Neighborhood Values

Not your average neighborhood duplex: Chef Michael Hart and his wild mushroom tamales
Kathy Easthagen

2516 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

An editor of a local magazine recently called me a communist, because, over the years, I've labeled a few local would-be four-star restaurants overpriced. Me? A communist? With foie gras and Champagne in the fridge? And Sauternes in the basement? The mind boggles. For so many reasons. For one, if I were some sort of evangelical communist, I think hoping to convert people through a column of restaurant criticism would be like... like trying to practice ballet through a chosen medium of street paving. The medium and the message just aren't a good fit. I mean, a bourgeois wastrel, I'll cop to that, certainly, but a communist? You do realize that when I criticize a $100-a-head restaurant I am in fact no longer on the side of the hipsters, and that my mailbag fills up with thanks from various vice presidents of this and that?

Then again, price and value, price and value are always topics of abiding interest. For me, the daughter of a Wall Street economist, numbers and dollars are both endlessly meaningful, and simultaneously, kind of utterly meaningless, depending on the context. Take, for instance, three bottles of wine. One costs $9, and tastes fine, if over-oaked. The second costs $20, and is entirely well made and good. The third costs $129, and is marvelous, joyful, and profound. Which one is the best value, and has the best price? Obviously the $129 one—after all, what price, happiness? Outside of joy, however, it's all numbers.

In those numbers, though, you can also find true pleasure. Such is the case of duplex, a new Uptown restaurant with romantic atmosphere to burn, real stemware on the tables, real food on the plates, but prices only a titch higher than you'd pay at the corner Vietnamese joint, Mexican chain, or neighborhood burger bar. For everyone looking for a cheap date, with the emphasis on "date" —listen in!

You'll enter duplex, and find a real life classic Minneapolis duplex replete with the big front oak double window and the characteristic four-square room pattern, all of it painted romantic Valentine red. The bar and kitchen are where the dining room would be; most people sit in the former front parlor. You'll sit at one of the close-fitted tables, and contemplate the thrifty-minded wine list: In addition to the standard glass and bottle pourings, duplex offers three-ounce glasses, from $3. The wine list is a nice, usable, global, and food-oriented one, with bottles priced mostly in the $20-something range.

When you turn to the menu, you'll find that it's divided by price—the soups cost $5, the salads $7, more ambitious appetizers $8, and entrees cost either $10, for pastas, risottos, and such, or $15 for entrees including more expensive ingredients, such as duck breast or salmon.

Generally, I found the food at duplex to be good. Chef Michael Hart favors homey, forthright foods made with an edge of spice. Curried crab croquettes are big tater-tots of crabmeat, the dark breading made pretty with sesame seeds, and the plate given a bit of fire with a bright orange harissa sauce. Vegetarian wild mushroom tamales are earthy and uncontrived, but given a bit of perk with a fresh salsa and a bit of silk with a spoonful of a creamy sauce. A "classic split pea" soup was certainly that, the broth a deep green, the soup made smoky with long-cooked ham. A roasted butternut squash soup with lemongrass was so big, healthy, and thickly orange it seemed like you could rebuild 10 squashes from it. It was served with a crisp potato wedge on a skewer resting in the bowl, a "potato satay" that made the substantial dish even more so.

Hart does some of his nicest work with salads: His grilled radicchio slaw was a glorious thing: Here carrots and other root vegetables were julienned, marinated with pumpkin seed oil and balsamic vinegar, tossed with blue cheese, and fitted into a red globe fashioned from whole radicchio leaves. The globe was then set in a white plate sort of invisibly filled with a white blue cheese sauce; it was creative, fun, brisk, bold, and really altogether nice. His roasted garlic Caesar salad is a generous portion, and it hits all the right notes, with a little kick of garlic and plenty of good, just-grated Parmesan cheese.

The entrees were usually likable. A salmon roulade stuffed with fresh spinach and leeks was perfectly tender, the fish contrasting nicely with the herbal flavors of the stuffing; the plate was rounded out with remarkably generous quantities of sautéed beans enhanced with a little pool of béarnaise sauce. A fettuccini marsala with chicken, mushrooms, pancetta, and bits of fried garlic was sized to satisfy the hungriest linebacker, and was absolutely sturdy and unpretentious, with its little nibs of pan-seared chicken and al dente noodles barely dressed in the clear flavors of wine and good olive oil. A wild rice porcini mushroom risotto was chewy and well textured, and given interest and brightness with the first peas of spring, pale pearl onions, and bits of turnip.

Some of the entrees I tried weren't quite there. Potato gnocchi hadn't the lightness the dish required, and tasted more like boiled mashed potato balls, and a fried breaded chicken breast was far too heavy, the panko breading soaking up the accompanying beurre blanc until it was heavy and wet.

Overall though, duplex is not the kind of place you fuss and kick over the food. It's a cozy neighborhood restaurant, with the emphasis on neighborhood. More than any restaurant in town since St. Paul's beloved Café 128 opened, duplex feels as though you're at a friend's house for dinner.

Desserts, of course, are attractively priced, all $5, and sized to share. A blueberry white-chocolate bread pudding was tender and sweet. A chocolate parfait, made with chocolate ganache, a homemade caramel sauce, almond whipped cream, and a bit of almond praline, was like being served a goblet of chocolate truffle filling; a single teaspoon of the rich concoction would serve as dessert at a less generous or value-minded restaurant. Since duplex used to be a coffee shop, and is run by the same folks who ran the coffee shop, lattes and such are a cut above what you find most places.

Does good, cheap wine, $10 entrees, goblets filled with chocolate truffle filling, and lattes till the wee hours remind you of anything? It's pretty much the place you want to go when you're 22, working two jobs and an unpaid internship, driving something held together with bungee cords and/or the Schwinn you bought off your college roommate, and pinning all your hopes on—pick one—your band, your satire 'zine, your blog, your poetry, or your next group gallery show. It reminds me of the old Uptown, before the zooming real estate prices, the entertainment district, the Gap, and the condos, condos, condos. Does it makes me a communist to appreciate a restaurant with different values, for those values? If so, comrades, so be it.

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Duplex - Closed

2516 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55405


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