222 S. Ninth St., Minneapolis
There are two things you should know about Rock Star: The food is fantastic, and the room is appalling.
I mean utterly appalling. I didn't know interior design was so capable of inspiring antipathy, mortification, and the screaming willies until I took a couple of friends to Rock Star and watched them writhe in discomfort. "It's prom by Paper Warehouse," said one. "It's a loving Bret Easton Ellis tribute," said another. "Kraftwerk by Dame Edna!" "Dawn Weiner does Barbara Krueger!" "Sprockets!" "Rural Northern European airport, circa 1984!" But I think it's all that and much, much more.
Imagine glossy black-and-white photos of models done up in some sort of stark Helmut Newton Way (mmm, Helmut Newton Way, on the corner of Cocaine and Reagan?), dressed up in some ironic star-vomit-party way, blown up to near billboard size, looming over you from silver-touched walls, leering as if to say, "You think this is cool."
The net effect actually bears study by physicists, as it manages to open a wormhole in identity, society, and confidence, and suck all the coolness right out of your blood, leaving you feeling like some kind of naked, clueless hick. It is acutely uncomfortable.
I mean, my friends are a fairly cool and confident lot, being mostly employed in international espionage and sitcom enhancement, and to a one they all scurried out of there raving about the food, and vowing never to return. "Fantastic, delicious, amazing," announced one, furiously brushing Rock Star cooties off his sleeves. "I look forward to his next project."
The his in this case is Steven Brown, former chef at the Local, when they offered an upscale Irish-influenced menu, and the Loring Café. Brown has always struck me as the chef about town most animated by intellectual curiosity; hardly a novel food thought works its way across the national consciousness that Brown doesn't poke at to see if it yields anything interesting (see the tobacco-smoked tomato stew on the current menu as evidence). He's constantly doing things like running off to New York for a couple of days to volunteer in the kitchen at Craft, a restaurant that many agreed was the most important of last year, and a sort of think tank where chef Tom Colicchio worked to focus the art of cooking upon its most essential elements.
Brown's Rock Star menu presents mostly dishes made by accenting Italian or American bistro dishes with high-quality Spanish ingredients, and the results are happily both unfussy and intriguing. Consider the Grape-Harvester's Tomato Stew ($7), a deceptively simple concoction of San Marzano tomatoes, red wine, and tobacco-and-oak-smoked Spanish paprika. The thing is basically a bowl of tomatoes, but their flavor has been intensely concentrated, and their smoky, earthy aspects played up by a slab of grilled bread, and the entire dish lightened and enriched with a dollop of peppery mayonnaise. It becomes a steak au poivre for vegetarians: full, gutsy flavor in every bite, and highly devourable.
The restaurant's current caesar salad ($8) is one for the local hall of fame, as it is freshly done and flavored with subtle Spanish anchovies, peppery, salami-like discs of dry Spanish chorizo, and one giant, soft, grilled crouton that you can go after with knife and fork. There are other appetizers with more of a high-cuisine air, like the very nice grilled nectarine with juniper-smoked ham, warm Taleggio fondue, and a salad of sunflower sprouts ($7.50). But I like that caesar salad very much; it's such a thoughtful, well-realized dish. Each element of the salad is both set off and magnified--the pepper of the chorizo, the buttery caramelization of the crouton--which makes you both appreciate the thing and see it afresh: no small feat for this done-to-death classic.
Amazing, too, were the delicate half-moon house-made ravioli. When I visited they were filled with a bright, grassy filling of fresh nettles and sauced with a woodsy combination of browned butter, balsamic-vinegar reduction, chopped, toasted walnuts, and nutty curls of Parmesan cheese. I think they taste like a spring landscape, in the best way.
Tresse nero are big, string-bean-like tubes of black squid-ink pasta tossed with springy little pink squid bodies, dusted with crisp garlic bread crumbs, the whole effect fascinating in texture, surprising in presentation, and light in taste. An unexpected favorite was a stuffed chicken breast ($10 at lunch, $18 at dinner), a crisp quarter of roasted chicken with a quilt of Spanish cured pork loin and spinach resting just beneath its skin. It was garlicky, herbal, sweet, roasty, and plain--everything good that could be done to a chicken was done to this one.
At lunch, a burger ($7.25) gets a similar treatment: A special cut of ground sirloin is topped with crisped prosciutto, sweet Gorgonzola, and fiery wisps of garlic chives: Fantastic. It is the best burger I know of in downtown Minneapolis right now.
I didn't love everything I tried. The butter-poached halibut ($21) was too sweet, I thought, with its carrot risotto. The wine list is a tidy, food-friendly, largely southern-European creation offering a number of good choices: Van Duzer pinot noir ($28) is a soft, cherry-edged wine that acted as a pretty foil to Brown's pointed flavors. I can't really think what to tell you about the cocktails. On one visit they were marvelous; on another a gin fizz ($7) was a gin and soda, the classic highball served, perplexingly, without ice, in a martini glass. I'm guessing this depended on whether there was a real bartender around. Similarly, I couldn't say I ever thought there was a real server around. Every one I dealt with seemed untrained, tentative, and confused, as if they had just started the job.
Which brings us to the weird caveat about Rock Star: Even after repeated visits I hardly have any idea how the restaurant functions as a restaurant. Whenever I was there it was as one of only a few tables in a just about empty dining room--which is to say when I was at Rock Star, it was less a restaurant than a private dining room, featuring an accomplished chef and his longtime sous chef cooking for one table at a time. Why? Because the gulag-prom décor prevents anyone from returning, I guess.
So, should you yourself go? The question doesn't really seem to turn on the usual issues of parking, buzz, and food. More important: How soft is your heart, how impermeable your cool-armor?
I called Steven Brown one night at Rock Star, latish, to fact-check something, and could hear a level of kitchen shouting, laughter, and high jinx that just telegraphed, There's no one in the dining room. "Oh, you poor guys," I found myself saying, unbidden. Making little nettle-filled jewels, and no one to order them. "I know," said Brown. "We're like those pioneers: You travel across country to what you think is going to be your farm, and--oh no! It's a pile of rocks!" A pile of glassy, black-and-white rocks. "Everybody else got a farm. I thought we were going to farm! Damn. But we're going to make a go of it. All we need is a mule and a--a mule! I've got a mule! We're going to make this farm work! We'll farm these rocks!"
Finally: what it really means to be a rock star.
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