Testing the Waters

The new Zinc puts the emphasis on fun
Craig Lassig
Zinc Bar & Restaurant
1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis

Red Fish Blue
1681 Grand Ave., St. Paul

Rivers. When they're not all busy watering the fertile plain or finding their way to the sea, why, you can't even step in the same one twice. It's true. I thought I had it once with a catamaran and a dog named Brutal, but what we really had was a time-travel wristwatch, and that's something different. Nope, all the water flows away and new water comes in, and there you are, trying to step in the same one twice, getting nothing but wet. It's true! And restaurants, why, restaurants have been up and getting more and more like rivers, and especially around here they are. Full of fish, changing stem to stern whenever you're not looking.

Don't believe me? Well, just consider the course of downtown French restaurant Zinc. Opened in September 2000 as Brasserie Zinc, the restaurant was formerly the site of an ambitious menu and even a couple of expense-account showpieces like a tiered shellfish platter. This winter, though, Zinc was reformulated, the troublesome "Brasserie" was dropped (it had been netting calls about their lingerie selection, notes managing partner Edmund Burke), lots of new curtains were added, a couch lounge replaced some tables, a live-music stage went in, and the menu was retooled to remove the French words, make it less imposing and expensive, and, generally, to place the emphasis on fun bistro and bar, not fine dining.

As a fun bar, Zinc gets the crown now as the best bar in town for anyone who cares what goes in his or her party glass: The beer list has La Trappe Belgian ale on tap and a bunch of interesting French imports; there is a range of amusing cocktails like Orange Blossoms and Kir Royales; and the wine list, ooh la la. I always liked the wine list at Zinc, thinking it had the best bubbly list in town: 27 bottles that do an admirable job of covering the cheap, like nonvintage Bouvet Brut Saumur for $26, the estimable, like '95 Schramsberg Brut Rosé Napa for $56, and the starry-eyed stuff of dreams, like the $140 magnum of nonvintage Taittinger Brut "La Française" Montagne de Reims. Like I said, I've always liked the wine list at Zinc, but when I beheld the thing on a Wednesday night, when all the bottles on the regular list are half-price, I became short of breath and quite nearly frantic, because suddenly all sorts of things from the wide-ranging mostly French and California list were can't-afford-to-miss-cheap: '97 Perrin Châteauneuf-du-Pape at half of $55? '98 Jean Garaudet Monthelie Burgundy at half of $41? Mon dieu! And once you move into the low end, cheap-date heaven: With a number of great choices ordinarily priced in the low $20s, play your cards right and you could pretty readily get through a plush high-roller birthday dinner for two for less than $60 all told. Joie de vivre, indeed.

Food-wise, anything at Zinc that seems simple tends to be good: Mussels ($8.95) in a buttery broth with a splash of white wine are simple and lovely, and the sweet, creamy baguette that you can sop up the broth with is worth a trip alone. Dip the bread in a bubbly plate of goat-cheese dip, (the "fondue," $7.50) or swab it through the garlicky butter surrounding the plump escargots ($7.95), and life is sweet. The French fries at Zinc come in a pretty paper bundle in a metal cup, and they're toasty brown and better than ever. I tried a good burger ($8.95), and a pleasantly fierce and grassy cold fennel salad with haricots verts, aged sheep's-milk cheese, the whole thing dressed in a lemon and truffle oil. Desserts were far better than when Zinc opened. The lemon tart particularly impressed me: It was a glossy blade of lemon and butter that just melted in a bliss of sour ($4).

Still, I never have yet been able to recommend Zinc's high-price entrées, and I still can't: Bouillabaisse ($19.95) was a brick-red blitz of tomatoes and salt overpowering overdone sea life; the braised lamb shank ($17.95) was disagreeably metallic-tasting, reminding me of nothing so much as salt and commercial demi-glace. The roasted half chicken ($14.95) and steak au poivre ($19.95) were both fine, plain things; I bet in another year we get another menu tweak that reduces the offerings to the bare essentials, and then everyone will be happy. Overall, though, Zinc seems to be finding its identity: Downtown amusement palace for people whose taste has evolved to such a point that the Au Bon Pain in the lobby is no longer an option.

And so I leave Zinc with a personal note to someone I just know exists, a person who has a sort of powerless job in an office tower off Nicollet, and is trying to get ahead, and is too busy, but sometimes finds him- or herself in the skyways possessed with a sort of bone-deep terror, fearing that Minneapolis is a land of TCBY-yogurt-loving mutants. To that person, I say: Grab a likely-looking anybody, go to Zinc for happy hour ($3.95 baguette with roasted red pepper dip!), put a bottle of the burst-of-citrus-and-sun Picpoul de Pinet on the table ($21), and don't worry--everything is going to be okay.

And for the yogurt-loving mutants: Attendez! Red Fish Blue is ready to meet all your mid-price seafood dining needs. When this playful fusion restaurant opened last year, I caught a fair amount of flak for panning the place after what the owners thought wasn't a fair amount of time to allow them to get on their feet. So I revisited the place a year later and found a shortened menu, a much improved waitstaff, and food that, improbably, has stayed as bad as it was and possibly may have even gotten worse.

Most of my time there was a sad parade of calamari that stuck together in a giant clump on the plate ($7.95), crab cakes that tasted like fish-flavored hot cereal ($10.95), gummy bouillabaisse ($15.95 per person, minimum two people). I sat there one night, poking at a pan of desperately overcooked Asian paella, trying to figure out if a particular square of something was fish or chicken, before realizing that not being able to tell was actually all I needed to know. The one part of the menu I can recommend is the daily fish specials: I had a very nice piece of roasted halibut ($21.95). But for that price you could dine at nearly any fancy restaurant in town, without the attendant sadness of the regular menu.

Well, to tell you the truth, the food was only a sad parade some of the time, because once in a while we sailed into territory best described as downright perilous: One lunch opened with a basket of fish and chips ($9.95) made with fish that had spoiled, then moved on to tacos filled with overcooked, chewy pieces of some whitish fish or other ($7.95), and culminated with a tasty piece of salmon resting on a broken piece of crockery. Never. Never in all my days...

Anyway, no matter what anybody else says, Red Fish Blue gets my vote as the premier kitchen in town for sending out food that no one ever tasted. So how come the place continues to be packed all the time? Um, I dunno. Because people have no standards? Because they're the only fancy restaurant for miles in a posh neighborhood? I've been thinking about it, and I'm betting this whole "location" thing for restaurants--it could just be huge. On the bright side, the wine list is good enough and, at the low end, has some nice options, like a dry and lemon-edged Château Menaut bordeaux ($5.50 a glass, $22 a bottle, bottles are half-price on Mondays).

Um, and hmm. Also on the bright side is the fact that the restaurant is in St. Paul, which is really an excellent city distinguished by really a lot of bricks and also a big river full of ducks and bridges and only very very rarely a corpse. Another treat is the way a girl's mind will just constantly be giving out a lot of thoughts and things, and sometimes all day long. Because when the going gets super-tough, I always say, at least a girl can put down her fork and really just pursue a lot of interesting thoughts about rivers.

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