Shark Attack

Tiburón: Eat with the fishes
Tema Stauffer
Tiburon Caribbean Bistro
1201 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis

Like most Minnesotans, I've developed a number of ways of coping with the recent weeks of subzero temperatures. Such as immersing the extremities in a warmed harem; keeping a small, cozy trashfire burning in the parlor; railing against the sun, and such.

Capitalism. Capitalism seems especially cruel at this time of year, when car trouble isn't just irritating, but physically painful and dangerous. I'd like to take this space now to apologize to the man in the white Impala talking on a phone and stranded at the side of I-94 the other day--I really was on the very verge of pulling over to help you, until I remembered that the only thing I know about cars is that they come in different colors and some of them smell of false pine. I did take a moment to picture the encounter: Screech! Small, chipper critic bounds from car: "Hey there, need help? Worry no more, because I've got some deeply informed opinions about the most romantic lunch getaways in the Twin Cities; and why local paella is invariably lousy; and, as an added bonus, I'll wrap up with a discussion on the best Caribbean cocktails in town." Perhaps in the end the real reason I didn't pull over to help was selfishness, as well as a clear vision that no Minnesota jury would convict a stranded motorist for murder in such a case. Good intentions and a warm heart just aren't worth what they are in the summer. I know because I tried to trade mine to MLT Vacations for a week in Cancún and my offer was rebutted quite cruelly.

I'm guessing the cold is a good bit of why I like Tiburón so much--it's really not the food, which, aside from a shockingly good cheeseburger, is fairly mediocre. Well, the cold, but also the tall coral-like fountains that bubble all over with waterfalls and tumble into clear pools; the long rounded wall that changes colors in an enchanting, sunrise-to-sunset sort of way; the marvelous service; and, perhaps above all, the sharks--or, rather, the enormous aquarium that snakes through the center of this new, vast, 260-seat Caribbean restaurant, which opened last December. This giant aquarium undulates through the room, separating the bar and main dining area, and it gives the room a very James Bond feel, Live and Let Die-era, but in a gentle, no-one-in-the-shark-tank sort of way.

(One friend I brought there had heard of Tiburón and got the idea that there would be great white Jaws-type sharks in the aquarium. No. Darlings, this is a restaurant, not hell. I can't even really imagine who would enjoy dining in clear view of bloodthirsty, rapacious, oversized monsters--did we learn nothing from the failures of all those Planet Hollywoods?)

This James Bond feeling without the burden of James Bond is distinctly enhanced by Tiburón's cocktails, Tiburón's snazzy, jazzy, fruity, powerful, charming, and otherwise yachting-holiday-without -the-cost-and-trouble-of-selling-the-house cocktails. Such as the Mojito ($7), which comes with a swizzle stick of sugarcane, the better to swirl about the freshly torn mint leaves. And the distinctive sangria ($6.50), a memorable concoction that's less summer-juicy than most versions: Here red wine and citrus fruits are allowed to meld, then enhanced with Grand Marnier and Courvoisier. The weight of the heavier alcohols imparts a nice Christmas accent to the drink--winter sangria! Tiburón also has a decent wine list and a large selection of single-estate and other top-shelf rums, like the rich and fragrant caramel of Appleton Estate EX ($7), served in a brandy snifter, or the--holy cats! Bacardi for a hundred bucks?--Bacardi Millennium ($100), which is served in the bellybutton of a roiling, oiled chart-topping pop star, I assume.

I think the Minneapple is my favorite, though, because it is the first cocktail I've ever encountered that has wit and a sense of place about it. It's basically an apple martini made in such a way that the green layer floats in the martini glass over a red section, and a dessert spoon balances across the rim, holding a single maraschino cherry--a clever, miniature echo of the Walker Sculpture Garden's famous Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

In all honesty, in a few short months Tiburón has leapt to the head of the class, joining Bar Abilene and Chino Latino in the first rank of local tropical cocktail makers. The Chino connection is one worth noting--Tiburón is the project of young twin brothers John and Michael Mihajlov, 33, who are the sons of Peter Mihajlov , one of the principal partners in local restaurant powerhouse Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the company that founded many of our most important local restaurants, including Chino Latino, Buca, Figlio, Oceanaire, the Good Earth, and Manny's Steakhouse. The brothers have been in the business since they were children; when I spoke to Michael Mihajlov on the phone for this story, he said he got his start at seven years old, helping the prep cooks, then graduated to washing dishes when he was strong enough to lift racks of dishes, and has worked front- and back-of-the-house positions nearly continuously till this day. This experience has given the Mihajlovs a bone-deep understanding of what makes a restaurant work, and there are a million little details that make Tiburón a pleasant place to spend an evening--from the weighty, elegant dining-room chairs to the comprehensively informed, helpful, eager, and otherwise impressive service staff. From hosts to servers' assistants, I can hardly recall a large restaurant that opened with such excellent service. In the good-karma and good-business-practice division: Tiburón will, as of April 1, be offering health insurance to all the restaurant's employees, which bodes well for low turnover in this notoriously volatile profession.  

But what about the food? It took me forever to make up my mind about the place, but after what felt like a million visits I've concluded that Tiburón is basically a very competent spicy chop house yearning to breathe free--yet that chop house is trapped within a Tiburón that has a menu that is far too ambitious and contains too many touchy and unsuccessful seafood dishes.

The most alarming dish is probably the calamari spring rolls: full, smallish squid bodies stuffed with a mixture of vegetables and noodles. The squid itself is okay, but the center is a gummy, tongue-sticking, chill mess that manages to repulse and cause profound unease. I have never, ever received so many reader e-mails warning me about a dish. Yet it sounds so alluring, so exotic, so two-things-you-already-love (Calamari? Spring rolls? Yes!) that I think everyone who walks in the door orders it. And they skip the less exciting-sounding Bermuda Cheeseburger (because those two words have no relation, and they read like "Bermuda shorts") which is perhaps the best thing on the menu: The meat is blended with sautéed red bell peppers, chiles, onions, and spices, then covered with tetilla cheese and served with chipotle ketchup, all of which results in a burger that is light, tender, thoroughly spiced, and truly delightful. The pile of crisp sweet-potato fries that accompany it are a joy too. At $7, this, I say, is going to be the cult hit of Tiburón--especially after March 21, when the restaurant will start serving till 2:00 a.m. on weekends. Till 2:00 a.m.! Downtown! Thank God.

I'll certainly allow that a convincing case could be made that the adobo pork chop ($17) is the best thing on the menu. A spicy, smoky chile paste animates the outside of a thick-cut tender chop, and on each side of the meat is a vast pool of side dish--on one side a lagoon of addictive salsa-spiced creamed corn, on the other a hill of oniony sweet-potato hash. For all the men out there who think a top-flight meal would be a course of nachos and beer followed by steakhouse-caliber steak and potatoes, please note, your dreams are being answered.

However, if you dream of lively ceviche and sweet Caribbean mollusks, keep up the good work, because Tiburón has miles to go in these areas. The ceviche platter ($20) needs to be dropped from the menu as soon as possible. The first time I tried it, all the fresh seafood options were so flagrantly past prime that I felt like calling a chaplain to request a burial at sea; a few weeks later I got up my courage to order it again and found that the five dishes on the platter were fresh enough but still tasted bad. The barbecued shrimp ceviche (why is this ceviche?) comes in a sweet, cloying sauce with too much faux smoke flavor; the whole marinated mushrooms seemed like they'd be happier in a martini; raw scallops with lime and jalapeño tasted like they'd been in the marinade all day, and were rubbery and unpleasant; the raw ahi tuna with a fruit marinade tasted fatty and wrong; and while the lightly fried oysters on a bed of marinated tomatoes were okay...they were leading the pack by a mile at okay. The lobster is another must-miss: For $26, one wishes for more than a lobster tail so overcooked that it lodges in its shell like a gum in a shoe and tastes not like anything but like the chemical soak they use to preserve the things.

Yet if you order the most common seafood-restaurant dishes, such as the shrimp cocktail ($10) or mussels ($9), you'll find seafood that is quite good: The shrimp are plump, royal looking giants served with bright, fresh horseradish sauce and attractive charred lemon halves for squeezing; the mussels ($9) are tender and charming, dripping with a sweet ginger-coconut-milk broth. Swab your complimentary spicy cornbread (from the lovely bread basket) through that lush coconut broth sometime while you sip a cocktail and stare at the fish, and you'll quickly see why I plan to go back to the place whenever the need for escapism hits. Truthfully, I think that all Tiburón really has to do to become one of the most fun destination restaurants in town is to lose about half of the far too elaborate, nearly 50-item menu, and focus on its strengths.  

For example, two of the six desserts are knockouts in the Manny's kill-'em-with-portion-size vein. The dense "French toast" is made with a chocolate banana bread and topped with roast bananas and banana ice cream; for $8 you get enough rich dessert for four hearty appetites. The tres leche cake ($6) is another standout: The soaking-wet cake topped with that tangy caramel of dulce de leche is too sugary for my taste, but if I know you-all, and I think I do, you'll quickly elect this to your Cafe Latté and Manny's Hall of Fame.

Yet the flan ($5), topped with watermelon salad and surrounded by cilantro sugar syrup is undeniably weird and wrong, the sweet cream of the flan jarring against the syrupy crunch of watermelon and soapy herbaceousness of the cilantro. And the toasted cashew tart ($5) was stale whenever I tried it, presumably because no one's ordering it, in favor of the better items. Cull the herd!

I know it's cruel to suggest the disappearing of blameless cashew tarts, but sometimes life forces hard choices. For instance, as of this writing the cute little sharks that had been living in Tiburón's tank, and who are the restaurant's namesake (Tiburón is Spanish for shark)-- those little sharks were off in protective custody while the fish in the tank underwent medical treatments for some nasty illness they had picked up. Surely these little sharks would rather have been in the fancy restaurant with their friends watching the funny humans eat paella.

Ooh, I almost forgot--skip that paella ($17)! It's pallid and metallic, the rice gummy, the seafood overcooked. But, then, paella in Minnesota tends to run the gamut from awful to insipid. Why? Statistics, which I am making up as I go along, say that it's mostly because no one, from chefs to line cooks to diners, knows what the stuff is supposed to be like, and so we end up in a sort of ring-around-the-rosie of the blind leading the blind.

But darlings, if we are going to continue our lordly superiority over Iowa and the Dakotas, and I certainly hope we are, I think we're going to have to discontinue all these wild farming things I hear about in the rural areas and start sending each and every Minnesotan on year-long eating trips through Spain. I know it will be expensive, what with the budget shortfalls and all, but in the spirit of offering all the help I can in these cold, cruel months when we all have to stick together, I'll volunteer to go first and scout it all out, if you insist.

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Tiburon Restaurants

1201 Harmon Place
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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