The Emperor's New Digs
417 First Ave. N., Minneapolis
Ever been to a Brainerd supper club, circa 1962? Me neither. But I feel like I have, because I've been to the Imperial Room, the cocktail oasis and restaurant that opened on First Avenue North this winter. From the buzz and early press, I thought the place was going to be all Rat Pack sharkskin glitz. Nope. No way, nohow. Dean Martin would shudder. But not me. It's perfect. It's like walking into a period room that no one in art history would ever bother with: meticulous retro rural Minnesota postwar prosperity. Details abound: all sorts of wood veneer, molded plastic chairs, easy-to-wipe-clean tables, aggressively fake potted plants, straws in the water, and gold-printed swizzle sticks in the drinks. There's even a sort of suggested masculine personality at the center of it all, with his model cars carefully displayed on the bar.
Of course it's all art, springing from the imagination of interior designers Smart Associates, who also created Chiang Mai Thai, café un deux trois, and other local restaurants. "We tried real hard to make it like a small-town Minnesota or Wisconsin supper club in the late 1950s and early 1960s," says Jim Smart, the design company's founder. "Right about the time I started getting interested in life, around when I was ten or so. When the Imperial Room's owners first came to us, they were aiming to do a sports bar, but we talked them out of it." And thank God. First Avenue needs another sports bar the way you need a couple of new fingers sprouting out in an already crowded hand. Fun's fun and all, but then comes freakish. Daddy Rocks, indeed.
So, all thanks to Imperial Room owner Steve Meyer, who deserves kudos for contributing to the personality of downtown, not further dumbing it down. Or that's what I came up with over a couple of what I've begun to think of as fourth-wave-feminist cocktails--innovative $9 cocktails that taste like girl drinks but hit you with the super-octane of manly man drinks. Like the Peppermint Bonbon, which is basically a grasshopper for when you quit kidding around: Stoli Vanil, crème de menthe, and a chocolate-syrup-rimmed glass. None of those annoyingly non-alcoholic dairy products to interfere, just a big martini glass full of alcohol that tastes exactly like mint-chocolate-chip ice cream. It looks exactly like it, too. Trust me--it isn't. And then there's the Chocolate Kiss: two kinds of Godiva liqueur gilding a chill pond of vodka. Tastes just like chocolate milk. Hoo boy.
Imperial Room general manager Craig Brown says that that Chocolate Kiss has become their most popular drink. "We sell a lot of them to men," he notes. "Everybody's got to get in touch with their feminine side every once in a while. If you're going to do it, do it here." Girl drinks that would have knocked Paul Bunyan on his ass--that's a fourth-wave-feminist cocktail. Or maybe it isn't. It definitely seemed like it at the time. And I defy you to keep from having pseudo-deep thoughts after a couple of these things. I double-dog defy you.
Unfortunately, even with all my regard for an innovative cocktail in a memorable space, I can only recommend a couple of dishes at the Imperial Room. I really, really love their French fries, flopsy, homemade, soft, caramelized bits of skin-on potato that reminded me so very much of the kind my grandma used to make. Which seemed sort of off the point, until one night they reminded everyone at the table of the fries their own grandmas used to make, and I got to thinking that this is a pretty definitive grandma fry. You can get the fries alone for $3, or with the strip steak, a nice, rich cut of meat that's appropriately chewy and nicely marbled and, at $17, is by leaps and bounds the best cheap steak in downtown. Brown says they recently upgraded some of the restaurant's cuts of meat; if they keep this steak at this price, I see it getting pretty darn legendary.
I also enjoyed the fried walleye fillet ($15), a nice big pillowy piece of fish with a crisp crust that came on an enormous bed of mashed potatoes and was in turn surrounded by a completely unnecessary sweet red sauce the menu calls "lobster bordelaise." (Yup, bordelaise sauce usually does refer to something made with wine, bone marrow, and brown stock for broiled meat. No, I don't get it either. But wood-grilled chicken Alfredo ($13) left me pretty baffled, too. A five-year-old trend plus a classic supperclub pasta? What next, olive-oil-poached salmon tetrazzini?) I really liked the key lime pie too, very fresh and zingy.
And I pretty much hated everything else. The kitchen basically has the heart of a sports bar but the talent of amateur night. Calamari ($8) were incredibly greasy every time I tried it, puzzlingly drizzled with a tomato-basil aioli that tasted blandly mayonnaisey. The Imperial wings ($8) were nude little bits of chicken baked in a strange hoisin-tasting sauce. The shrimp cocktail ($9) was fine. The caesar salad ($9 at dinner) tasted like something off a cafeteria line. The grilled pork-loin chop ($17) showed promise, but it was overcooked when I tried it. Tuna with a cracked-pepper crust ($16) is a terrible idea; the tuna was completely overwhelmed by the black-pepper layer that surrounded it, and the fish was overcooked to boot.
And yet who cares? I don't need every restaurant to have great chef-driven food. A couple of great cocktails and a good steak are not to be underestimated. Plus they do a great job with potatoes. The aforementioned Imperial fries are hand cut, skin-on, and irregular, and they have a nice caramel squishiness. The kitchen puts out good mashed potatoes that have a light roast-garlic edge to them. And if you're an over-21 on a budget and love mashed spuds, here's an invaluable nugget of data: Happy hour at the Imperial Room runs every Monday to Friday from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and offers a free mashed-potato bar. What's that? Well, I went down and checked it out. It's a big pan of mashed potatoes set next to a half-dozen soup cups of add-ins like bacon crumbles, blue cheese, Cheddar, scallions, and sour cream. Fill up a plate with potatoes and toppings and voilà: your base for drinking. Personally, this isn't really my cup of spuds, but I'm guessing this is many readers' idea of heaven, so I thought I'd tell you.
During happy hour, Imperial Martinis are half price, going from $9 to $4.50. Seeing as how the things are so enormous and built from such high-price ingredients as Belvedere vodka and Godiva liqueurs, I asked the general manager if they were losing money on every happy-hour martini: "We sure are!" he answered cheerfully. So maybe you should go get some free spuds and cheap high-roller drinks before someone in a position of authority reads this.
Or who knows, maybe somebody's trying to build a long-term business of character on First Avenue. It could happen! I mean, somebody could look down First Avenue and not see it merely as a place to harvest the biggest profits out of Big Gulp-sized cups of Miller Lite sold to fresh-faced cutie-pies exploring the meaning and substance of brand-new credit cards.
Yes, there may be hope for downtown. True, non-inebriated mainstays like Chez Bananas and the New French might have left, and Hooters might be fast on its way in the coming Block E development--oh no! I feel a rant coming on...can't resist.
Are any of my tax dollars responsible for this Hooters? I mean, even one? I need to know so I can dedicate an equivalent amount to a deserving political organization, like maybe the Heather has Two Mommies PAC supporting the Overthrow of Gametic Reproduction, Crisis Line for the Flat-Chested, and Fund for Random Cattle-Prodding of Morons. Tight orange shorts, indeed. A Hooters. In the middle of downtown. And right where I had some very convenient surface parking. Another outrage!
Okay, I'm better now.
Yes, with the recent closing of Chez Bananas and the New French, I had begun to fear that First Avenue was turning into a beer-goggles-required zone, so anything that bucks that trend and contributes to downtown feeling like somewhere and not anywhere, well, it's appreciated. I mean, martini goggles, now that's something completely different. Really. Just ask John Cheever, ask John O'Hara, ask any John of Literature you see lying about. Or, just step gently over them, because I think they're passed out. But I'm telling you, life is better glimpsed through Peppermint Bonbon-colored glasses.
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