Light a Candle

Gimmicky fun: Dry ice livens up drinks and desserts at Temple

Gimmicky fun: Dry ice livens up drinks and desserts at Temple

Temple Restaurant and Bar
1201 Harmon Place

Seduction is, above all, personal, but some of the most tried-and-true methods for getting it on involve darkness, candles, shimmering reflections in water, and high-octane cocktails. Temple, the new hotspot in the old Tiburon space on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, has all those in spades—and it wants you to relax, baby. Strut into the main dining room and you'll find the lights turned low and dozens upon dozens of big candles floating on water in giant, clear-glass tubes, their beautiful, flickering flames reflected in the 45-foot aquarium that snakes between dining room and lounge. If your sweetheart doesn't look good in this uber-romantic setting, dump 'em, cause they never will.

Or, order a strong drink. Temple's signature cocktails should do the trick nicely—and if you can't put words to your intention, Temple will do it for you: Their drinks feature names that are less double entendre than straight-up dirty talk. I imagine you start the evening with "Honey, You Are Sweet," and progress through "Thai Me Up," "Sex in the Park," and, finally, "Make Her Scream," "Jenna Jameson's Style," with a "Menage a Trois." Boy howdy! Good thing this isn't a family paper. If just reading about Temple's cocktails has you all hot and bothered, race on down for Temple's many happy hours, which run from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. to close (usually 2:00 a.m.) seven days a week, and include half-price tap beers and select martinis and bottles of wine.

Unfortunately, when seduction isn't being personal, it's being even more personal, and when it doesn't take, it doesn't take.

The fine-dining menu on offer in the main dining room is as expensive as any in town, with prices rivaling or exceeding D'Amico Cucina and La Belle Vie, and rarely delivers real pleasure. A typical appetizer unites a perfectly good medallion of foie gras with a cold, tasteless puck of ahi tuna ($16), a pairing that makes about as much sense as stapling a Rolex onto the lapel of a Gucci suit—yes, it catches the eye, but where does it go after that?

When I tasted the lobster bisque ($12), its medallions of lobster meat were watery, stringy, and wan. A cylinder of monkfish-liver pâté topped with osetra caviar ($14) was not bad, except that it was served on a bread-plate-sized disc of ice placed in a bowl of salty brown broth; any attempt to put a fork into the thing threatened to throw it off deck into the yucky, salty soup below, and I know it was yucky and salty because there were a few triangles of sesame crostini that sat in the wet stuff, and they were ruined by contact.

After repeated visits, I did find a few appetizers to recommend. The pan-roasted quail with fried duck-liver ravioli ($13) is a solid little dish of a simple, lacquer-brown bird paired with simple, rugged ravioli stuffed with a sweet, lush duck-liver mousse and beautiful, thin slices of buttery, crisply sautéed maitake mushrooms. The artisan cheese plate ($16) combines four wee slices of cheese with a square of honeycomb and intense, sweet, wonderful, big raisins dried in the Mojave Desert.

Entrees never delivered the joy they should. The best I had was a plate of meaty anise- and mandarin orange-braised beef short ribs ($27) in which fork-tender, candy-sweet meat was ringed with a little stone wall of carefully stacked roasted fingerling sweet potatoes. Rare duck breast ($26) was notably tender, and well paired with the pineapple-hoisin sauce that graced the dish, but everything else on the plate, listed on the menu as mandarin pancakes, banh hoi noodles, and baby bok choy, was just an indistinct, wet, salty mess.

The worst entrees I had at Temple were truly gruesome: The green-tea roasted pork tenderloin ($25) was served as red and rare as raw ahi tuna, and came with a taro-root puree that had an off-putting and inexplicably fishy scent. Grilled freshwater prawns ($27) were uncharacteristically difficult to separate from their shells, and once that feat was mastered, the taste was one of marshes and tide pools—not good. I didn't try the $75 stone-grilled Kobe beef filet mignon, or, god forbid, the $28 Chilean sea bass. I asked my server why Chilean sea bass was on the menu, as the creatures also known as Patagonian toothfish are all but extinct, and every chef worth her salt swore them off five years ago. Even when the fish are said to come from the mere 10 percent of the catch derived from sustainable fisheries, they usually don't, and so serving them would seem to promote poaching, piracy, and the extinction of a species. In response, my server giggled and said he had never heard of any of this.

Most of the grace notes of fine dining are missing at Temple. When I ordered a $14 glass of Laurent Perrier French Champagne, I wasn't charmed to find a cut strawberry jammed onto the rim and fruit pieces trickling down into the wine—the whole reason to dig deep and pay for fine Champagne is to enjoy the spectacular scent. This isn't as bad as pouring Coca-Cola in the wine, but fruit belongs only in the cheap stuff. I found the servers in the main dining room at Temple given to hovering and interrupting with discomforting, obsequious questions like, "Is everything tasting fabulous?" One night I was interrupted so many times in the course of the meal, my date ended up requesting that we skip dessert and simply drive around in the car, so we could finally have time to talk. We didn't, but still.

I expected so much more. The restaurant's owner and executive chef is Tom Pham, the remarkable force behind Azia, the sultry pan-Asian fusion complex that has transformed the corner of 26th and Nicollet in south Minneapolis. The chef de cuisine is Tuan Nguyen, who did far lighter, more original, and more unified cooking when he headed the California Café at the Mall of America. Despite these fine players, the restaurant really seems at sea with the whole idea of fine dining, confusing a menu cataloging gold-plated ingredients with a five-star experience. You know, the whole point of splashing out a bazillion dollars for the white-tablecloth experience instead of going to the local pho joint is because by splashing said cash you're buying joy, peace of mind, delight, brief proof that life is perfect and you're the king. Temple is far from providing that.

It breaks my heart. Temple opened in December, and so far the only things it really has together are the valet parking (which is blissfully free!), the cocktails, and the desserts. Of the cocktails, I really liked the "Amigo Party in China" (is that something dirty that I'm too Pollyanna to get?). Said Amigo Party ($12) is a ginger and mango margarita with a cinnamon-sugar rim; the drink arrives with the top aflame, and as the sugar and cinnamon burn, a lovely scent wafts about the table. The "Witch's Brew" ($12) is a dry but very pretty pink pomegranate mojito in which dry ice is submerged, so little poofs and puffs of smoke burble constantly from the bottom—it's gimmicky, sure, but fun, festive, and memorable.

For dessert, the similarly dry ice-accented "Smoking Buddha panna cotta" ($8) is also silly fun: It's a Buddha-shaped mold of pure, simple panna cotta accented with a bit of perky lemongrass and smoky kaffir lime. It tasted light and plain, as panna cotta should, but had a shadow of jungle intrigue. A trio of small crème brûlées ($7) was similarly accomplished: The green-tea one was smoky, the ginger one was zingy, and the chocolate one was cocoa-dusky. A Thai coconut tapioca parfait ($7) was a fine-dining version of the Eat Street classic to-go tapioca cup. Here coconut milk anchored a bowl of tapioca parfait made with lychee; on top of it rested a spiced mango salad, and a spiral cookie swirled out of the top of the cup like a circus streamer.

Sadly, the cocktails and desserts were the only instances in which I felt Temple's fine-dining room was worth the hefty price of admission. In the lounge, however, happy-hour prices and the all-out-sexy destination vibe deliver anything anyone could want in see-and-be-seen cutie-cruising. Of course, the place has only been open a few months, and the food may yet find its path. Only time will tell. Till then, I'll just light a candle of my own for Temple, and pray.