Out of the Frying Pan
1400 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
I'd like to offer a second rule as to what makes a restaurant succeed, to be listed in your bibles right after "location, location, location." Or, wait--will this be a fourth rule? Well, critics can't count that high, so let's call it a second rule anyway: Restaurants are where no-brainers will bring a brilliant man to his knees.
Seriously. Getting a dirty fork off the table and clean again isn't rocket science. Any reasonably agreeable seven-year-old can do it. However, getting 700 forks back in circulation when your dishwasher is in the hospital with her appendicitis-struck kid, your best server is weeping in the walk-in over her latest breakup, the produce delivery truck broke down on the highway and didn't arrive until 5:00, the icemaker has turned itself into a solid glacier, the hostess you fired last week seems to have written most of tonight's reservations into next month's section of the book, and the critic at table 21 is showing a fatal interest in a stew made three days ago that you would have pulled off the menu if you hadn't been dealing with the intervening crises. That, my friends, is 15 minutes in the life of a restaurant. And if there's a rocket scientist in the house who thinks she can do it any better, she's welcome to grab an apron.
Those 15 minutes were, roughly, the story of Tonic, the last restaurant at 1400 W. Lake Street, one of the best restaurant locations in the rough box circumscribed by, oh, let's say the Rocky Mountains, the North Pole, Missouri, and Illinois. Tonic, however, managed to take that gilded location beneath one of the best rooftop decks in the state and generate such community hostility with its inedible food and raucous bar scene that it closed faster than you could say, "You know, I think Tonic is the New Coke of Uptown."
(Tonic will forever have a certain place in this critic's heart, because after I panned the place in print, they had the balls to take the dish I most despised, a vile presentation of mussels, and print up new menus in which the grotesquerie was rechristened with my name.)
In any event, that was then. Now the restaurant operations at this golden location have been taken over by Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the folks who developed Buca and later spun it off into its own chain, subsequently did the same for the Oceanaire, and otherwise have kept some of the Twin Cities best-regarded, and most-beloved, stand-alone restaurants humming along year after year. Parasole also owns Manny's Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Figlio, Muffuletta, and the Good Earth. If anyone has shown proof of overcoming the seething swarms of lethal no-brainers that do in good restaurants, it would seem to be the Parasole team.
So how is Stella's Fish Café and Prestige Oyster Bar, the restaurant they debuted in the old Tonic space? It's great, in its way. Basically, Stella's is a boomer-hipster's mid-price American seafood restaurant. It's aimed squarely at people who have been to the beach and would love to go back, wallet and time permitting. People who would love go to Oceanaire or out to sushi more, wallet and time permitting. Are you one of those people? Then you will probably really, really like, but maybe not entirely love, Stella's.
The reasons to like it are many. They have top-of-the-line oysters, usually very reasonably priced at around two bucks a pop. On my visits they've almost always had Malpeques, with their rich mineral weight, and usually a blowsy, briny East Coast option, like a Blue Point, as well as one of those meaty varieties of ocean fruit from the northern West Coast, like a Hammersley Bay oyster.
They have some great fast-food seafood. The po' boy and lobster roll are the best versions of their genres I've ever seen in Minnesota; I particularly recommend the catfish po' boy ($10.95), in which red-spiced catfish nestles in an enormous loaf of bread along with a creamy, mustardy rémoulade sauce; crunchy, salty, crisp refrigerator pickles; and plenty of lettuce and sliced tomatoes. This gargantuan sandwich offers everything good about the New Orleans street classic: It's spicy, creamy, bold, crunchy, salty. If they wrapped it in foil instead of serving it open in a basket, you could even eat it as the good Lord intended: for about an hour, with three beers. (The fried rock shrimp version, $13.95, is nice too, with fluffy-light little shrimp instead of the gamier catfish.)
The lobster roll ($18.95) bears good family resemblance to the stars of the seafood shacks of Connecticut and all points north: It's real, identifiable mottled red and white claw and tail meat, dressed only with the barest veil of mayonnaise and a bit of lemon, celery seed, and celery; simply delicious. If they served it in a plain old butter-grilled hot dog bun like they do in most roadside seafood shacks back East, instead of the fancier loaf of bread it's in now, you'd wear a hat for fear of seagulls.
The fish & chips basket ($12.95) and walleye platter ($17.95) offer fried fish that's golden and potato-chip crisp outside, and flaky, moist, and utterly tender within. It's fish to go head-to-head with any of your old favorites in town. If fish isn't your bag, the burgers are perfectly good, and the hash browns are gorgeous sisters to the king-of-the-mountain ones at Manny's, all crisp, tender, and fresh. Stella's also makes an absolutely craveable version of jalapeño poppers: giant fresh hot peppers, stuffed with cream cheese, battered and deep fried, and served with a sweet house-made jalapeño marmalade ($6.95). The desserts are fine: The key lime pie, in particular, is as sweet, as fresh, and as refreshing as the summer's first popsicle. Stick a pile of these seafood-shack American favorites next to one of Stella's 30 or so beers, which include favorites like Stella Artois on tap and PBR in a can, and you've got a great night out with the guys.
It is not, however, a great night out with the boss. Remember what I said about how you might like, but not love, Stella's? Well, the reasons for that distinction are short but meaningful: Premium seafood is a pay-to-play experience. Stella's offerings seem to suggest that you are going to be able to get tippity-top-shelf seafood, the stuff they serve at Oceanaire or the best sushi bars, at everyday prices. You are not.
The appetizer of sesame crusted ahi tuna with ponzu sauce ($10.95) I tried at Stella's seemed to be made with the same dull tuna found in supermarket sushi: It tastes red, it tastes cold, and that about wraps it up. The salty, undistinguished ponzu sauce dotting the plate was so plain it tasted like it was straight out of the jar. Stella's offers four or five fresh-fish choices every day that are thick-cut and served in the signature Oceanaire style: fire-grilled or broiledm, with a bit of sauce on the side. These cost less than they do at Oceanaire, and they're smaller portions, but still I don't really think they're worth it.
I tried some firm white-fleshed cavicucho (a California sea bass) one night, for $21.95, and it was served both tough and dry. I tried the Alaskan halibut on two separate visits, a month apart, and the kitchen could never manage to get the $21.95 square of fish to the light, delicate, and moist state you expect at that price: Once it was gummy and wet, another time overcooked and tight. Why? I'm going to guess simple economics. The reason great sushi tuna costs you $12 an ounce in the best sushi bars is because...that's what it costs. The reason you're not going to get a $75,000 chef working the line at your $10 sandwich restaurant is because...it's not gonna happen. In my experience, this means everything Stella serves from the fine-dining seafood tradition falls flat.
(With the notable exception of the oysters, available solo, but also gussied up, such as in Stella's excellent fresh-spinach-topped version of oysters Rockefeller, $12.95, or in their fun "oysters Moscow," in which, for $14.95, half a dozen raw oysters are each topped with sour cream and a few dots of both salty red and wasabi-soaked green flying-fish roe. I know, it sounds odd to put sour cream on oysters, but it's hauntingly delicious, with the cream and tang of the dairy so different from the cream and tang of the oyster.)
The wine list, too doesn't hold a heck of a lot of interest for a fine-dining type. It's pretty much the most reliable of the old reliables, priced three or four times retail: Pepi Pinot Grigio, for $7 a glass or $24 a bottle; King Estate Pinot Gris, for $35 a bottle; Dynamite Cabernet Sauvignon, $10/$38. There isn't a decent bottle of bubbly to pair with your oysters, just acidic splits of Kenwood Yulupa Brut ($9) and a lone Prosecco for $45. I actually recommend you order the house cheapies. Stella's offers three tiers of wine either by the glass or in refilled wine bottles: cheap ($3.50/$9), fine ($4/$11), and fancy ($4.50/$13). I tried the cheap and the fine whites back to back one night. The cheap was a clean, serviceable Chablis, and went nicely with the oysters. For $9 a bottle, ice-cold, it's worth it. The "fine" wine was also a Chablis, but as it was fancified with sweet oak flavors, it wasn't much more than merely drinkable.
So, did they say they were a fine-dining restaurant? No. So ignore the things that hint that they might be, like the more expensive seafood entrées and the wine list. Instead, focus on the long beer list and creative Mardi-Gras-on-the-Mississippi cocktails, like the blended Naughty Colada ($8), which tastes like a banana cupcake, or the Menage a Trois ($9.50), which arrives displaying three differently colored layers of alcohol, and departs with everyone you see telling much funnier jokes.
Which is to say that the rooftop deck at Stella's continues to be a party--and how could it not be? It makes downtown Minneapolis look exactly like the Emerald City, the view makes you feel like you've been on vacation for a week, and now it also just happens to boast one of the largest social spaces in Minneapolis where it's legal to smoke. Although now that Stella's is there instead of Tonic, the party deck has been leavened by Stella's family-friendly approach: When I was there on a sunshiny Sunday afternoon, I saw three large multigenerational tables of families with plenty of kiddies enjoying the weather, the seafood, and the under-$5 kids' menu.
Downstairs, things have changed just as dramatically. In the main dining rooms where once, in the days of Tonic, life was nothing but packs of lovelies stampeding up and down the open staircases like happy herds of My Little Ponies, today you find whole booths of folks with platinum hair and platinum cards to match, Blackberrying their assistants to forward copies of the Hilton Head vacation pics to the rest of the table. So now every Uptown demographic is catered to: the young, the young enough to consider Sponge Bob a peer, and the young enough to think Hillary has a shot. Does it seem like a no-brainer to you, to get a whole community to agree on fresh seafood, vacation-style? Then try it.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.