News of the Weird
990 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Man does not live by bread alone. Also, there must be jokes. Wisecracking. Smart-ass one-upmanship. There must be class clowns. I've been thinking about class clowns ever since I started going to the News Room. And there's one thing about class clowns I never thought of, which is that they're defined as much by the class part as the clown: Easy targets, unchallenged minds, and captive audiences are critical ingredients. And let me tell you, if you have a huddling mass of class clowns yearning to breathe free, dash right off to the News Room, a new restaurant taking up about an acre of prime real estate in one of the many brand-new skyscrapers on Nicollet Mall.
The News Room is a theme restaurant roughly equivalent to the Hard Rock Café except organized around archival newspapers--certainly logical, because after all, what says sexy and fun more than archival newspapers? Cadillac-size rolled-up newspapers hover over some tables (now I know how roaches feel in their last minutes). Different rooms have different newspaper-section themes; the walls all look like enormous real historical newspaper pages, inset with multiple televisions: In the Arts section, movies show on the TVs; in the Sports section, maybe a million sports channels broadcast; in the financial section, the walls are inset with news-channel broadcasts, and stock-market line graphs form the backs of the booths. Overhead, a giant Great Depression-era-style stock ticker tape snakes around the ceiling.
It goes without saying that a giant clipper ship, replete with life-size wooden mast-maiden and climbing ropes, makes the bar in the main room. And it is being dive-bombed by airplanes. And there are giant headlines on the walls about Charles Manson. And--duh--the clipper ship is inset with televisions. Did I mention the stadium seats dangling from the ceiling in the sports room? And that anyone ordering top-shelf tequila or single-malt Scotch gets to see a bartender climb the riggings to retrieve the bottles from on high?
As one of my friends put it: It's like they filled up a thousand notepads with the results of a thousand brainstorming sessions, and implemented each and every one.
It is, without a doubt, the most insane place I've ever been. Previously I thought Red Square, the Communism-themed, Lenin-statued restaurant at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, was the most insane restaurant ever. Foolish youth.
The brain-joggle of the text-stamped walls is what does it, I think: Amelia Earhart, Charles Manson, and the Hindenburg all vie for your attention in the background, while the ten billion TV monitors throw in a thousand more suggestions for thought. One night, a sports channel just kept playing a promo for some sort of Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan something or other, and suddenly the dinner conversation veered to...Kerrigan/Harding--like or unlike John Dillinger and Eliot Ness? Which had nothing to do with our own minds, and everything to do with the environment.
Which is to say, it's all completely insane, but strangely inspiring. As one of my friends put it, "I can't believe this place doesn't get state funding. It's brilliant. It's nothing short of genius. It's the most accessible outsider art we have." Outsider art with drinks and chicken wings.
Get the drinks. The beer list is truly impressive, featuring some hundred beers, more than 25 high-end (though not rare) whiskies, nearly two dozen tequilas, and enough bizarre, news-or-dining-room-themed house cocktails to amuse anyone. (If you get the Glenfiddich-and-Cointreau-based "Nixon," $9, contact me immediately for your bravery medal.)
Then get the chicken wings: They're wingariffic! Okay, they're just pretty good, tender, ordinary wings, served in your choice of pretty good sauces: medium; atomic; rusty; rusty squared; chipotle barbecue; or Cantonese leek. I tried the atomic, which was not too hot, and perfectly fine. (Incidentally, I suspect you should skip the Cantonese leek, because when I ordered it the server made an exaggerated pantomime of a gagging diner with his head shaking and tongue sticking out.) Then get potatoes. For some reason, the kitchen is pretty good with all things potato: fresh-made French fries, super-thin just-cut potato chips, creamy mashed potatoes. And then the steak: I had a peppercorn-dusted New York strip one night ($18.95) that was quite good, cooked to temperature, and accompanied by those tasty fries.
Discounting wings, fries, and steaks, I'm not sure that even the First Amendment would protect this journalist against the repercussions if I said what I really think about the food in this News Room. So when I tell you this is without question the worst food I've had in a restaurant in at least three years, please read between the lines and know I'm pulling punches. An appetizer of three styles of hummus was just old-tasting and dull--until I noticed it was served with grilled bread too tough to bite through. "Wilderness" flatbread was an expanse of cracker crust topped with mushrooms, bits of blue cheese, and shreds of mozzarella, but it really distinguished itself when it couldn't be cracked with a fork, couldn't be cut with a knife, and, when picked up, grasped in both hands firmly between thumb and fingers, still could not be bent. (It's aluminum! It's steel! It's granite!) Scallops were overcooked, rubbery, and dull. "Cajun popcorn" shrimp weren't deep-fried and battered as the name would suggest, but were greasy, spice-dusted disks of unappealing salad-style shrimp. Even a no-brainer like chicken fingers, here "Captain Crunch" strips, were served blackened and burned.
For entrées, burgers were served cold on stale, untoasted buns. A barbecued pork po' boy was sugary and tough, served cold on a different shape of cold, stale bun, and it was far worse than food you'd find in cafeterias. The dill-cucumber salad was old and full of shriveled cucumber half-moons topped with dried-out dill and accompanied by rock-hard grilled bread. The "weeds" salad of various greens needed dressing. The "Fenway" salad was loaded with old, plastic-straw-tough slivers of date. At dinner, meatloaf came with metallic-tasting gravy that brought food-service cans to mind. The ravioli tasted tough and old.
By the time desserts came, anyone who had ordered anything but steak, or the pretty good grilled salmon, was still starving. But even then the un-creamy, sugary tiramisu met with disapproval, as did the refrigerator-odor-tainted crème brûlée and the dull chocolate cake.
The nicest thing I can think to say about the News Room--besides the fact that it's gorgeously insane--is that the travesty could perhaps be laid at the door of the menu designer. And if that person were made to fall on a sword, perhaps something could be salvaged. The menu is absurdly, preposterously, comically ambitious--a dozen to sixteen each of pastas, salads, appetizers, and fish or meat entrées. Look at the menu too long and you begin to see that it encompasses American comfort foods as well as dishes originating in the Caribbean, Indonesia, China, Thailand, the American Southwest, Japan, Portugal, Italy, maybe even Greece. Again, it's like they filled up a thousand notepads with a thousand dishes, and charged the kitchen with executing them all. Nutty. Just expecting a kitchen to move all those foods through reliably enough to keep them all fresh is wacky.
But, you know, I hear Dorothy Parker was pretty well unhinged, too. Sometimes wit and genius and madness are overlapping attributes--though, admittedly, not often in restaurants. So, I say, Go now: Plenty of restaurants serve food, but this is the only one on Earth serving this particular sort of brain-exploding chaos, so, somebody, stop the presses--please!
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