The Loring Park complex housing 4 Bells has seen a great many oddballs.
That includes the original Loring Bar, where everyone from anywhere else converged on International Night to dance to accordion music, drink red wine out of short glasses, and not speak English; and Nick and Eddie, raconteur Doug Anderson's part punk rock hang, part hamburger joint, part serious dining room.
Joe's Garage, a sort of dive bar lite, was there for a great many years. It was an anti-hip holdout, a throwback from another time when cocktails weren't crafted and you could order mashed potatoes topped with fish sticks with a straight face.
But anachronisms, no matter how charming, must all face their doomsday. A new oddball is having its day. And like those that came before it, we love it for its quirks.
Unless you, in fact, grew up in the Carolinas, you likely know little of their very specific regional cuisine, except perhaps in little fractals of the imagination that have been culled from the movies. Boiled peanuts, Old Bay, chicory, tasso, okra, and something that makes the rice dirty.
But this hasn't stopped throngs from lining up to give it all a try at 4 Bells.
It's much more than a restaurant that serves regional southern food. The cocktail program features drink makers who execute their craft with precision. The beer and wine selections are expansive yet careful. The room is elegant without feeling smug. There's enough light to be convivial to families, yet it's romantic enough for canoodling.
In short, it manages to be the crossroads it alludes to in the name — the four bells to the four churches that flank it on all sides.
Twin Citians, long deprived of the magical allure of good fried chicken, are about as obsessed with the stuff as they are ramen at the moment — two cravings we had few ways of pacifying for too long. 4 Bells is the wildly popular Revival's closest runner-up for classically great fried chicken.
Though the chicken takes on its own character via broasting in a pressure cooker, the result is a dewy inner flesh enrobed in a fragile, toasty crust. Dill in the brine proffers a racy tang. An inspired move is serving it with three sauces — a competent (if not fantastic) poultry gravy, a watermelon hot sauce, and a Thousand Island-esque "Delta Sauce."
The kitchen also has an expert hand with biscuits. They're not to be missed and offer rationalization for consuming great, creamy crests of nectar-like honey butter.
The place has an imposing way with seafood, rivaled only by the most serious purveyors in our midst — Meritage, Oceanaire, Smack Shack, and the best steakhouses. If you want it, 4 Bells probably has it: glittering shellfish towers, oysters on the half shell, caviar, lobster tails and claws, peel-and-eat shrimp, all expertly done, fresh as sea spray, presented classically and fastidiously.
We liked the more individualized creations. The snapper ceviche was easily a best bite of the year, with a chile relish that sets fire to the flesh. Creamy yogurt quickly cools things down again. Fresh herb introduces a peppery flavor, and pine nuts complete things with round and buttery dimension.
Try the whole fried snapper, an unusual treat around here. The entire fish is crisped to the texture of potato chips and set upon chile glaze and fermented black beans. It's a bit of an investment at $36 a plate, but it's a delight to set the snapper on the table like a Thanksgiving turkey, and take turns deconstructing it, bit by bit.
Oysters casino with pecorino, bacon, and rapini are as rich and appealing as a fat bank account. Baby octopus with achiote and serrano chiles, citrus, and pumpkin seed is everything you've ever loved about Mexican food in one spirited dish.
The menu is ambitious, with around 40 items. A few inevitably fall through the cracks. Bourbon braised collard greens are a gloppy mess with an unadvertised blue cheese sauce, and completely unappealing when you want an astringent foil to butter and flesh. Scallop hushpuppies could have done without the scallop and the eggy sauce gribiche — the whole of it is too earnest and busy.
But we prefer a place that tries too hard rather than too little. Get a load of all the other ways the restaurant is accessorizing itself. It has a fried chicken walk-up window, allowing one, if one were to have a late-night craving, to procure it from a back alley hole in the wall. It also has a champagne and oyster bar, because grown-up life can be drab. What's a more instantaneous way to make it less so?
There are also four private dining rooms plus a back alley speakeasy, which is invite only (let us know if you get one). And, finally, the beloved rooftop you came to know and love at Joe's Garage. It's as iconic as Loring Park itself. You're encouraged to bring your dog.
The place is challenging to classify. It's a fried chicken place that also serves lavish crustaceans, skirting up against fine dining while also serving as a neighborhood hang with PBR in the can.
Like anything odd, it's discomfiting at first, yet it ultimately captivates. 0x00E7
Harmon Place, Minneapolis
menu items: $5-$38