The Sad Comedy of Really Bad Food

John Noltner

Mpls. Cafe
1110 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 672-9100

When people find out what I do for a living they invariably ask whether restaurateurs know when I'm coming. The answer is that no, they never do, because I want to get the same treatment that any Josie Blow coming in off the street would get. This policy presents several major benefits: First, it makes me feel ethically snug; second, it means I can write off my many wig and prosthetic-nose purchases; and third, it makes me laugh. Or at least it makes me laugh through what would ordinarily be a merely painful meal. For example, consider the terrible times I've endured recently at the Mpls. Cafe.

There I was, withered to my bones with dehydration. Tumbleweeds rattled around in the bone-dry mesa of my water glass. My waiter had apparently given up the profession and lit out for a better life. The floor manager was busy giving free drinks to another, louder table, to apologize to them for all the things they wanted that they couldn't have--like food, and for them wine, since no one thought to entrust the floor manager with the key to the tantalizing wine cellar. It had been a long hour since I placed an appetizer order, and I might as well have been waiting for a bus for all the fine dining I was doing. I felt like Pamela Anderson at a NAMBLA convention. Had I not been a food critic--and in this case, incredibly, dining with another local food critic--I would have wept.

Yet instead, when our waiter, apparently having met disappointment on the coasts, returned at one-hour 10-minutes (sans H2O), and asked, incredibly, whether we needed more bread--well that was merely the beginning of the hilarity. I laughed. When I said no, we had plenty of bread, the waiter, not trusting me--and why should he, with me sneaking into his section and marring a life of vagabond adventure--unwrapped the focaccia in its napkin-nest, peeked in at it, rewrapped it, and strode off again to his lair. I laughed so hard I thought I'd rupture something. Actually, I'm still laughing about it. Because it's not just me getting the worst service in the world: It's me getting the worst service in the world while taking notes. I'm Allen Funt in my own private Candid Camera. (By the way, focaccia here isn't mere bread, it's "farm-fresh focaccia," freshly hoed-up from the focaccia fields.)

When the food eventually arrived, one of the dishes, the Turkey Mediterranean Tulips (turkey wings baked and finished on the grill with a jerk sauce, $6.75), was the best thing I had at the Mpls. Cafe. They were smoky, tender, spicy. The Potato Cakes with Balsamic Syrup ($6.25) were dull as paint--simply giant patties of underseasoned mashed potatoes served in a watery balsamic-vinegar sauce that eventually soaked into the potatoes, leaving them soggy and brownish. It seemed like ill-conceived leftovers.

After so many hours the entrées, of course, arrived just on the heels of the appetizers, and things went downhill from there. The bouillabaisse-style Soupe Canoise ($5.95/$9.95) tasted burnt, and had a little black hot-pepper-looking thing lolling suspiciously to one side. I asked my bus-friend, the only person who ever attended the table, what it was, and as he didn't know he set out in pursuit of our waiter, whom it took another 15 minutes to track down. Flyboy had never seen it either; it's been my experience that if you ask any member of the wait staff at Mpls. Cafe what anything on the menu is they become startled and disappear for maddening amounts of time in search of answers--so he went looking for a manager.

When the young, key-free manager arrived and he identified the little stem-on vegetable as a Japanese eggplant, I couldn't stop giggling. Then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing. It was bitter, charred, and awful--it made me want to spit. (If you ever wondered why people salt and drain eggplants, take a cute little past-prime Japanese eggplant, char it over an open flame, and pop it into your mouth. You'll salt forevermore.)

Of course, one bad experience does not make a bad restaurant. So I returned. And returned again. Each time the service was comical, and the food, while conceptually interesting, often seemed as though no one had tasted it after the idea was put to paper. The Salmon Tartar ($11.25), minced salmon served in a pool of cayenne-infused olive oil, tasted dusty and inedibly oily; Wood Roasted Quail Provençale ($17.95) was teeth-achingly salty; Casablanca Risotto with Saffron Infused Chicken Kabob ($13.25) was a pair of painfully over-salted kabobs resting on a mountain of gummy risotto; New Zealand Rack of Lamb ($21.50) was virtually ruined as each small lamb chop was heaped with a spoon of raw, biting sorrel-garlic pesto; Chicken Garlic Basil Rigatoni ($10.75) was dull and undifferentiated; and worst of all was a special of lobster ravioli with fresh blueberries. I imagined puffs of tender lobster meat with a dozen or so blueberries thrown in for color and contrast. I got raviolis enriched with crunchy bits of shell, drowning in a thick, sour, jam-like paste.

On the up side, I liked the Caesar salad ($3.95/$6.95), which was lemony, spare, and honest; the pizzas are very good, wood-roasted, crisp, and simple; and the Planked Cochonnailles--a trio of pâtés served with spicy French gherkins and oil-cured olives--were fine. But I could have, in good conscience, sent back three out of four dishes that arrived from the Mpls. Cafe kitchen. It was hilarious, in its fashion.

It was also really funny when I went to order dessert on another visit and my waitress said, "That's the only good thing here." Then she backpedaled and clarified, saying, "What I mean is, in my opinion, it's my favorite part of the menu." She's right, many of the desserts are spectacular: I loved the crème brûlée ($4.95), which is presented in a glamorous haze of smoke as your server brands the top with a hot iron plate. The Pear Obsession ($5.95), poached pear slices on a layer of flaky almond-laced pastry drizzled with a cinnamon-caramel sauce, is also truly wonderful. And the Crepe à la Gundel ($5.95), a tender crepe filled with warm fresh berries and dressed with two spectacular sauces, a crème anglaise and a Grand Marnier caramel syrup, is absolutely perfect; for everything I didn't like about the Mpls. Cafe I'll be back for this wonder.

Mpls. Cafe also takes the prize for the most artful, ample, and delicious sauce-painting I've ever seen. It also must be said that its wine list is masterful. Champagnes and sparkling wines are nicely represented, and premium bottles can be had at reasonable prices. The rest of the list is global in scope, arranged in an exceedingly user-friendly manner, and considerately showcases many wines in every price range. Mpls. Cafe has only been open for two months, and perhaps the time will come when the food lives up to the strengths of the desserts. Until then it's a fine place for music, late-night gatherings, post-theater, pre-Holidazzle, and the like--as long as you bring your sense of humor.

But wait--I totally forgot to tell you about how the rice in the Moroccan rice salad arrives as a large ice-cold dome surrounded by hot delicate seafood that (predictably) turns icy in a matter of moments. And how there are four televisions showing sports in a place with $175 bottles of champagne on the menu. Oh, and get this: One time, at a neighboring table, a customer spilled a glass of water, and it splashed all over the floor, and no one ever came to wipe it up, leaving patrons to pick their purses up off the floor to avoid the streaming rivulets; and then this one bus-guy actually told a waitress to watch out for the spilled water, because she might slip on it, and so they both avoided the spot for the rest of the night, but never wiped it up. Man, was that funny. Oh, and the time I went by the open kitchen and a chef had this magazine spread out over his cutting board, and this other time...

Oh well. I guess it was just one of those things where you had to be there. But it was really funny.

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1110 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403-1704


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