Think Globally, Eat Locally
931 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; 904-1000
Heaven knows elegant historical spaces are few and far between in downtown Minneapolis, so walking into one newly created out of the bones of Bjorkman Furs is a sweet triumph: "It was in 1995 that I saw this building first," explains co-owner Kieran Folliard. "It was falling apart, a pond of water in the basement. There weren't even mice in the building, just a lot of water and everything in really bad shape. The windows were all shot, there were two trees growing on the roof--we thought we could have a bit of competition with WCCO's rooftop garden down the street."
Where any native Minneapolitan would have seen an opportunity for off-street parking, County Mayo native Folliard saw an old-world citadel. "I thought it was just a great solid stone building--it reminded me of the dolmens in Ireland, great old stone structures thousands of years old that are similar to Stonehenge. So now we've changed the name of the building to the Dolmen House. It used to be the Essex Building, but that's a bit too English for any self-respecting Irishman."
The space that resulted from the renovations is incredible: Soaring two-story windows, sensuous red velvet drapes, deco-style chairs and amply spaced tables create a feeling of opulent, unfussy luxury. In the attached pub an 80-foot hand-carved bar and a series of private oak-paneled rooms called "snugs" make the sort of 19th-century urban chic space in which Oscar Wilde would have been comfortable.
In keeping with the wonderful site, the Local is shaping into a first-class restaurant, abetted in good part by an excellent--and very well-priced--wine list. "Kieran and [partner] Henry [Cousineau] agreed at the outset that we should make great wines accessible and affordable," says manager Dermot Cowley. Indeed: There are incredible bargains in every price range on the list of more than 350 bottles. A very drinkable, very clean 1996 Black Opal Cabernet/Merlot blend is sold at the Local for $15, versus $11 in stores. I've happily paid $35 retail for my current favorite sparkler, Roederer's L'Ermitage, a pear- and vanilla-scented wine with incredible finesse that I now know I can get at the Local for a mere $37.
Perhaps the biggest bargain on the list is the 1994 Opus One, gloriously fruit-filled and subtly earthy. It retails at $90 and most restaurants sell it for around $150, but the Local offers it for only $79. "It's silly to discourage people from buying bottles of wine because they can't afford it," says Cowley, who's fresh from an 11-year stint buying wine for the group that manages such big boys as the steak house Smith & Wollensky.
Tucking into a bottle that might ordinarily be beyond your means and feasting on a treat like the superlative mussels appetizer makes for something very close to fine-dining heaven. The quail appetizer ($6), a potent, gamy morsel that nearly vibrates with flavor, is wonderfully accompanied by blood-orange sauce and sections, fried sage leaves, and a lively slaw of vinegar-dressed red onions and fennel, and it's an exquisite dish. The mussels' ($7) sweet meat is perfectly set off by a subtly acrid note of green curry and a few mouthfuls of earthy kale. Other first-course options, such as a cheese plate ($7) featuring little balls of mild Boilie goat cheese, soft Dunbarra, and crumbly blue Rathgore alongside piles of water crackers, or the smoked salmon ($6) on fried bread crisps, go nicely with the Local's ample selection of beers like Guinness (of course), Harp, James Page, and the establishment's own Local private reserve.
Still, having spent the past couple of years watching and reading about the ongoing Irish culinary renaissance, I have to admit I am disappointed with the Local's offerings. Mostly you get the same food you'll find at any haute American bistro: a fillet of critter, fancy mashed or fried potatoes, and a vegetable. While everything I ordered tasted swell, I wonder what chef Steven Brown really gets to test his wings with--certainly not the textbook-proficient grilled veal chop ($29) iced with rosemary demi-glace and served with some admittedly yummy juniper mashed potatoes. Having read about Dublin restaurants and their innovative Irish dishes--say, the Clarence Hotel Tea Room's famous roast turbot in a stew of cockles and mussels, or Chapter 1's oft-cited mosaic of game in orange Sauternes jus--I was hoping for more.
This thought was triggered by a perfectly cooked piece of delicately pan-seared Atlantic salmon ($22) perched on an uninspiring potato-leek puree and served with a dollop of spinach and tomato confit. Made of little pieces of slowly stewed tomatoes that must be kept constantly, gently moving in the pot so they don't disintegrate into sauce, the confit was spectacular--each bite of tomato wildly flavorful, each piece of spinach vivid as spring. Why not highlight such an accomplishment instead of relegating it to a mere supporting role? If you're going to be a full-fledged fine-dining restaurant, as the wine list and decor announce, then be it all the way.
I have generally the same complaint with the service--on my first visit it was entirely chaotic, and while it improved a hundredfold later, it was still more pubby and casual than you'd hope for when shelling out this kind of money. Looking back on that day mostly makes me feel bad for Kieran et al.: I can't imagine investing millions into renovating and decorating a space, stocking a wine cellar, and hiring a staff, only to have a server take 20 minutes to deliver menus, forget orders, abandon hot food on a tray beside the table--and finally take half an hour to pick up the check. Where's the justice in that, to owner or guest?
On my second visit my waitress announced that we were her first-ever table, so let's not even talk about that. But even the third time, when the server was reasonably present and quite knowledgeable about the wine list, he managed to leave a bowl of mussel shells on the table throughout the meal and left us to pour our own wine, awkwardly, from an ice bucket. Fine dining to me means that you get to be sealed in a little cocoon of delight for the duration, and little annoyances like these keep the Local from being a top-flight fancy feed. Unfortunately, I suspect that the way you create that sort of pampering white-glove service is to have management be ever-vigilant and occasionally furious, and I wonder if sweethearts like Folliard and Cowley can ever be as adamant as all that.
Still, the Local may be the first restaurant that makes me break my policy of not reviewing the same place twice within a year; that's how confident I am that Folliard can buff out the flaws from this downtown gem. For example, on my first visit all the desserts were lackluster, but when I returned they had become fully realized--a lemon curd tartlet ($6) topped with fresh blackberries was as sunny as an August weekend, and a cocoa-infused poached pear served in a Guinness sabayon sauce ($6) had me happily singing to myself.
Besides, Folliard is no stranger to turning pieces of straw into plates of gold--witness the Local's most popular spot, a little curtained nook toward the rear of the restaurant called the Kissing Room. This, Folliard says, was a construction mistake. "When we were decorating, people said, 'Well, let's make it into a storage room.' And I said, 'That's one thing it won't be in the very middle of the ground floor--a storage room.' So we called it the Kissing Room, painted it red, put up a curtain. Today people love it, everyone's clamoring to get into the Kissing Room." The only remaining problem: "I don't think there has been nearly enough kissing going on in there."
HEART-SMART SLAW: Don't know what to bring to your cardiologist's potluck? How about a virtually fat-free coleslaw? This is one of several you can find in Bon Appétit:
Italian-Style Cabbage Salad
* 8 cups thinly sliced red cabbage
(about 1/2 large head)
* 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
* 2 tablespoons drained capers
* 2 tablespoons olive oil (preferably
* 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
* 2 tablespoons water
* 1 tablespoon minced garlic
Combine red cabbage, parsley, and capers in large bowl. Whisk oil, vinegar, water, and garlic in small bowl to blend. Add to cabbage mixture and toss to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared up to three hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.)
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