222 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Pity our poor servers and servers' assistants, for they get no respect. A lawyer walks into a family reunion, says what she does, and everyone nods happily. A server does, and Aunt Gert immediately follows up with: "And what else do you do?"--the general assumptions being student, artist, or, you know, addiction recovery. (Then we wonder why restaurants are filled with servers that seem to have tied on an apron for the first time moments before we were seated. Baffling.)
Well, here's one for servers to clip and save for Aunt Gert: the tale of Chris Paddock, who, after a dozen years in various "front of the house" serving and managing positions, went back to school to finish his undergrad marketing degree and, for his senior project, put together a business plan for a little place called Bobino. "I was going to get my MBA in Chicago," explained Paddock, when I talked to him on the phone for this story, "but my teacher said, 'This is a great plan, go forward with it.' I can't really explain it, but no one [at the bank] ever said no to me. I got a bank loan for $120,000 and opened in Northeast in a former funeral home. Everyone thought I was crazy. And the first year we were open we did $1.3 million in business. Honestly, if I had gone to Chicago and got my MBA I probably would now be working for Kraft, dreaming up spicy spiral macaroni and cheese or something."
Instead, Paddock and two partners--a venture capitalist and chef Patrick Weber--have formed a hospitality-management company. They plan to open a massive, 200-seat churrascaria next year, somewhere in the big flat place in St. Louis Park along Excelsior. (A churrascaria is a Brazilian open-flame barbecue restaurant, where they usually bring around skewers or platters of grilled meats to carve at the table, in all-you-can-eat portions. Paddock's version will probably lose the difficult name but keep the Southern Hemisphere wines and festive cocktails.) Add that new restaurant to Bobino, and Bobino's satellite restaurant, the across-the-patio Starlite Lounge, and you've got what looks to be a major restaurant player in Minneapolis for the next decade. Not bad for a former busboy at the Monte Carlo.
If Bobino's any indication, these new ventures will be gratefully received by a restaurant-going public that appreciates stylish rooms and freshly made--if unexciting--food. I admit I've always thought that Bobino was sort of handicapped by prettiness. If the place were a person, it'd be one of those sparkly-eyed lightweights who are so very cute that they've never had to work very hard for anything. The room is all peachy and dusky, the lighting all perfect and golden; sit at the tables and it's as if everyone's had a face-lift, or a tan, or a blessing by heraldic angels. In filmmaking there's something called "golden hour," usually the hour directly after sunrise or just before sunset when everything seems golden and beautiful. It's always golden hour at Bobino. Which explains, I think, why the place was almost entirely tables-for-two on a recent weekend night.
Come to think of it, who knows, maybe the cautious menu and wine list are aphrodisiacs for cautious Minnesotans. The most recent menu offered a handful of appetizers, like tiny grilled asparagus beside a frisée salad and a warm, nearly hard-cooked egg, the whole thing united by a very sweet, warm pancetta vinaigrette ($8). It tasted basically like your standard spinach salad with bacon vinaigrette, except slightly changed. I tried the beef carpaccio ($8) a few times, and it was made differently each time: Once, the slices of beef were drenched with oil, capers, and giant slabs of Parmesan cheese, another time delicately dressed with mere flakes of cheese. Whichever way it came, I never thought the beef was particularly good; it always tasted dull and pallid. Entrées seemed expensive for what you got. An $18 plate of open ravioli with grilled tuna, niçoise olives, spinach, and haricots verts had me expecting some delicate presentation of rare-seared fish. Instead, it was basically a stir-fry of gray chunks of tuna, handkerchiefs of pasta, and the rest. Sautéed salmon ($19) with wild rice was overcooked and, while there was watercress and a thick kumquat broth on the plate, seemed like standard-issue country-club food wearing a fancy hat. Ditto for peppered tournedos of beef ($24) with little discs of roast potato and an uninspired thyme jus.
Halfway through my second dinner at Bobino I found myself blurting out: "I am unreasonably bored!" It was true. Granted, that was before I tried the only thing I thought Bobino did really well--a balsamic-glazed chicken quarter ($18) with sweet and piquant crisp-roasted skin, the creamiest pillow of white polenta, and tiny Brussels-sprout leaves toasted till they were caramelized and half black, a delicious combination. Desserts were generic: crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake ($6.50), a blueberry cobbler with an inch-thick lid of what tasted like a corn muffin. ("This tastes like the recipe you get off the back of a muffin box," noted the friend I was dining with.)
The wine list isn't trying very hard, either--it's full of cheap bottles at two and even three times retail. I usually see Buckley's Shiraz for $9 retail, but it's $27 on the wine list here; and Cline "California" zinfandel sells for $8 to $10, but it's $31 at Bobino. I've said before, I don't know why wine bars bother with these red-flag, ultra-popular wines, and, um, after a couple of nights with this list, I guess I still don't know. Bobino is doing a nice program with tabletop monthly wine features, though: I tried a brightly lemony and acidic Portuguese verdelho from Hope Estates ($5.50 glass, $24 bottle) that I enjoyed. Service, I thought, was a little too efficient: Tag-teaming on the tables created the sense that no one person ever knew what your table was up to. And one night, when the entrées were ready before we'd finished the appetizers, our server bossily lifted the plates from beneath our forks, offering only: "You want these wrapped or thrown out?"
Still, I'd be a Grinch not to note that mine was the only table at Bobino that didn't seem delighted to be there. I suppose most people see the familiar wines and are pleased to see them, then they get the competently done food and are happy as all get-out to receive it, and they return to their lives charmed and refreshed. There's certainly a place for that golden, unchallenging experience around these parts--a rather large place, judging by the success of Kincaid's, W.A. Frost's, Cafe Latté, and other massive restaurant juggernauts that I'd compare Bobino to. I think I've seen the future, and it's golden indeed.
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