The Supermodel's New Face

The Loring Cafe

1624 Harmon Place, Mpls.; 332-1617

THE LORING CAFE imparts the same species of enjoyment as admiring a supermodel. You know that it's a breathtaking and tasteful place and that these qualities are readily apparent to everyone. Yet there's something in its self-awareness that might give you the creeps. In case you aren't fully aware of the Loring's eccentricity or bohemianism, photocopies detailing its history are available, puffed with more self-importance than a cock at sunrise. One learns, for instance, that the Cafe was "put together with a certain je ne sais quoi to create an atmosphere theretofore unseen in the Midwest," and that the new Loring Cafe is "the consummate amalgamation of degustation and drama; quite literally a restaurant in a theater... the most alive, textured, multi-dimensional restaurant/bar/theater concept on the planet." So much tooting, such a loud horn. But no matter how much one wants to dislike a model for her vacuous pouting, there's no denying a beautiful thing when you see it.

The recent remodeling of the cafe is stunning. The main dining room is a lovely composition of light cascading from various candles, antique chandeliers, and lamps; every element--the polished wood floors, the tile and brick work, the hidden balconies providing a stage for live jazz performances--is exquisitely finished. The open kitchen commands the most attention here, lit brightly and framed by vaulted arches like a stage. Perfumed shadows from gigantic flower arrangements cast kindly on patrons' faces; you might not be as good-looking as the willowy wait staff, but at least the setting is kind to your imperfections.

If you come to do a bit of the old see-and-be-seen, then you might make do with the wine list and appetizers. The wine list is well-selected, with entries from Spain, France, Oregon, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and South Africa (ranging from $21 for a bottle of Marqués de Cárceres, Viura 1994 Rioja to a $90 bottle of Robert Mondavi Opus One, Cabernet Blend, 1992 Napa). The breads that accompany meals are magnificent, baked daily in the Loring's own ovens; on our visit they included a plush olive-studded bread, a sourdough baguette, and our favorite, buckwheat.

The menu has been remodeled along with the setting. Favorites persist with a bit of reinterpretation by chef Steven Brown; alongside them one can find new creations (apparently the days of daily menu rewrites have been cast aside for more infrequent and subtler alterations). The traditional artichoke ramekin remains on the menu, a baked casserole dish filled with artichoke hearts luxuriating in the company of plenty of garlic, parmesan, and green chilis, and served with toasted buttery strips of baguette ($9). Another appetizer befitting sharing: the new pan-fried Chinese dumplings, delicate little things that fall apart in your mouth and spill ground pork and shrimp spiced with coriander and Chinese five spice. They are served with chipotle-soy dipping sauce and soft folds of pickled ginger ($8). The soup we tried, the Asian style hot pot ($7), seemed a bit flavorless in comparison (especially disappointing after reading such a promising list of ingredients: roast pork, chicken, shrimp, pork won ton, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, and sesame-ginger oil).

As for entrées, the Loring standard lemon caper chicken reappears as pan-roasted breast of hen, its skin crispy with the flavors of roasted fennel, tarragon, and preserved lemon; the bird is then strewn with fried capers, capped with a bit of singed dill, and perched proudly on a heap of mash potatoes made creamy with mascarpone and delirious with lemon ($16). It couldn't have been more delicious. My friends were equally taken by their entrées. One was so completely smitten with her carrot-flecked risotto ($16)--sweet with drizzled basil honey, hot with pepper oil, tangy with preserved lemon, and kicked with Thai curry--that she wouldn't rest until the last creamy morsel had vanished. My other companion cast a suspicious eye on her linguini ($19), finding the three seared shrimp and three scallops a bit scant (though arranged artfully). Of course, she was full before long and in rapture with the perfumed, fragrant star-anise tomato confit, flavored with roasted garlic, basil, thyme, and lobster broth, and she hardly had room for the last herb-rubbed scallop. The perfect bouquet of flavors created in each dish made salt and pepper unnecessary, and, as at any fine restaurant boasting a proud chef, they don't appear on tables unless asked for. The service is impeccable, reserved yet friendly; every detail is attended to gracefully.

Pastry chef Joan Ida concocts an insanely hedonistic array of desserts nightly. On the eve of our visit they included a double chocolate torte with raspberry zinfandel sauce; chocolate and pecan frozen custards studded with a medley of bananas, fresh berries, chocolates, and shortbread cookies; and strawberry shortcake with Grand Marnier and vanilla mascarpone (all $6). We were too satiated to try them, I admit. But it seemed unnecessary in the end; everything here (excepting the arrogance) is beyond reproach.

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