Thinking Inside the Box
[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
917 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 227-3395; takeout (651) 227-3381
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.
You know what I like about In Cuisine, the Asian-fusion restaurant that opened last summer in the old Leann Chin space in Victoria Crossings, the strip mall near Grand and Victoria? Well, for one thing, I really like that our culture can successfully recycle Leann Chin spaces nowadays. I mean, apparently they don't need to be turned into brownfields or dumped into the ocean where they land on top of a lot of sea otters or anything. I mean, who knew? You can leverage the existing synergies and just put some fancy art around and change the color scheme and suddenly you've got a subdued sort of contemporary box that's pleasant to dine in. To paraphrase my hippie-dippie childhood sleeping bag, recycling Leann Chins is good for children and other living things.
And the food! Some of the food is pretty good. I particularly liked anything coming out of the deep fryer: Tempura shrimp that come on a bed of rice vinegar-marinated jicama and carrot salad. I've had them as a lunch entrée and as a dinner appetizer; they're hot, light, and crisp, and they contrast nicely with the cool, light, crisp salad. Watch them vanish! Sesame calamari ($5.95) are also nice and light; the sesame in the batter imparts a nice nuttiness, and the accompanying cafeteria-level sweet-and-sour sauce can be avoided easily. A dinner entrée of tempura walleye fillets ($15.95) will make any fish-and-chips lover happy; you could bounce a quarter off these thickly battered, tender fillets. If anyone cares what I think, I think they should be served with chips: The wasabi mashed potatoes listed on the menu don't seem like such a great idea, and the dried-out oven-roasted potato quarters that came with the dish didn't make any friends.
A number of other dishes are perfectly fine. Sushi options like a smoked salmon and cucumber roll, at lunch served with a side of noodles ($6.75), are better than the stuff you find sitting at Lund's, and, um, hey, look over there! Is someone breaking into your car?! Rats, I guess not.
So I guess I'll have to get to the dirty truth: I couldn't find anything else on the menu to recommend. I thought the deep-fried Thai spring rolls ($4.25 lunch/$5.50 dinner) were sodden and tasteless. The wok-seared four-spiced scallops ($6.95) were clumsy: Blackened spices on overcooked scallops weren't helped by a pallid salsa made with starchy corn. The chicken and crabmeat potstickers ($3.95/$5.95 dinner) were leaden. Beef short ribs ($15.95) braised in red wine and sake were tasty enough, with all the potent flavor you hope the dish would have, but as they gave up their meat in a few quick bites and left behind nothing but a few turned carrots and a carpet of unseasoned rice, I couldn't help wondering, Is that all there is?
Ditto for the dinner entrée of "Silky Tofu," simply three slices of warm tofu served in a shallow bowl surrounded by a nice soy-ginger broth and a few slices of shiitake mushrooms, a scattering of shelled edamame, and a couple pieces of baby bok choy. Okay, but $10.95? For a quarter of a brick of tofu, a mushroom, and a handful of bok choy? The menu promised asparagus would accompany it, but I would have wanted asparagus and something else, something--rice noodles, a teeny diamond necklace, something--to not feel like I was getting simultaneously ripped off and starved.
And now that I'm really letting my hair down, I have to tell you: A few other dishes were really unpleasant. Mongolian stir-fried noodles ($6.25 at lunch, $11.50 at dinner) were simply portions of greasy, lowest-common denominator lo mein in brown sauce. But on some level, the unspectacular food isn't what really bothered me about In Cuisine. Nor was it the service, which in my experience ranged from competent to complete catastrophic freefall. One night my party waited more than an hour for appetizers, and nearly two hours for entrées, though to their credit the restaurant comped half the bill. No, that isn't what really bothered me about the place. Nor was it the lackluster, six-bottle wine list of food-indifferent choices, like the buttery Beringer Founder's Estate chardonnay (at $5.50 a glass, or $25 a bottle for a wine that retails for $8-$10, no less). No, those were not the things that bothered me.
The enduring problem for me with In Cuisine was that I could not come up with one single good reason to go there. And I can come up with a single good reason to go just about anywhere, because that's what second-tier-city restaurant critics do, or that's my nature, or something. McDonald's--see what your fellow Americans are up to! Cracker Barrel--rock candy lives! Red Lobster--get yours before lobsters go extinct! But I can't come up with one good reason to go to In Cuisine. The prices are such that a couple dollars more will buy you dinner in most of the best chef-driven restaurants in town, a couple dollars less scores you dinner in any of the best Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants. And there's nothing about the ambience, service, or other amenities to set it apart, so what the heck? I'm telling you, if they hadn't recycled that Leann Chin so elegantly, In Cuisine might go down as the first restaurant to successfully render this notoriously garrulous critic absolutely speechless.
CATCH THE CONTAGION: If you're anything like me, you've sat up nights worrying about local civic trends like: Are there enough things in Minnesota currently starting with the word "wild"? Why, ever since the hockey team the Minnesota Wild set up shop in St. Paul, many of us have been plagued by underutilization of the word: Why are there really only approximately one billion places currently named "wild-somecrap-or-other"? Sadly, research has proven: Yes, that's all there is. Hey, anyone been to Roseville drilling contractor Wild Bore? Minneapolis children's clothing store Wild Child? Burnsville's Wild Concepts? Plymouth's Wild Expressions Taxidermy? Wayzata's Wild File? Wild Onion? Wild Mountain? Wild Orchid? The Wild Pair? Wild Sound? Wild River State Park? Wild Rumpus? Wild Things? Wild Times Sports Bar? The Wild World of Not Even Remotely Wild Experiences?
Oh wait, I think I made that last one up. And thanks for asking, but no, my pleasure in the irony that most things around St. Paul would best be named "calm" hasn't even begun to diminish, not even slightly. Thanks, hockey! (The gift of irony really is the gift that keeps on giving.)
When I put aside my concerns about the dearth of things named Wild, I often find myself biting my nails over fears that the Twin Cities' rich, rich vein of extant vintage steakhouses and supper clubs may not, indeed, be rich enough: Yes, there are powerhouses like Nye's, Jax, Little Jack's, Murray's, the Casper's Cherokee Sirloin Rooms, Lindey's, Mancini's, the Manor, Kozlak's; and there are another hundred I've never been to, like Jensen's, the Hopkins House, Carpenter's Steak House, etc. But are there enough?
Thank heavens, Chicago restaurant powerhouse Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc. is rushing in to quell this fear: Inside of a month, it will open a retro steakhouse/supper club called--drum roll please--Wildfire! In Eden Prairie!
Where have you been all my life? Why, one of the most overused names in Minnesota meets one of our most prevalent restaurant types? (Now, if someone will only open a Tuscan restaurant on Interstate 394 called Julie Swenson I can die happy.) Of course, Wildfire will be where you will go for such where-have-you-been-all-my-life dishes as mashed-potato-crusted steak. (Well, it's either crusted with mashed potatoes, or a half-inch thick layer of cheese. Please, god, it's me, Dara: Let it be potatoes.) I wish you could see the picture of the thing they sent me: The steak with the mashed-potato lid looks to be sitting in a bowl of butter; and up to one side is a bowl of mussels, with a little accompanying ramekin of melted butter; and off to the other side is bread with a little ramekin of unmelted butter; and the only items in the photo without accompanying shots of butter are the iced tea and wine and who dropped the ball there?
Yes, a photo. From a press kit. A rich, rich press kit. Full of paragraphs. Like one featuring a quote from someone supposedly talking about how great the restaurant is, but actually managing to make it sound like a communicable disease: "Awareness of Wildfire spread through the suburbs, and in a very short time, it had spread back to the city." Why--I can feel it spreading right now! Eerily, Wildfire's soon-to-be general manager chimes in in his bio that he likes restaurants for their "contagious aspects"--paging Dr. Osterholm, paging Dr. Osterholm. Another paragraph explains why the original owners of the concept bailed--namely, "because of concerns that the marketplace had reached a steakhouse saturation point." Personally, I find it's always good to get the talking points on why your new venture might fail out to the press before you open. That's marketing!
What else? The chef hails from the Rainforest Café (woo!); the senior executive vice president of Wildfire, one darkly chameleon-like Howard Katz, is said to be a "consummate operator" who has as "his forte" "focusing with laser-like precision" which manifests in a stunning "ability to change with trends" and a sneaky habit of being "rarely seen at the corporate office." (Eden Prairie police: Forewarned is forearmed!)
If all of this hasn't got you salivating, I've saved the best for last. Wildfire's pièce de résistance is its martini lounge, featuring "hand-stuffed olives." Hand-stuffed olives. Hand-stuffing? They gave him a hand-stuffing he won't soon forget....Leftie was hand-stuffing Big Joey in the backroom when the coppers arrived.... Hand-stuffed kids is the kinda kids'll never recover, I tell ya, and you never forget the way they cry... Just one food critic's overactive imagination--or a completely filthy phrase. You decide. Only three weeks or so till you can spend $8.95 to $29.95 for dinner, and as is usual in Eden Prairie, the parking is free and ample, but you have to bring your own sense of irony. Wildfire, 3020 Eden Prairie Center, Eden Prairie; (952) 914-9100; www.wildfirerestaurant.com.
Correction published October 17, 2001:
In last week's Eaters' Digest, we misidentified Chicago-based restaurant company Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.
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