The Social House takes over Zeno in Uptown
It's a Friday night on the see-and-be-seen corner of Hennepin and Lagoon in Uptown, and the Social House's staff members are splitting their time between giving wine pairing recommendations to tables of parents ecstatic to be out past 9 p.m., and running sake and shots to the rowdy group of twentysomethings obnoxiously asking their server, "Who ordered the 'miso horny' soup?" In a quieter corner with the floor-to-ceiling windows that once made Zeno Cafe, a former occupant of this space, a desirable post-movie drink and dessert destination, we scan the list of signature maki rolls, trying to find something ... raw. "Is it just me or do a lot of these descriptions include the words 'deep' and 'fried'? Not that I have a problem with that," said my dining companion, "but I didn't think sushi was really supposed to be so cooked."
In terms of culinary perspective, the Social House appears to be picking up where Fusion, another onetime tenant of this corner, mostly famous for slow service and at least one Kim Kardashian sighting, left off. Pan-Asian flavors and techniques are delivered via Tex-Mex presentations, like in the Korean tacos, or conversely, American diner fare is tucked inside a wonton wrapper and reincarnated as a bacon cheeseburger egg roll. (Don't worry, I plan to discuss those in depth.) But the Social House improves on the overdone and clumsy East-meets-West concept Fusion left behind by reining it in a bit (the only pasta dishes you'll find on its menu are made of soba noodles, not elbow macaroni) and concentrating on sushi, small plates, and strong cocktails. When keeping it simple, the Social House produces some very nice dishes, but when the kitchen runs with a "more is more" philosophy, the flavors lack focus and the food suffers.
At dinner, triumphs included the nori-encrusted sirloin that arrived at our table with an even blush emanating from the ever-so-slightly warm center on each slice. I can't say it was as good as 112 Eatery's version, which has deeper, more deft seasoning on the steak, whereas the Social House boosts the flavor by bathing the meat in a ponzu sauce. But there was obvious care taken in its preparation, and anyone still on that ridiculous "I'm giving up carbs" train (which generally runs out of steam by mid-February) will appreciate seeing it on the menu. The cranberry teriyaki ribs were cooked so wonderfully (to the point that you simply had to hold them on their side to watch them fall off the bone and onto your plate) that it only made the bland, one-note sauce they were shellacked with all the more egregious. Not all the proteins were cooked as skillfully as the sirloin and the ribs, though. The seared sea scallops, altogether unappealing due to careless plating with a gooey black bean sauce, were somehow both stringy and rubbery on the inside.
Just like its predecessors at this location, the Social House is most successful as a happy-hour spot. With impressive, if a little over-the-top, decor (giant Buddha heads, bamboo stalks spiking down from the ceiling like wayward organ pipes, and an entryway fully covered in fake grass), they do a good job offering a different nook to cater to every crowd. The front lounge is open with low tables for the drink-and-mingle types, and there's a more hidden-away sushi bar with a giant flatscreen showing anime and kaiju movies for the less socially inclined. In addition to some exotic cocktails (try the light and effervescent fennel-infused Fronds of Fury), happy hour offers all of the Social House's small plates and maki rolls at a more palatable half-off price. Miso shiso sliders, with slightly seared tuna, lovely fragrant shiso leaf, and curry aioli, arrived on adorable, buttery toasted buns and were immediately gobbled up. The tokudan tacos, filled with tuna tartare in a sweet and hot chile glaze, were very nicely portioned as a two-bite appetizer and stayed neatly contained on top of the crispy fried wonton shell. Korean tacos had a sharp and tangy cabbage slaw with a slight kick in the sauce, but they missed the mark due to chewy, overcooked meat. The same was true, sadly, for the bacon cheeseburger egg rolls. When eating something so obviously unhealthy, the taste experience should be worth your slightly diminished life expectancy, but that couldn't be further from the truth with this dish. The playful idea is likely a popular order for late-night dining, and though the wrap is very crisp, the beef inside gets overcooked and falls apart. The habanero-mango ketchup is completely necessary to cut the richness in this greasebomb and bring some balance to the dish.
Having had enough of the fried stuff, we found some tempura and cream cheese-free rolls that allowed us to better evaluate the rice-to-everything-else ratio of the sushi (overall very good) and quality of the fish. We tried the Niji Roll, topped with unadulterated ebi (shrimp), tuna, salmon, yellowtail, sea bass, tai (red snapper), and ika (cuttle fish) and stuffed simply with grassy cucumber and creamy avocado, and the Tuna Two Roll, with the clean spice of gobo, a crunchy root that tastes like a mild carrot, and a smattering of Social House's jalapeño-flecked salsa. Both rolls left the ingredients to do their job, unfettered. Stripping down even further, the mousse-like uni (sea urchin), unagi (freshwater eel), and both of the roe nigiri were particularly good. But others suffered from too much intervention, such as the Social House roll, topped with strings of greasy fried potato, truffle oil that got completely lost in the mix, and an overly sweet brown sauce; and the lobster roll, bogged down with spicy mayo, overcooked asparagus, and the omnipresent tempura crunch. "This feels a little like sushi for people who don't really like sushi," my friend said in a low voice.
So who is the Social House meant for? Serious sushi fanatics have so many stellar options in the Twin Cities, one of which, Fuji-Ya, is just blocks away. For those who want a mix of flavors and influences, Chino Latino, the quintessential East-meets-West eatery, is visible from most tables at the Social House. With its mix of pinkish boudoir lighting, attractive staff, foreign-but-mostly-familiar fare, and gigantic full bar, the Social House offers the seduction of a velvet-rope nightclub, so perhaps it's the place to go if you're trying to woo a reluctant sushi virgin who is more interested in you than in food.
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