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R. Norman's and 7 Sushi Lounge: work it

At R. Norman's, seal the deal with a steak and a handshake
courtesy of R.Norman's

R. NORMAN'S
700 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.238.7770 • www.rnormans.com
entrees $18-$48; appetizers $6-$19

7 SUSHI LOUNGE
700 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.238.7777 • www.7mpls.com
sushi/sashimi $4-$15 ; appetizers $5-$15

On a recent Tuesday night at the 7 Sushi Lounge in downtown Minneapolis, a guy with frosted hair, distressed designer jeans, and cowboy boots was splayed out on one of the low, square couches, flanked by two women. Glowing pillars changed color patterns like the roof of the nearby Target building as house music pulsed ntsss...ntsss...ntsss... in the background. The man sipped from a tall, silver can of Sapporo and listened to one of the women, who reached her chopsticks toward a piece of sashimi as she spoke. The other woman, dressed in a pencil skirt and knee-high boots, scribbled something in a notebook. Suddenly I got it: They were working.

With this realization, my friend and I finished our caterpillar roll in silence so we could eavesdrop on a different table. "You know how Wall Street is," the first man said. Ntsss...ntsss...ntsss... "I love the candles," the second man gushed. Ntsss...ntsss... "To Target partnerships," the woman said, and the three clinked glasses.

Since it opened last New Year's Eve, the multitiered R. Norman's steakhouse and 7 Sushi Lounge on Hennepin Avenue has quickly become the toast of the city's expense-account and nightlife scenes. It's the latest venture from David Koch and Randy Norman, who were also partners in Bellanotte—the first place in town to offer the sort of two-in-one upscale dining/late-night scene you find in larger cities. R. Norman's and 7 are the next iteration of the same concept—exploding it into two restaurants, four levels, three DJs, and a roof deck. While Bellanotte still attracts its share of T-Wolves lapping up post-game cocktails (I recently sat close enough to Rashad McCants to read his neck tattoo), it also has its share of high school prom dates and balding men in crew-neck sweaters. The crowd's a little more New Jersey compared to 7's Manhattan.

During the week, both R. Norman's and 7 attract a lot of professionals winding down after work or taking out clients. Upstairs, it's the creative class trading in ideas: tech startups wooing recruits, ad teams in town presenting concepts, PR divas. Downstairs at R. Norman's, with black-and-white Rat Pack photos on the walls and smooth jazz on the stereo, it's a more conservative crowd, with lots of men in suits. The lawyers, accountants, and financial analysts tucked into booths are the sort that seal deals with handshakes—not the man-hugging going on upstairs.

After the weekend dinner rush dies down, 7 turns into a nightclub, with waiters yanking tables to make room for the six-deep crowds at the bar. On the Friday night I visited, the restaurant's duality was apparent as soon as I approached the hostess, who was in a club-ready, low-cut shirt and spiky heels, and was checking herself out in a hand mirror. Her business cards, along with those of the other hostesses, were on display so patrons might...request more information about the restaurant? Ask them out? I'm not sure. The restaurant has a dress code, too, which we found to be uniformly enforced, as my friend was gently asked to remove her winter cap before being seated.

We grabbed the last two spots at the sushi bar and surveyed the crowd, which was more mature (mostly 30s and 40s) and more stylish than you find at most clubs downtown—yet not necessarily more conservative. There was enough fur trim and animal prints to stage a performance of the Lion King. One woman's skirt was so short I think I saw cheek.

Norman and Koch originally planned on the second restaurant having a Latin theme, but seeing as sushi has become yuppie Lean Cuisine (I overheard the young woman next to me say, offhandedly, "I have a line item in my budget for sushi."), they wisely switched it up. The sushi at 7 is good enough to make people happy but not so good as to be distracting. The restaurant serves a basic array of nigiri, sashimi, and Americanized specialty rolls (including one wrapped in thinly sliced strawberry), and I enjoyed every bite I tried. The ruby block of fatty tuna tasted as deep and meaty as a rare steak (though I couldn't help but worry it contained a thermometer's worth of mercury). The Dragon, Rainbow, and Spider rolls—the ones stuffed with three kinds of fish and vegetables inside the rice, and three more on the outside—were respectable renditions of smorgasbord-style maki.

From the appetizer list, I liked the tako su, a tangle of purple octopus tentacles in a bowl of vinaigrette-soaked, wafer-thin cucumbers. The tentacles had a pleasant, calamari-like chewiness and a mild, clean flavor; garnished with delicate carrot, radish, and lemon slices, it made for a pretty springtime salad. The hamachi kama— fish cheeks, served as, essentially, a portion of the fish's "neck," replete with fins, skin, and bone—was another delight. It's a little messy to pick out the juicy flesh, fatty with flavor, but it's worth the extra effort.

The meat downstairs at R. Norman's, which consists mostly of steaks and grilled fish, sticks closely to the standard chophouse formula. The most expensive items on the menu seem more for showing status than delivering a return on the dollar. Kobe steak may be the most tender type of beef, but was it worth $9 a bite? Probably not, especially compared to the tasty R. Norman's fillet, topped with lump crab meat and honey-bourbon sauce. The macaroni and cheese can be ordered with truffle oil (which our waitress described as being "like, the new hot condiment"), but it would have been better without its overpowering muskiness. The worst high-priced offender was the Australian cold-water lobster tail. The meat was tasty, sure, but delicious enough to make my four-bite share worth $25? No.

Yet a number of mid-priced items make R. Norman's a serviceable business-lunch spot. I tried a range of dishes, from a homey side of green bean casserole (as thick and gooey as grandma's) to a more experimental blackened scallops entrée served with papaya-cilantro butter and barbecue corn relish, and, after all that, found that the salads were what I'd order again. The Houston is straightforward—bacon, cheese, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, and honey-mustard dressing—but exactly what it should be, as is the R. Norman's, topped with beef tenderloin, tomatoes, and a generous portion of blue cheese crumbles. Some of the other items could have used more attention: The ribs were dry, the grilled tuna steak sandwich was eclipsed by its bun, and the burger, when ordered medium, came charred to a crisp on one side.

While the dessert menu offers all manner of classic spiked ice cream drinks, molten chocolate cake, and bread pudding, the best treat is the bananas Foster. Upon order, a cook wheels out a cart equipped with a lit gas burner, heats a sauté pan, and then loads it with butter and brown sugar (a painfully transparent reminder of the high-cal content of restaurant desserts). The cook adds sliced ripe bananas, dark rum, and banana liqueur, then ignites the mix in a spectacular flame. When it was served to my group, we almost started clapping.

A more striking contrast than the R. Norman's and 7 old-money/new-money dichotomy may be the scenes of wealth and poverty on either side of the restaurants' window glass. R. Norman's dining room looks directly out at bus stops whose routes serve the poorest parts of the city. (During lunch one day I was a bit spooked by a guy in a hooded skeleton sweatshirt and a skull mask who walked past.) But from 7, just two floors up, the same view becomes far more glamorous. Shrouded in spotlights and night sky, Block E—which I consider the ugliest piece of architecture in the city—somehow transitions from gaudy to glitzy in a Las Vegas sort of way.

As I stepped out of R. Norman's one night and watched a guy pee on the side of the Block E building, I had to bless the Bellanotte boys for investing in the block. Others may have balked at the blight, the cheesiness of GameWorks, the seediness of the Skyway Lounge. But that's what a city is: a mix of everything and everyone. A place where you can spend $300 on dinner and have two people ask you for money as you walk to the car.


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