The Same Restaurant Twice
2523 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., (612) 874-7721
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily
Last October departing Village Voice art critic Peter Schjeldahl bid an admiring farewell to his weekly forum: "I'm fascinated by the column form in general. It is a rhetorical gizmo as compact and flexible as the sonnet or the sonata and a lot more supported by present-day culture. If journalism is history written by flashes of lightning, the column may be the literary equivalent of a roving flashlight." So I cut that out and stuck it to my computer monitor, and ever since I've pictured myself, week after week, poking my flashlight into some corner, reporting back on what I find, and moving on.
It's a pleasant way to live. I don't just find meals, I find history. I find darlings, I find weirdos, I find unimaginable stories, and sometimes I find stone-cold paradoxes. Case in point: Seafood Palace. If you had asked me what I thought of the place before I trained my flashlight on it, I would have said it was pretty great--an opinion I would have based entirely on quiet, nonreview meals over the years, usually a hot and sour soup and something off the specials board. Now, having probed and poked and prodded and put the kitchen through the paces, I can report authoritatively that Seafood Palace serves alternately truly wonderful and just plain terrible dishes, often at the same meal--and often their best offerings have nothing whatsoever to do with sea life.
On my first visit, a late, lazy weekend lunch, I brought a trio of friends and we began with a family-style serving of chicken velvet soup, a silky, mellow variation on egg drop soup made with sweet niblets of corn and little poached pieces of chicken. It was swell, especially at only $5.95 for four or five people.
I had brought a friend who flits around the globe from one fried chicken to the next like a monarch butterfly that skips the rose gardens to feast on milkweed at the roadside. So we ordered the special of Cantonese fried chicken ($7.75 half, $15 whole), and it was fantastic--really. Slices of on-the-bone chicken cut straight through and arranged sort of like a sliced loaf of bread arrived on a large platter covered with warm pink, white, and green shrimp chips (generally like Fritos, but made of a ground shrimp mixture instead of corn), accompanied by a little bowl of mixed salt and pepper to sprinkle on the chicken. It was tender, it was moist, it was crispy and a little sweet--if you have any interest whatsoever in fried chicken, add this one to your list. We were also thrilled with the lobster special ($14.95), in which the deep-fried, hacked-up crustacean was perfectly complemented by slices of whole ginger in the white ginger-scallion sauce.
Yet the same meal featured three dishes that were just wretched. String beans in black bean sauce ($5.75) were ice-cold in places, making me suspect they had been parboiled and then later cooked with the sauce; in any event they were wrinkled, squishy, and exhausted. Eggplant with garlic sauce ($6.95) was nearly inedible--goopy, bitter, and viscous, the taste and texture of a past-ripe vegetable. The hot and spicy shrimp ($10.95) had been cooked into tight, rubbery knots, and tossed with neatly trimmed vegetables that looked suspiciously well-manicured and tasted like they'd come from a frozen mix.
Overall, it was very strange. Restaurants usually don't hit only home runs or--what would be the opposite? At-bats where they catch the ball and walk off with it and refuse to play? While puzzling over this question, I enjoyed the bubble-gum-pink décor, the crabs frisking in the aquariums, and the etched-glass art of a smiling lobster serving up a bowl of crabs that adorns the nonsmoking room. I was more curious than usual to find out what the next visit would bring.
Be careful what you wish for--two weeks later saw a meal that was very nearly a complete disaster. Three plates arrived bearing either mealy shrimp or crab with the ammoniac reek that clearly warns of past-prime ocean life--causing a panic at the table that prevented anyone from enjoying any part of the meal. The rest of the dinner didn't make up for the seafood scare: Singapore mai fun noodles ($8.50) were greasy and underseasoned, and the beef with sha-cha sauce ($8.95) on a sizzling platter was bland as Steak-umms in gravy. The only decent dishes were sautéed watercress with chopped garlic, a nicely bitter bowl of greens ($7.25), and a special of baked fresh mushrooms served with lots of little heads of bok choy ($9.95)--very plain, but good.
It was with great trepidation that I returned to the restaurant a week later; yet this time, nearly everything was marvelous. Hot and sour soup was just as I remembered it, peppery and chewy, crammed full of good stuff--cabbage, mushrooms, fatty pork. Another wild-card pick off the regular menu struck gold: Salt-baked spicy pork chops ($9.50) turned out to be slices of pork in a salty batter cooked in a way that created a divine fried texture, but also integrated a smattering of moist minced garlic and was nearly oil-free--as popcorn shrimp are to shrimp, this was to pork, an unforgettable dish. Baby clams in black bean sauce ($10.95) were equally appealing, a giant heap of little steamers tossed with a garlic-laced sauce, each one tender as pudding. Orange-flavored beef ($8.95) was good, though nothing spectacular, slices of sweet and bitter orange zest nicely enlivening the beef in a brown sauce.
And so I took my leave of the first restaurant I've ever reviewed where I truly believe that two parties at adjacent tables could simultaneously have the most marvelous and the most disappointing meals possible, without a discernible pattern to guide them. As a diner and as a critic, I could do without this state of affairs. But as a general knockabout trying to make sense of the world, I find it delightfully illustrative of the human condition: You can never enter the same river twice. No two siblings grow up in the exact same family. No two lovers are in the exact same relationship. And now I've seen how it can happen in a restaurant, repeatedly, how two parties can simultaneously dine in a four-star and a no-star establishment. When your flashlight draws out the dimensions of such a very human, perfect, neatly anecdotal paradox, that's about all you can ask before you switch off and move on.
LUST FOR BRUNCH: Unbridled lust on the streets of St. Paul? Heavens to mergatroid! It's true, kids, there's tango--the dance of passion, lust, and neck-snapping elegance--once a month at the Zander Café. Owner Alexander Dixon explains that the event began when a customer, John Milton, suggested that Dixon serve a real paella, but Dixon objected that the giant Spanish dish made of Valencian rice, saffron, and various vegetables, meats and/or seafoods all cooked together needs to be eaten the moment it's done, not portioned out over the course of an evening. So they conceived of a paella brunch (which Milton helps cook), paired it with liberal pourings of Spanish and Portuguese wines, fired up the hi-fi, and invited some tango instructors. Next thing you know, they'd created an all-afternoon event that sounds as fun as watching the founding fathers of Cathedral Hill shoot fireworks out their noses--which is no doubt what they're doing, given that this is the fiery dance based on the power relations between prostitutes and lonely macho switchblade slingers in down-and-dirty Argentina. And how does tall, leggy Alexander Dixon manage? "Anything that requires knee-and-hip coordination is not really in my repertoire," admits Dixon, "But I'm okay when I feel inspired. I do like to tango and I do like to waltz--I go for those romantic, melodramatic dances." The event typically begins around 12:30 p.m., and dancing begins around 2:00, but "the tango just continues as long as people stick around to do it," Dixon says. "I usually don't kick people out. It tends to dwindle down to around four people, and we drink wine and tango until pretty late in the evening." A word to the wise: Dixon recommends designating a driver if you're going to dance till dusk. "People usually leave pretty rosy." The brunch costs $35 per person, tax, tip, and wine included.
The café now also hosts wine dinners one Monday each month; the next one is scheduled for June 21 and will feature a classic French menu paired with classic French wines. The dinner will include shellfish consommé with pike quenelles, oysters and champagne, roasted tarragon chicken with black truffles; Roederer Brut Champagne Brut Premiere, '97 Marc Brédif Vouvray, a Châteauneuf-du-Pape and 1997 La Doucette Pouilly Fumé. The dinner is priced at $55. To get on the invite list for either the Tango Paella Brunch or the wine dinners--or July's planned Cajun crawfish boil with a live zydeco band and dancing!--call the café (525 Selby Ave., St. Paul, (651) 222-5224) or send Dixon an e-mail message (email@example.com). Be sure to specify on the subject line that you're looking to tango, wine and dine, or zydeco; Dixon says he gets so much junk e-mail he just erases anything that looks like it could be a thinly veiled offer to MAKE $$$$$$ FAST!
HISTORY HI-JINX: Can you get your three-year-old to make you corn bread and red beans and rice? It's worth a try, anyway, so gather your tykes and bring them to the Minnesota History Center (345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul) on June 13 from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., when the much-beloved Lucille Williams--matriarch of North Minneapolis's Lucille's Kitchen--will be leading a soul-food seminar. Lucky attendees ages three and up will make a three-ring recipe binder and fill it with authentic soul-food recipes. For more information, call the center at (800) 657-3773, or visit them on the Web at www.mnhs.org. Or, if your life involves palling around with a recalcitrant 30-year-old, trot them up to Lucille's, 2013 Plymouth Ave. North, (612) 529-3350, and tell them to figure it out for themselves. If they learn how to make fried okra and sweet potato pie like Lucille, all the better. And if they don't, make them pick up the check.
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