1624 Harmon Place, Mpls.; (612) 332-1617
Hours: Lunch or Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Legend has it that Harry Houdini went from rags to riches on the hinge of a night at a St. Paul beer hall: Up until that fateful night, he had been a mere dime-museum attraction and medicine-show schlep looking for a break in big-time vaudeville, and he was actually thinking about retiring as an entertainer. But it so happened that on that spring night an influential Chicago theater manager, Martin Beck, sat in the audience, and he was intrigued. (If you are too, check PBS's amazing Houdini special,www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/houdini/
). Beck challenged Houdini to escape from a pair of handcuffs he provided, and the rest is history: Nearly overnight, Houdini became the "Handcuff King" and went on to develop his series of awesome stunts--having himself dumped into the Hudson River in a chain-and-padlock-wrapped box; suspended upside down with chained ankles; and, my favorite, stuffed into a steel milk can with water poured to the top, the lid screwed on, and the outside ringed with padlocks and chains.
I've thought at lot about Houdini lately, sitting in another Twin Cities bar, sipping St. Paul beer, and watching a magician try to escape from ever-more-complicated bonds of his own devising--although here the chains consisted of improbable food combinations (Coca-Cola crème fraîche, lobster-peanut-butter broth) and you got to eat the magic.
The magician was one Patrick Atanalian, a chef I've watched these past years with growing fascination. The Marseilles native debuted locally a few years ago as chef at the New French Café and moved on to helm the kitchen at the Vintage before setting out last fall to revitalize the Loring Café and Bar. But what sets Atanalian apart isn't his résumé: It's his rascally approach to fine dining, the way he'd so much rather pull off an improbable, nearly dangerous assemblage of ingredients than merely coast on his French background and the popular simplicity of protein swathed in sauce.
Take, for example, his entrée of Chinese barbecue chicken served on a bed of black-eyed peas, shredded snow peas, and bean sprouts in a smoky root-beer sauce and crowned with a dollop of ginger-tomato tapénade--I ask you, white-tablecloth chicken with soda and three phases of legume? That's cooking without a safety net. Believe it or not, the first time I had this unlikely dish it was utterly sublime: The chicken quarter was perfectly done, the skin that ideal combination of crisp at top and moist and buttery underneath, the meat cooked to the exact temperature where it is tender as sliced cheese. The sauce was sweet, smoky, and complicated with a thousand hints of spice--after all, root beer is in its essence a distillation of flavorful barks and roots. Add the jumping textures of creamy black-eyed peas, crisp pea pods, and yielding sprouts, and the forthright, ketchuplike zing of the tapénade--really, it was marvelous, and at $22 for both a magic trick and delectable piece of chicken, I counted it a bargain.
At that same meal there was a marvelous creation of soynut-crusted salmon ($25) served on a garlic-chile polenta cake in a bowl of lobster-peanut-butter broth, the whole thing topped with scoops of water-chestnut-carrot salsa. The lobster and peanut butter enhanced each other astonishingly well in a slightly Malaysian, almost haunting taste, and the seared, smoky polenta proved great counterpoint to the vivacious Asian-influenced salsa. But what was most dazzling was the way Atanalian just kept upping the stakes: There must have been thirty elements to the dish, and the fact that any one could have gone wrong at any moment made the feat so much more amazing. Not just cooked fish and reduction sauce with starch, but fish, crust, multifaceted shellfish-filled sauce, cooked and then seared starch, and complicated extra sauce. Not just milk-can contortion, but milk can, quantities of water, chains, padlocks, and a screw top.
I raved about the Loring to my friends. Finally, I announced, the famously romantic flowers-saxophones-and-ruins restaurant had food as remarkable as the décor. But then I went back and learned that there were nights when Atanalian just about drowned in his milk can: That same marvelous chicken arrived blackened and nearly burned, the black-eyed peas were undercooked and threw off the balance of contrasts. The whole thing seemed like a sorry mess and I was stricken to see it--it felt like finding a favorite ballerina drunk and staggering down the alley.
At that same meal, an overdone section of beef tenderloin ($29) came with a side dish of chopped portobello mushrooms and plantains that were both chewy and dry, while the powerful-sounding mango-rum sauce and Coca-Cola crème fraîche seemed to run and hide when faced with the task of uniting the earthy ingredients.
A garlic-chile-marinated pork tenderloin ($24) was particularly frustrating in how close it came to being awfully good: The lightly seasoned pork arrived on a mélange of white beans and big pieces of lobster, and the pale mocha sauce and whipped cream was surprising, innovative, and almost entirely successful--except that it cloaked an almost alarmingly underdone piece of meat. Yet at the same meal a plate of plump, chewy ravioli ($20) filled with a sun-dried-tomato mixture and swimming in a potent broth made with both truffles and porcini mushrooms was plucky, strong, a joy to behold--and the way the bowl was speckled with tiny Niçoise olives and topped with a dollop of chunky pesto served as a haughty riposte to all those bowls of overabundant and underseasoned pasta the Twin Cities are cursed with.
Brunch at the Loring revealed the same pattern. A humble chorizo-and-egg scramble in a cayenne-touched hollandaise ($9.50) proved a welcome recasting of traditional breakfast food. But baked eggs Florentine ($8.50) in a sweet, tart mimosa sauce seemed no better than peculiar, and brioche French toast ($8.50) stuffed with a sort of blackberry cream cheese would have been far better without the sacrifice of the blackberries. I'm tempted to editorialize that the trouble with Atanalian's dishes is that they're too complicated to reproduce reliably. (Did you know that big corporations test their recipes for fault tolerance, and will only publish them if you can do nearly everything wrong and still get an edible product?) But complexity is exactly what makes them thrilling, and I really wouldn't want to see them any other way.
As to the Loring generally, I think the restaurant is immeasurably improved by Atanalian's presence. I had thought the place sort of rudderless since the departure of Steven Brown for the Local, but now the romantic dead boughs and crumbling plaster, the live saxophonist or acoustic guitarist on the balcony, and the wide-ranging wine list all seem to have meshed into a stylish and eccentric whole, making the landmark once again an engaging destination--and not merely the Dunhill-and-turtleneck "Boring" it was devolving into. (Of course, there's always something distinctly "I'm not really a waitress" about the Loring's service, and the sparkling wine list could stand some strengthening, but c'est la vie.)
So I look forward to returning--probably for the prix fixe, at which a soup or salad, entrée, and dessert cost only $33 or $35 (depending on the entrée). I've concluded that this is a restaurant I should visit more frequently, both to catch Atanalian on his good nights and to watch the mystification. Houdini preferred to call himself a mystifier, not a magician, and the title seems to suit the chef as well.
And when I'm at the Loring in the future I'll try to keep developing my theory about the similarities between the two. For one thing, Houdini nearly drowned at age seven in a river near his childhood home of Appleton, Wisconsin, and forevermore he taunted death by water. Similarly, Atanalian obsessively forces together the most outrageous American junk food--marshmallows, root beer, ketchup--and high European cuisine (cassoulet, truffle broth), working toward either triumph or catastrophe, in the great tradition of daredevils.
VEGAN DREAMS: Thinking of writing to me? Don't bother, I've received the War and Peace (and Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) of all letters, from one Joe W. of Brooklyn Center. "I am a huge fan," the six-page missive begins before getting into the meat of the matter: "How I wish that Dara would get herself up as Santa so I could throw myself upon her lap and state the following: 'Thank you, oh great one, for the tasty tidbits you've flung my way occasionally.' You see, I am vegan, and as you know, a common joke among my people begins, 'So, been to any good vegan restaurants lately?'
"Please consider giving us a gift: a list of the 20 all-time best vegan dining options in the Twin Cities....Being vegan colors everything I do, say, or wear. Hell, I can't even think carnivorously....Jolly magic elf, for this I will stomp your grapes eternally!!!! I will LABOR in your vineyards, spirit! I will carve soy leather for your cherry cobbler!"
To which I say: Back off my cherry cobbler, buddy! And quit calling me an elf! I have lawyers. But I also have long recognized that I could do a better job helping vegetarians and vegans find something good to eat, and I am herewith announcing my Year 2000 project: To highlight good vegetarian--and, when possible, vegan--dining options in Tablehopping. So to turn over this new leaf, I had a vegan pizza. And it really wasn't bad.
The site was the new Pizza Lucé, at 3200 Lyndale Ave. S., (612) 827-5978, open seven days a week from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. In addition to pizzas--and I counted 25 vegetarian pizza toppings, including roasted eggplant, sauerkraut, homemade spicy mock duck, and two cheese substitutes--the restaurant has vegetarian and vegan hoagies and pastas, along with particularly good salads.
So, the vegan pizza. I got roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, and rinotta, a Lucé-made "ricotta substitute" which tasted vaguely like nut pesto and arrived piped onto the pizza in loopy ropes. Pretty good, though if I had to do it again I'd skip the faux cheese: I like the Lucé red sauce enough by itself and I couldn't get used to the mealy texture of the rinotta. I also couldn't handle the incredibly jarring noise level and the slightly unnerving price--a large pizza cost more than $20, since rinotta and roasted red peppers are each priced as a double topping. Still, dear vegan readers, consider the Lyn-Lake Pizza Lucé. And stay off my lap.
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