The Best of Times, The Worst...
The Times Bar and Cafe
201 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; (612) 617-8098
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily, kitchen closes at midnight.
"That was too loud," complained my friend as we left the Times' jazz brunch one sunny Sunday morning. Too loud? But we were seated eight feet from a live jazz quintet, I argued--what were they supposed to do, mime? Too loud, she insisted. But wouldn't people who went out for a live jazz brunch expect loud? No. And she hadn't noticed any shrimp in her shrimp frittata, either.
We bickered our way through Baltic Imports, the store next door to the new Times complex on East Hennepin, picking out ornaments and dissecting the brunch. But I loved my bloody Mary, I insisted. It had tons of horseradish and cayenne, it booted me to wakefulness with stunning efficiency. But you sent back your corned-beef hash, she hooted. Indeed I had, since the plate held only a measly quarter-cup or so of the main ingredient--but the waitress had replaced it immediately, and that's how service at the Times always is: quick, agreeable, accommodating.
My friend gave up on me, so I didn't have to bring up how enchanted I was with the hand-holding couple at the table next to ours, a mother and father who had just picked up their preadolescent son and daughter from a sleepover at Grandma's house. I thought it was charming, the way they were teaching their children restaurant manners and an appreciation of jazz, treating them like little adults in the yellow morning light.
However, I also didn't tell my friend how unimpressed I was with the thick, unappealing hollandaise on the eggs Benedict. And I likewise hid my feelings about the caesar salad with its crown of none-too-fresh Parmesan. That's how it is at the Times--the glass is half empty as much as it is half full.
On the one hand, this northeast Minneapolis incarnation of the onetime Nicollet Mall hot spot is a wonderful place to hear live jazz. The bar has a wealth of interesting drinks (including some excellent single-malt Scotches) and bottles of wine from $13. There's music every single night; the atmosphere is calm, welcoming, and laid-back, the service so efficient you almost fail to notice it. On Friday and Saturday nights, the no-cover policy draws a nice mix of old hands and neophytes, creating the impression that there's popular support for live jazz in the Twin Cities after all.
On the other hand, it's The Times Bar and Cafe, in that order: The food simply isn't too much better than what you'd get at, say, Grandma's. Brunch dishes were remarkable chiefly for being inexpensive, especially considering that each table gets a banana-bread and fruit plate to share. Corned-beef hash is $8.95 with poached eggs, oven-browned potatoes, and toast; shrimp frittata is $8.95 with the same, and a half order of eggs Benedict with a caesar salad costs $7.95.
The house and caesar salads, complimentary with most entrées, were the very definition of adequate, but no more than that. Same goes for the sandwiches and entrées I tried--from a dry, though well-stuffed, club ($7.50) served with overdone potato wedges, to a pesto chicken pizza ($7.95) topped with a casserole-like blanket of melted mozzarella and provolone. The "Old St. Anthony" linguine ($12.95) were nicely garlicky, but otherwise one-dimensional. The pork loin ($14.95) was as bland as the risotto and sliced sautéed vegetables that came with it. The only thing I could really find to recommend on the menu was the pumpkin cheesecake ($4.25), a nutmeg-laced, pleasantly simple wedge of dense cake.
And, of course, the fondue, the Times' specialty. You may order the three kinds--cheese, oil, and chocolate--as one dip-ariffic meal costing $54.95 for two and $27.50 for each additional person, though one kind will probably do just fine. The cheese fondue ($13.95 for one, $22.95 for two, $11.50 for each additional person) is, as you'd expect, exceptionally rich and a lot of fun. You get a bubbling pot of the classic blend (Gruyère, Emmentaler, and white wine) with a plate of bread cubes, Granny Smith apple slices, and cubes of boiled, chilled red potatoes; it's perfect to linger over and snack on while the band plays.
The oil fondue ($36.95 for two and $18.50 for each additional person) is more of a chore, as a bubbling cauldron of oil and a plate of cut-up vegetables plus beef, chicken, or shrimp (or all three!) would tend to be. I think this may have been my last oil fondue ever: I mean, if I ordinarily dislike unseasoned deep-fried beef, why would I suddenly enjoy it simply because I made it with a cute long fork? (I'm also obsessive about needing my shrimp to be well cleaned, so I found myself using my napkin to wipe out that black strip of intestine--quite a treat for my companions, I'm sure.) Worst of all, hot oil fondue encourages stupidity: One minute you're just sort of looking around the table for something novel, and the next you're eating a piece of deep-fried broccoli with honey-mustard sauce. Ugh.
The chocolate fondue ($11.95 for a portion serving two or three), on the other hand, is delicious, a pot of melted Belgian Callebaut and cream served with a plate of marshmallows, pound cake, bananas, pineapple, and, on my visit, unripe strawberries. When the server sets down the chocolate, he or she flames a layer of kirsch liqueur that floats over the chocolate, and you can roast marshmallows in the flames if you like. I did. Tasty. At the time I had a glass of sweet Pear de Pear brandy ($5.25) at my elbow, and the Wolverines, that swinging big band, were wowing the crowd at the front of the house.
A snifter of brandy, an earful of trombone, marshmallows. All right, I thought, so be it: What the Times lacks in fine-dining finesse they make up for in casual conviviality. And whatever else you say about the place, it's inarguably the best spot in town for hot cheese, hot marshmallows, and cool jazz.
SWEDISH LOUNGING: They've cleared the café tables out of the front portion of Aquavit and replaced them with squishy, comfy lounge chairs--well, they're squishy and comfy in an Aquavit-y, rectilinear and modern sort of way. It's all part of a plan to create a clearer separation between the casual and formal parts of the restaurant: "The former café tables will go out in the Crystal Court in the early part of the year," Aquavit owner Håkan Swahn explains. "We need to get some landscaping out there, some umbrellas, but when we finish that area everything will hopefully be more clear. We had created some confusion among the guests--people would sit in the café and want to order off the dining-room menu, or vice versa. In New York, the café and the dining room are on two separate floors, served by two separate kitchens, so it is easier to see the difference. But in Minneapolis, the bar has been sort of too jammed, and there isn't enough room for everyone who wants to be in the bar, so it's good for us to do something different with that extra space."
Well, I'm all for change, so I trotted down to try out the lounge chairs, and the experience was so dreamy, I left absolutely purring. It was one of the first nights of the new menu, and executive chef Marcus Samuelsson was working the front room, dazzling the bar and the few tables with some of his creations. First he sent around a few heavy silvery trays on which rested bean-shaped silvery bowls, each holding some pansy heads and a folded cone of newsprint. In the cone were two fingers of deep-fried cod, and on the tray was a handful of panko-breadcrumb-enhanced, tempura-battered French fries next to an apéritif glass filled with wasabi aioli. The fish was light as the sound of sand, and the aioli was very good. (An entrée portion of fish and chips is available on the lounge menu for $12; the fries alone are $2.50.)
Next we sampled a pint glass of about half a dozen duck wings ($8)--barbecued morsels of the most tender, deliciously greasy meat served with a beaker of this gorgeous orange, frothy stuff that turned out to be spicy mango foam. Dipping the wings in the foam created a perfectly balanced contrast of savory, bright, and sweet flavors.
The smorgasbord plate ($10) was a visual triumph: I'd always seen its collection of salty treats arranged around the perimeter of a plate like the numbers of a clock. But this time the little ziggurats of herring, salmon, or liver pâté were spread out on a long rectangle of glass like a dollhouse sculpture garden.
As Samuelsson roamed the lounge, he explained that he has been searching out, and making, his own serving pieces. Soon we saw a big square of bathroom tile that held a full teapot of "truffle cappuccino," a cream-and-mushroom soup, along with adorable little steamed mushroom buns ($7). The sweet, nutty soup was as delicious as hot chocolate and made me wonder why no one serves truffle cappuccino on the ski slopes. We also tried boneless beef ribs--glistening, long-braised fingers of meat contrasted with a vibrant hot-and-sour cabbage slaw, and served with a glass of exquisite, sweet, lightly spiced squash mash: "This is ambrosia," declared my date. "I want to carry this with me wherever I go." Which is another way of saying that I've finally had the Aquavit experience everyone else is always raving about. I guess all it took was a squishy rectilinear chair.
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