Swedish Roulette

When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad...well, you know the tune.
Kristine Heykants

IDS Center, 80 S. Eighth St., Mpls.; (612) 343-3333
Hours: Lunch, Monday - Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Saturday noon-3:00 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; bar menu available Monday-Saturday 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; parking is validated daily after 5:00 p.m. in the IDS ramp.

The loveliest things I had at Aquavit were very lovely indeed--for example a foie-gras appetizer that looked like a dollhouse sculpture garden ($14). On one side of the plate were two slices of foie-gras terrine, divided by a shiitake mushroom and tender as dew; above them, like spring rain, hovered a frothy butter cloud. On the other side of the plate sat a square wafer with a center dimple, full of delectable duck confit, and the plate itself was dotted with tears of dill oil. Gorgeous.

A few meals later, I had a dazzling passion-fruit mousse ($8) that looked more like a futurist sculpture than food: A ribbon of dense yellow cake printed with a chocolate geometric pattern encircled a perfect round of zingy mousse, crowned with tiny mango cubes that adhered to the cake to make a perfect cylinder. Beside the mousse art there was another low square of cake, topped with a perfect globe of ginger sorbet, which was itself topped by an almond cookie shaped like a swooping spiral banner, the top of the cookie soaring into space, a center bit anchored on the edge of the sorbet, the tail poking into space past the plate edge.

When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad...well, you know the tune. Mostly, what dazzled me at Aquavit was my own rotten luck. I got a steamed-lobster pasta dish overpowered by lots of piquant black olives not mentioned on the menu; I got hot food served cold; I got a salad, ordered mostly to see the "cheesecake" in it, that arrived cheesecake-free. I got overcharged three separate times, I got the check dropped before the dessert was delivered, I got "Who ordered the venison?" plate auctions on every single dining-room visit. I got lied to by a server who insisted there was no $19.99 prix-fixe lunch in the dining room, and after producing the menu sneered at me for ordering off it. I got meals during which the next table's conversation was unbelievably amplified by a connecting shelf in a wall, and I got picture-perfect views of City Center's neon, which cast a food-court glow over the meal. I never got an Aquavit dining-room meal that I felt justified the Aquavit dining-room price--at least $50 a head, and usually more like $100 per person once you figure in wine and tip and all.

I know about the lucky-in-cards-unlucky-in-love connection, but is there something I should know about "Lucky in X, unlucky in Aquavit?" What is that mysterious endeavor? If it's blackjack or Powerball, I'd really like to know--but I fear it's something like lucky in peeling eggs. Lucky in freckle retention. Lucky in yak herding.

Out of my five visits, one night's dinner was particularly illustrative of my own personal bad Aquavit karma. The meal began with the waiter telling us that we really, really should get bottled water because a lot of people find Minneapolis tap water particularly offensive. After that he sniffed at our wine choice and tried to pressure us into ordering a bottle twice as expensive--and then, in three successive courses, everything I had was much worse than everything my three dining companions had.

I began with a lobster-roll appetizer ($13), which was supposed to be served with a seaweed salad and an avocado sour-cream sorbet, but instead came with seaweed salad, avocado salad, and fresh cucumber pickles. The lobster was just little bits of lobster scraps resembling a sushi lobster roll that had been dropped. Across the table, a friend had ordered the roasted squab consommé ($10), a chestnut-brown broth that was rich, fragrant, and enhanced by a scoop of scallop risotto crowned with jewels of black truffle slices. Just delicious. Others tried the good, sweet gravlax ($9) and the herring plate ($8). I sampled the latter, which consists of four nice presentations of different varieties of herring, twice, but never developed any passion for it--it just seems like herring to me.

Between courses a waiter--unprompted!--treated us to tales of all the celebrities and critics who had been recognized and feted here, and told us how a staff so peppered with old Minneapolis hands plucked from other restaurants could never let a critic go unworshiped. Except, evidently, me, and I really could have used it.

Entrées were distributed (auction-style), and I was treated to rare seared tuna scallops ($26) that were an unpleasant mahogany brown, tasted strange and oily, and had a grainy texture. The scallops in the pallid sea-urchin sauce that surrounded the tuna were dry and rubbery. A friend got seared crispy salmon, terribly overcooked, in a pastry envelope ($22), so the two of us sat there unhappily and coveted our neighbors' entrées: One lucky member of our party devoured his delicious hot-smoked venison slices ($27) on a ho-hum diced-root-vegetable cake, while the table high roller gloated over a fantastic concoction of meaty, pink, salt-cured duck ($29), served with foie gras and a sweet onion confit, and perfectly accented with a spiced wine reduction.  

For dessert I ordered a gummy, starchy fresh-coconut rice pudding ($7), while my companions got lucky with the warm chocolate ganache ($9), a little chocolate cake with an oozing fudgy center, and the delicious spiced milk-chocolate soup ($8), a bowl of chocolate sauce ringed with banana slices that had caramelized tops (it's great fun to push the banana slices into the soup).

After the meal I was fretting that I didn't know what I could possibly say about the restaurant, because my Aquavit curse seemed so singularly powerful. My friend, fat and happy on duck and cake, said I should begin by stating: "This pretentious, expensive place has really good food." But I don't feel I could even go that far.

Consequently, I've been putting off writing this review, going back to Aquavit again and again, torturing myself with questions: Am I spoiled? Am I cursed? Is it possible that I really don't like Aquavit? Finally, on my last visit, and my first to the less expensive front café, I had the pleasant, welcoming, flawless meal I had been waiting for. It was the $19.99 prix fixe dinner offered in that part of the restaurant every night.

The meal began with a potent, gorgeous, daffodil-colored curry soup dotted with flavored oil and featuring an earthy veal dumpling. It proceeded with a creamy layered casserole of potatoes, dill, and halibut (they call it a "halibut Napoleon")--a filling, savory comfort food, accompanied by a simple arugula salad. The dessert was another gorgeous Aquavit presentation called Arctic Fusion, a layered tower of precious morsels that looked like a child's building-block stack: At the base was a kaffir-lime ice cream rectangle lidded with a white card of meringue, topped by a circle of red-currant sorbet with another meringue cover; poking up beside the whole thing was an antenna of a caramel stick, and beneath it all sat a sweet red sauce and four groupings of red currants. Breathtaking!

In the café I sat with my back to the windows so I couldn't see the mall; my only sights were the high-heeled or dark-suited swells coming and going, and the busy kitchen. My server was the youngest I had had at Aquavit, but soothingly on the ball and unobtrusive. The breads came in a heavy silver bowl, without the added interruption of the bread server who attends tables in the dining room. When the candle floating in a pretty water cylinder on the table went out, a manager whisked right over and replaced it; in the dining room no one had ever replaced my candle. So, much as I like the white tablecloths and signature Villeroy & Boch china of the classy dining room, I guess I've got to console myself with café life. That upper-crust fine-dining existence is too fraught with bad bets.



THREE DAYS AND COUNTING: till the opening of the No Wake Cafe, that sweet little restaurant on the boat moored on Harriet Island. You might have heard about the $13 million revamp of the Harriet Island park scheduled for this summer, but have no fear: The sturdy vessel that has withstood floods and storms and Lollapalooza will be open for dinner per usual, as of April 17 (Pier One, Harriet Island, St. Paul, (651) 292-1411; Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 5:00 to 9:00, Friday and Saturday from 5:00 to 10:00; and brunch is served Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) My favorite things about the No Wake are that unsurpassed downtown St. Paul view (see the new Science Museum!), the mosquito-free ambiance, and the sheer seasonality of it all--remember, one day the No Wake is opening for the season, and the next you're picking apples. Labor Day is closer than you think!

LOCAL HEROES: I wasn't impressed with the Local when it first opened, but it's springtime and a young critic's heart turns to thoughts of love--I must confess I am developing quite a crush on the place now. It all started with the new "pubistro" menu that debuted in January. Served for lunch in the restaurant and all day and night in the bar, it's peppered with adorables: I particularly fell for the free-form ravioli ($8.75), light, airy, pink, and plump salmon quenelles (as meat balls are to meat, quenelles are to fish), that peek up at you from beneath their tender pasta blankets; a heap of wood-fired mussels in a smoky tomato broth ($9); and a generous cheese plate ($9) that recently has featured amazing selections from London's famed Neal's Yard Dairy, a cheese shop that specializes in Irish and English farmhouse cheeses. See the pubistro menu for yourself on the Local's Web site,
www.the-local.com/page/menu/pub.htm--or just go down there for yourself; the pub itself (931 Nicollet Mall, (612) 904-1000) is open 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. daily, while the pub menu is available Sunday-Thursday till 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight.

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