501 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis;
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; appetizers available daily till 11:00 p.m.; bar open daily till 1:00 a.m.
I say there are three ages for the postpuberty Minnesota woman, and these ages can be neatly organized by the shoes they select for a night when it's 20 below, a night when they are all but guaranteed to have to traverse sheets of black ice, lagoons of refrozen, craggy slush, and sloping, salt-pocked curb hurdles. The first age of women are those willing to wear open-toed, whisper-soled stiletto heels, pretty little confections that touch the ground as lightly as the sandals of Mercury, so agilely do their toes skim over the bitter landscape. Second is the age of women willing to wear heels, yes, on even such a night, but the heels must be of the sturdy sort in which one would be able to hike seven miles to the nearest gas station, should a particularly large icicle happen to impale the car. The final age of woman is, of course, the age of safety and comfort, when it is decided that rubberized sheepskin mukluks may not really clash with brocade evening gowns after all.
Conga is a restaurant for the first age of woman. I was amazed, dazzled, and astonished to watch one evening as tiny, bare rhinestone-wrapped foot after polished, bare leather-thonged foot skipped through the door, as incongruous out of the deadly cold as dryads emerging from one of those explosions of snow that launch off the tops of trucks in the middle of the highway.
Why do they come? They come for the dancing. They come for the music. Conga is a Latin-music disco and bar, as well as a restaurant, and what makes it distinct from any other restaurant in town is a very, very large dance floor dappled by roving lights and ringed by a handful of video monitors that ceaselessly broadcast Spanish-language music videos. If you have a desire to salsa, merengue, or cumbia (a variation of salsa, popular in Mexico and Colombia), this is where you will come. Conga is the most comprehensive Latin dance club in town, and soon it will be even more so: Salsa dance lessons will be given on Thursday nights, karaoke will begin on Wednesday nights, and singers can croon in their choice of English or Spanish. Sometime before summer there should even be small flamenco bands playing, and you'll be able to dine while watching a show, then leap from your chair and salsa till the wee hours.
Manager Jovanni Thunstrom, son of owner Gladys Thunstrom, says when things really get rolling there will be different live entertainment nearly every night. "One night we might have a group from Brazil, another night Ecuador or Venezuela," he says. "We're not just a single type of thing. The Colombian community can come here and feel at home with the music and food, then there will be Puerto Rican music, and then rock en español."
One hopes the food will soon be as attractive as the crowd. Regrettably, on a series of recent visits, the food here was uneven. The very best things were the buttery little garlic toasts that come with dinner and the empanadas ($7.95), an appetizer plate of six large homemade pastries stuffed with two each of subtly seasoned beef, sweet chicken, or hot melted cheese. The pastry was flaky and appealing in every way; the little ramekin of salsa that came with them was fresh and potent. Most empanadas I've had are made with brittle, chemical-scented, factory-made dough, but these were tender and truly adorable. Among the steaks ($16.95 to $19.95), which are charcoal-grilled, I particularly liked the "Churasco Argentino" ($16.95), a cross-hatched beef tenderloin marinated in chimichurri, an olive-oil-based herb sauce that makes the meat savory and silken, a texture that contrasts beautifully with the crisp crust. Two encounters with the garlic soup ($5.95) revealed it to be piquant, deeply flavored, and unforgettable once. In the broth lie pretty cubes of homemade croutons, and on this trip each bite was as big and fine as a single note played on the cello. Another time the soup arrived so salty it was inedible.
This was more normal for the restaurant than not. Out of my three meals here, begun after the new place had been open for a month, I judged about two-thirds of whatever was on the table to be really very bad. Detailing the failures seems cruel--I mean, no one has been dancing very prettily at more successful meals I've had around town lately--so I'll try to be brief. An appetizer of crab, chicken, and fish croquettes ($8.95) was bland, mealy, and awful. Not even the waitress could tell the crab from the fish, or vice versa. The house salad ($4.50) is chopped leaf lettuce scattered with cheese and coated with watery vinaigrette. Order the "Conga salad" ($5.95) and you get something unforgettably peculiar: It's the house salad surrounded with large lukewarm, peeled, cooked, unseasoned chunks of yuca, and root vegetables boniato and malanga. Imagine a green salad surrounded by tepid golf-ball-size chunks of rutabaga and parsnip, and you'll grasp the general effect.
Two orders of paella Valenciana ($25) ranks as the worst $50 I've spent in memory. The rice was fine, but the dish had no savor (sausage and pork were promised, and chorizo is frequently used to spice it, but neither sausage nor pork arrived). The chicken was pale pieces of breast instead of long-cooked on-the-bone meat, and the seafood in the dish was nearly inedible. The Pacific lobster tails had the chemical taste of long freezing, as did the chunks of king-crab leg. The green-lip mussels didn't taste fresh and there were none of the clams the menu had promised. While the shrimp were edible and the halibut lurking under the rice was actually not bad, the dish seemed like something made in the cheapest possible way with the least possible passion.
Many, many of the other things I tried were lackluster, from bland seafood ceviche ($9.95) to tasteless calamari to a tres leches cake that tasted refrigerator-stale and like nothing but refined sugar. Flan ($4.50), however, was perfectly good, and when the music in the main room gets loud enough it dances very prettily itself. The wine list of more than two dozen options deserves credit for focusing on the wines of Chile, Argentina, and Spain, which are rarely seen together locally. But then it loses points for markups that are exorbitant even by restaurant standards. Cristalino Brut Cava usually sells locally for $9 or so, but a bottle here runs $35. In short, if your mind is full of calculators and crepe soles, there's little for you here.
Which surely is just and fitting. The sensible-shoe and slide-rule set has tight control over the western suburbs, the southern suburbs, and, oh, about most of the world. Surely the heels skittering into the bathrooms for frenzied lipstick conferences would rather have one little oasis where salsa is something you do, not something you apply to casserole.
SMOOCH 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM: I perchanced to be schlepping my tired old self around one of our beautiful urban lakes at about this time two years ago, or maybe it was three. As I ran I ventured upon an unhappy couple bickering about the fact that he hadn't made the Valentine's Day reservations he had (allegedly) promised to make. His paramour wouldn't let him say he was sorry and bitterly denounced him for letting all the good reservations get away. Then he got all sulky and told her probably no one had made reservations yet anyway.
I'm telling you, I am kicking myself to this day that I didn't stop and introduce myself and say, "You know what? She's right. I've been on the phone with all the most romantic restaurants, and you've really bollixed this whole thing up. It's hopeless." It really would have been such a perfect Annie Hall moment, and I'm sure I'll never get another one. Why am I so sure? Mostly because there are so many more fancy restaurants now than there were. For example: Zinc. Zinc looks to be a Valentine's ace in the hole: $79.95 gets you a four-course dinner for two, with three glasses of wine, all in that sexy French atmosphere. (Call for reservations: Zinc, 1010 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-904-1010.) Or McCormick & Schmick's, (800 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-338-3300) where they're putting together a menu of "common aphrodisiacs" such as oysters, fish with chipotle pepper and honey, and Grand Marnier-injected strawberries. Is that a strawberry syringe in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
TWIN CITIES FOOD & WINE EXPERIENCE: Obsessive Tablehopping readers will remember my bitter complaints last year about how homogeneous, unadventurous, chintzy, and corporate I thought the Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience had become. In fact, I didn't even bother to go last year, since the one the year before had been so stinky, and last year's schedule seemed to promise no better. Well, the show seems to have outgrown its awkward adolescence, and looks like it's going to be better than ever, to judge by this year's schedule.
The biggest improvement is the presence of local food innovators, many of whom are giving free talks in the exhibition hall. Attend and you'll get a chance to hear what's on the mind of local tastemakers like chocolatier B.T. McElrath, restaurateur Joseph Kaplan from Joe's Garage, and chefs including Royal Dahlstrom, from La Toscana Ristorante, and Kevin Cullen, from Goodfellow's. Good news for procrastinators too: The show is two weeks earlier than usual, throwing the simpleminded among us (read: me) into complete confusion, resulting in more tickets than usual still available for the fancy $30 wine seminars. And if that isn't enough to motivate you, please be alerted: There will be a Wisconsin cheese booth somewhere on the floor, and for the first time this year a cheese carver will conjure art from a very large block of cheddar. The seventh annual Twin Cities Food & Wine Experience runs at the Minneapolis Convention Center from 3:00 p.m. Friday, February 2 to 5:00 p.m. Sunday, February 4. Tickets to the exhibition hall cost $45 a day and can be purchased online at www.foodwineshow.com, or by calling (612) 371-5857.