Sea No Evil
David Howard's Seafood Cafe
3758 Nicollet Ave.; 822-6171
Last week I received my only response letter to date from an exasperated reader who asked if I had ever eaten at a restaurant that I didn't love. Beleaguered readers: Of course I have; I just don't write about them, for where's the fun in writing about (or for that matter eating at) a restaurant that sucks? And, it must be admitted that, as an unabashedly amateur restaurant critic, I am not one to turn over every curly endive and peek at its underbelly (though perhaps if I did, I'd find that long lost subscription to Gourmet magazine and those M.F.K. Fisher books that my editors are always recommending). And so, to hunker down for a few moments of soul searching, I went to David Howard's Seafood Cafe. Pardon me my bubbly gush, but I pretty much loved it.
David Howard's, an unaffected fish fry created and owned by former Minnesota Vikings linebacker David Howard, is just the place to right vexed spirits. The food, the decor, and the restaurant's underlying philosophy are unfailingly simple. As Howard told the Star Tribune's Mike Kaszuba back in '89, "I know that fish is the food of the '80s and the '90s and the 22nd century. I know red meat is so bad for you." Good, bad; simple dichotomies are so reassuring.
The clientele bears witness that this is food that most everyone can love and afford to treat themselves to now and again, ranging from neighborhood kids who came in counting out change for a homemade piece of peach cobbler and a Coke, to groups of expensively suited business ladies who seemed to order and eat everything on the menu. The cafe is divided into two sections, one a take-out counter and waiting area, clean as a whistle if somewhat less than luxurious, and the other a dining room with a fleet of white-clothed tables set with sheaths of white paper (believe me, that paper goes to good use; meals here can be quite messy and greasy). My friend discouraged me from sitting at a table where one could make use of the television set that dangles from the ceiling. I gave in, despite the part of me that really did want to watch Sally Jesse Raphael sort out "I'm sorry I ruined your life" with her sobbing guests.
Though not exactly a work of poetry, the menu is varied enough. Fish and a bit of chicken comprise the bulk of it together with various sides of greens, beans, and other odds and ends. If I hadn't been so hungry, I would have ordered a sandwich, which comes with cole slaw or fries, and my only concern then would have been whether to make it catfish, whiting, perch, rainbow trout, walleye, red snapper, or orange roughy ($4.99-6.99). But fresh grilled salmon doesn't come down the pike every day in these parts, especially not for $10.99. Nor do spiced crab claws ($10.99), fried okra, or shrimp cocktail. We spared ourselves no pleasure.
The 1976 edition of The Joy of Cooking defined eternity as "a ham and two people." Maybe then an instant is a plate of shrimp cocktail and two people, each modestly trying to count and clock the rate at which the other partner is devouring the bounty; fair is fair after all. But here the portions are bountiful enough to deem watchful eyes unnecessary; for $6.99 we had all the peel-and-eat shrimp we could want, borne with chilled lemon wedges and a serviceable cocktail sauce. We also whetted our appetites with a specialty of the day, a starchy Louisiana gumbo ($3.50) which wasn't so exciting (lack of spice was what killed it), though we did appreciate that it was served bubbling hot.
Best of the evening was the platter of sauteed crab claws, a special of the day, 15 of the grippers in all, sauteed in butter, fresh garlic, and lemon pepper ($12). There was no danger of the juicy and plentiful crab meat inside the claws desiccating, but just in case, they came with a huge bowl of drawn butter, spiced with more lemon pepper and a dish of tartar sauce. Excessive, perhaps, but the joy of turning the tender crab meat translucent with butter and then popping the whole of it into our mouths proved excess could be its own reward as much as any virtue. Delicious as well was the grilled salmon dinner ($10.99), the meat being moist, flaky, and treated liberally with lemon pepper.
Dinners here are served with hush puppies and two sides of your choice from among the fried okra, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, potato salad, cabbage, red beans and rice, fries, and collard greens. With so many options, there were bound to be some disappointments. The hush puppies, for instance, were choke-dry balls of corn meal, and the red beans and rice were simply bland. But the fried okra was right on the money, served piping hot, crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside, and the collard greens were pungent and tasty beyond belief.
Beer, water, or soda are the best bets to accompany your meal. Wine, even Cook's Brut champagne, is on the menu, but I'll take a cheap beer over cheap wine any day, and a couple of bottles of Leinenkugel Red did us fine ($2.75 a piece). If you left room for it, the dessert offerings include a glorious sweet potato pie ($2.25) and a thick chocolate cake topped with gobs of icing and chocolate chips ($3).
As I went to pay our bill, I couldn't help but ask our waitress how the collard greens were flavored. She called for the cook, who gracefully lumbered out from behind the steaming pots and pans from which he was orchestrating. He eyed me up and down as if judging whether my character was strong enough to handle such divulgences. He need not have worried, for it seems obvious that measurements here are made by the handful as opposed to the cupful; imitators will have a hard time getting things exact. He must have decided that I was all right, for he gave me a very congenial and conspiratorial lesson on the miraculous properties of smoked turkey and various spices.
A meal well spent indeed. With this, I bid farewell as City Pages' restaurant critic as I move along to greener pastures. I've enjoyed myself greatly during the past three years of writing this column, and to the restaurants I've eaten at and to the friends I've eaten with, thanks for giving me lots of food for thought.
YOU TURN AROUND FOR A SECOND: I stumbled into my neighborhood coffee shop early this morning and made a shocking discovery: Neatly dressed waitresses were walking around amid patrons sitting at clothed tables. Yes, the Mighty Fine Coffee House (1304 University Ave. N.E., Mpls.; 623-4211) is now the Mighty Fine Dining Cafe, "An American Cafe with a French Accent." The dining room is a dramatic space if there ever was one. High ceilings, blood-red walls, and a few garish paintings set a theatrical tone for the menu, which runs the gamut from baseball cap to beret. Offerings include two eggs, toast, hash browns ($3.25) for breakfast, or homemade bakery items, all made in house ($1.85 each), and french toast with pecan honey butter sauce ($5.25). For lunch, there are lots of sandwiches, burgers, and salads. Dinners include tapenade and french bread ($5.50), baked turkey with pecan stuffing ($8.75), burgundy beef stew ($10.25), and chardonnay chicken ($10.25). There's still some room for the loungers, though you may feel ill at ease propping your feet up on the feverishly floral couches. Guess you may have to find a new place for smoking and slovenly brooding. But I'm not griping; a new cafe in the neighborhood, especially one that seems as promising as this, is most welcome.
COLOR MY WORLD: Have you forgotten, amidst all the fancy packaging, how easy it is to dye your Easter eggs? Heinz Vinegar wishes that you'd remember, because it involves using their product. Heinz is advocating natural dyes this season. Says Gillian Souter, author of the book Naturecrafts, "All-natural egg dyes are readily available and inexpensive." Here are a few tips from the Heinz test kitchen for making gloriously decorated eggs.
1. Remove impurities from raw eggs by wiping gently with a clean cloth dipped in Heinz Distilled White Vinegar. Place 6-8 eggs in a single-layer saucepan and fill with tap water until level is one inch above eggs.
2. Add 2 tablespoons of the distilled vinegar per quart of water, which provides insurance against cracking. Then add your natural ingredients for custom colors (3-4 cups blueberries for blue, 3-4 cups raspberries for pink, 4 cups red cabbage for blue-green, 4 cups yellow onion skins for copper, 2 tablespoons tumeric for yellow, brewed coffee instead of tap water for bronze).
3. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove eggs with slotted spoon and place on paper towels to dry. For even deeper shades, strain the mixture and refrigerate eggs in liquid overnight.
YOU MADE IT THROUGH ANOTHER WINTER: I may be jumping the gun, but it does almost seem time to make a homemade pie, grab some cider or wine, and sit outside for a blissful snack. This simple recipe, courtesy of The Edgewood Restaurant and Motel in Cannon Falls, should inspire some larking.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
* 1 unbaked pie crust
* 2 cups diced rhubarb
* 2 cups sliced strawberries
* 4 TB. flour
* 1 TB. soft butter
* 1/4 cup cream
* 2 cups sugar
* 2 eggs
Assembly Method: Whip the eggs, add cream, sugar, butter, and flour. Fold in rhubarb and strawberries. Pour into the pie shell and bake in a 325 degree oven until the center of the pie is firm, about 1 hour.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.