root beer floats to Americans--is this a restaurant?

I feel like a jerk even noting this, because I fear that this criticism is entirely based on the Ghost of Aquavit, which haunts the space. Now, I was not a big fan of Aquavit, I thought the product of the kitchen was wildly uneven, and that the front-of-the-house service was a woeful mess, alternately arrogant and absent. But, at its best, the food from the kitchen was insightful, transcendent, gorgeous, unique, delightful. The party line here in Minnesota when Aquavit closed was that Minnesotans couldn't understand and support the brilliant vision of the restaurant. Me, I always thought the objection was more like: They're such jerks, and the food is in such small portions! Also, the wine list was gruesomely overpriced. Still, even with all that in mind, it seems sadly ironic to me that what's replaced Aquavit is something combining a flawless front of the house with the cuisine equivalent of K-Tel's greatest dance-party hits.

Still, the Ghost of Aquavit is not Mission's problem. If the mission of the Mission was to be a nice, good restaurant, or, even, a good, nice restaurant, that mission has been accomplished.

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Mission American Kitchen & Bar

77 S. 7th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402


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