Platypus on 50th Street
3910 W. 50th St., Edina; 926-0800
I think that when I turn on the television in 2060 there will be a documentary about the 20th century in which Madonna's "Material Girl" will figure prominently. So I just want to say, before all these terrible documentarians get born, that I don't think these last Madonna-filled years of the 20th century are a material world, because if money just made you feel haggard and wretched, well, you'd get rid of it, wouldn't you?
It's more Streisand, I think--a feeeeeeeelings world, and we're all a bunch of therapy girls. I know I'm not alone in frequently taking my feelings' pulse, hoping for the first heady whiff of anguish (foretelling juicy repressed memories) or bittersweet triumph (sure sign of a best-selling memoir). Sadly, mostly what I get is a parade of mortifying banalities, like "Isn't there anything else on?" "Ice cream sure would hit the spot." "Is it a character failing to laugh at Howard Stern?" And "Gee, I'd better clean the stove before that stuff really bakes on there."
Happily, though, after three dinners at Tejas, I can report that I've entered a whole new realm. I've traded in my pedestrian, everyday feelings for an uncomfortable, uneasy feeling, a feeling that I can only think must be a lot like how the first naturalists felt when they confronted the platypus: I'm in a state of taxonomic shock.
Platypi, in case you've forgotten, are odd ducks. Well, not ducks, of course, but odd mammals native to Australia and Tasmania, which lay eggs but nurse their young and are endowed with webbed feet and a wide, flat bill with which they can sense electrical currents, probably to help them find prey. The male has venom-injecting spurs on its legs, which it employs when fighting with other males. (Keep this in mind for your trivia contests: The platypus is the world's only venomous mammal.) A platypus looks like a duck and a mole pieced together, which made it a baffling intrusion into the world of taxonomists, whose rigid categories dictated that mammals nurse and birds lay eggs.
That's how I felt after a series of recent visits to Tejas, the downtown Southwestern groundbreaker that relocated to Edina in 1994: profound categorical unease. I just couldn't decide: Is the restaurant a good casual spot with a few fine-dining perks or an elegant restaurant hamstrung by sloppiness? Should I be comparing it to Sidney's and the Green Mill or to café un deux trois and La Belle Vie? On the one hand, diners sit on the patio in flip-flops eating Southwestern Caesar salads. On the other, ordering the whole ball of wax--appetizer, entrée, dessert, a drink, tip--can easily run you $50 per person. On the one hand, beer and nachos. On the other hand, wood-grilled ahi tuna with soba noodle cake. They lay eggs. But they nurse. They lay eggs...
I guess all I can do is examine the subject in a scientific manner. The best thing Tejas does is serve its community well. The restaurant has convenient hours--they're open from 11:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. weekdays and until 10:30 on Friday and Saturday. They have a well-chosen, nicely varied wine list, a good selection of beers, and juicy, thirst-quenching white-wine margaritas and sangria. (This is Edina, remember; tequila and other hard liquors are verboten.) They have a reliable core of very good dishes--such as the outrageously popular cumin-laced Caesar with cayenne croutons ($4.95), which is tasty, spicy, and fresh, and highlights the vegetable flavor of the mature lettuce they use instead of masking it the way so many Caesars do. The green salad with pears, blue cheese, and candied pecans ($5.95) is another winner, straightforward and upstanding. For lunch they serve unpretentious hamburgers ($7.25) and a few fancy dishes from the dinner menu (in slightly smaller portions), such as grilled Alaskan king salmon on a bed of bacon- and scallion-laced mashed potatoes surrounded by a ladle's worth of an agreeably piquant chile sauce ($12.95). For dinner there are a couple of outstanding offerings: The braised lamb shank with red-chile mint jelly ($17.95) is a long, long, long-cooked mahogany-brown delectation; the meat is tender, and the gravy that swells around the horseradish mashed potatoes is very good.
I'm the first to recognize that it's not at all easy to find a place where Mom can have a good Caesar and glass of chardonnay, Dad a perfect lamb shank and a microbrew, and Junior a Coke and a nonthreatening dinner of nachos (tortilla chips scattered with chunks of smoked chicken breast and covered by a blanket of Asiago cheese, priced at $5.95).
Tejas's worst faults are in the details that elevate fine dining over casual dining. On two dinner visits, I was annoyed by servers who constantly interrupted conversations; evidently they were far more interested in my group's aligning to their schedule than the other way around. (Upon breaking into our conversation for a third time, at the point when everyone's menus were open and we were enjoying a drink, one server declared: "I don't want to be a pest but..." All together now: So don't!) And except for one lunch visit, dishes from every course arrived at the table with an "Okay, who got the..." auction. On top of all that, a number of times I was served very poor executions of what might have been good dishes. The chorizo pizza appetizer ($7.95) came blanketed under a half-inch of bubbling cheese that completely overwhelmed the eensy-weensy crust beneath. The spicy black bean and goat cheese fondue ($4.95) was a soup cup of hot black beans with a minuscule amount of cheese sprinkled on top, served with no more than eight multicolored tortilla chips arranged minimalistically on a very large plate. The black beans themselves tasted good--spicy, sweet, savory--but why on earth were they there alone like that? Who wants a cup of bean paste before dinner? The jalapeño-skewered prawns ($17.95), grilled shrimp in a jalapeño dressing, were ideal on one visit--tender and perfectly seasoned with a green sauce that had whiffs of fire and smoke in it--but on another they were overcooked and rubbery and came dripping with the sauce, which was uncooked, acrid, and unappealing.
Conspicuously, the best offerings at Tejas seem to be the ones that come closest to a chop-and-combine recipe. The banana chutney that accompanied barbecued pork tamales ($6.95) was a delightfully sweet and savory mixture that had the whole table after it. Steamed chilaquiles (a mash of corn-tortilla strips with meat, peppers, onions, and spices, priced at $3.95) were fantastic. Avocado salsa was a pretty dice of the ripe vegetable in a peppery liquid that I could have eaten a bowl of, and the salsa roja was a smoky treat of fire-roasted chiles and tomatoes.
The desserts (all of which cost $5.95) reinforce the crowd-pleasing but detail-disappointing trend. Lime cheesecake sat on an artwork of sauce painting--perfect ripples of pearly tequila sauce in a crimson blackberry-sauce background--but the main event was far too sweet and its texture too foamy. Chocolate chocolate-chip fritters, deep-fried balls of cookie dough served hot with ice cream and raspberry coulis, were good in a mini-doughnut, unrefined-sugar-rush sort of way, while the almond flan was dull and uninspired.
On the other hand, either of those dishes would probably thrill your average Edina middle-schooler out for a family birthday dinner. And the banana white-chocolate ice cream cake was a big hit: It had chocolate, it had ice cream, and it had a yummy roast banana salsa on the side. (Well, one time it did; the second time they forgot to put it on the plate, but I didn't let them get away with that.)
Is co-owner and executive chef Mark Haugen--who made a big splash (complete with a 1988 profile in Esquire) when he opened Tejas's original location in the Conservatory downtown--simply too busy managing the Tejas Express in the Dayton's Skyroom and opening and developing the menu for Bar Abilene, the new Texas-themed restaurant opening in the old New French Bistrot space?
"At times the food has been at odds with the ambiance," Haugen admits. "We're a neighborhood restaurant and we've had downtown prices." He says he plans to address the issue this fall by offering daily pasta specials priced at about $11, as well as new regular dishes at lower prices. Haugen also points to the restaurant's children's menu as a patron-friendly asset--and rightly so: Where else in town can you find wood-grilled ahi tuna for $18.95 and a chicken-finger dinner for $4.95?
Like I said: It lays eggs, but it nurses.
BACK-TO-SCHOOL SPECIALS: Seen the new course catalog from the school run by Cook's of Crocus Hill? It's got a bunch of star-studded and amusing one-time classes in addition to the standard, and popular, "Professional Approach to Basics" series. My picks include the two classes offered with Rick Moonen, the executive chef from New York's Oceana, a seafood restaurant known for smart dishes like salmon tartare wrapped with smoked salmon, and lobster ravioli in a basil-tomato broth. They run September 29 and 30 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.; each costs $70.
Also on my list are two classes in the "Dinner and a Movie" series hosted by Andrew Zimmern, the well-known local chef most recently seen at Backstage @ BRAVO! On October 30 Zimmern will show Tampopo and cook, with student participation, half a dozen dishes inspired by the film, like shrimp and leeks in a mustard-miso sauce. On November 13 the feature will be Big Night, and the menu includes roasted quail with grappa and gorgonzola polenta. Both classes start at 6:30; the $100 price tag covers wine, dinner, and the movie. Call Cook's at 228-1333 for a catalog or to register. But please note: Because these classes will tend to fill up rapidly, Cook's is conducting registration like a Ticketmaster auction, taking reservations starting at 10 a.m. August 12. So tuck your napkin under your chin and program that speed dial...
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