Three Monkey's, Great Sun Buffet, and Fusion a mixed bag
In Uptown and Loring Park, a couple of the city's most transient neighborhoods, the populations shift as fast as fashion, and the restaurant scenes are always evolving. Italian food went out with boot-cut jeans and dagger-point pumps; sushi came in with leggings and New Balance sneakers.
The north stretch of Nicollet Avenue, between Franklin and downtown, is among the city's most frequently changing commercial strips. With the exception of a few stalwarts, such as Ping's, Market BBQ, and Salsa a la Salsa, the restaurant spaces have churned through multiple operators since the city branded Eat Street back in the 1990s. A map on the visitor's kiosk at Nicollet and Grant lists nearly three closed restaurants for every one that's still operating. I've lost count of how many eateries have cycled through 1831 since Big E's shuttered. It feels a little like Chatroulette: A new restaurant pops into the Stranger box as fast as the neighborhood hits Next.
Fortunately, some see possibilities where others see bankruptcy filings, and among the more optimistic group are the owners of Great Sun Buffet & Bar and Three Monkey's, which opened a few months ago next door to one another. Great Sun is operated by the owners of Gangchen, a restaurant just down the street that serves a mix of Tibetan, Vietnamese, Thai, and Mongolian cuisine. The Gangchen guys took over the former home of India House (which was only slightly less recently another Indian restaurant called New Delhi) to offer a concept not seen in this area: an Indian-Chinese buffet.
It's one of those Why didn't I think of that? ideas with good potential. Plenty of Indian and Chinese dishes hold up fine in a steam table, and the self-serve, sampling setup is spot-on for an era defined by more consumer choice and less commitment. But for the concept to succeed, I think it needs a more heavily trafficked location—perhaps the downtown skyways?—and better execution.
While the sheer variety of food in Great Sun's trio of buffet lines is impressive, most of what I sampled lacked focus, and my enthusiasm for almost every dish was as lukewarm as its temperature. Many items tasted too generic to inspire seconds. Hot and sour soup lacked the expected acidic bite, the lo mein was bland, the palak paneer lackluster. The sweet and sour chicken was so cloying I couldn't take more than a couple of bites, so I ended up satisfying my hunger with a cream cheese puff and a few slices of bubbly naan.
One of the buffet stations contains what I can only describe as a nightmarish vision of nursing home cafeterias, including not only Jell-O cubes and sliced bananas in a mysterious red goo but a sweet, mayonnaise-laced salad of carrot, broccoli, and, inexplicably, imitation crab. None of these things are really what I look for in a dessert, so I pried back the lid of the ice cream freezer instead.
But when I reached in to scoop the mint chip, I noticed something odd about its color—most of the ice cream was light green and speckled, but a few globs on top were dark green and lacked chocolate flecks. In an effort to consolidate tubs, someone had scraped the last few scoops of green tea ice cream into the mint chip container. It seemed a metaphor for the restaurant's overall feel: Great Sun offers a lot of food for a very low price, but it's only a good value if you're not too discerning.
Those who find virtue in upholding grammatical standards may want to boycott Three Monkey's on account of its name—enough with the apostrophe misuse, already. The website boasts that the eatery owns Minneapolis's "LARGEST HD screen!," a 136-incher that seems to be helping Three Monkey's establish itself as a popular Twins-watching spot in a sports bar desert.
Three Monkey's, in the site of the short-lived Bali, is owned by two brothers who wanted to add an American-food option to Eat Street's ethnic offerings. Monkey's menu reflects what you'd expect out of a fraternity house kitchen: burgers, pizzas, pizza burgers, French fries, nachos, and the like. The items I tried were better than average in the bar food category, which admittedly isn't a very competitive one.
The place makes pizza sliders, seemingly lifted from a 1980s elementary school cafeteria: puffy hamburger buns topped with a tomato sauce studded with ground beef and ham. They're not as zippy as a sloppy Joe, but comforting nonetheless. The burgers and pizzas aren't award winners, but the patties are hand-formed and the chewy pizza crusts are generously topped. The Gorilla Burger is designed for a pack's alpha male, with two tender beef rounds piled with onions, mushrooms, jalapenos, cheese, and applewood-smoked bacon between a toasted bun.
Aside from its killer black-and-tan beer-battered onion rings, I didn't find anything on Three Monkey's menu that really distinguished itself. But maybe that's the point: Nothing on the plate will distract from the TV-watching.
Over at 2919 Hennepin, Zeno's coffee/dessert/snacking concept wasn't exploiting the full potential of its prime location, so the owners recently rebranded the place as Fusion by redecorating the space, adding a sushi menu, and promoting its specialty cocktails. ("This is my kind of place," my friend remarked, perusing her options. "The drink menu's bigger than the food.") When I visited Fusion, the transition wasn't totally complete, and both names were being advertised on the building's exterior. I asked our waiter about the changes, and he explained, "We made it look a lot cooler, but we were too cheap to take the sign down."
The place does look a lot cooler. There's a more nightlife-friendly lounge section and a sushi bar with gauzy black curtains and black-and-red flocked wallpaper. But Zeno never had as strong an identity as some of its neighbors, such as William's or Bar Abilene, and Fusion in many ways remains just as amorphous, and its maki-meets-pasta menu doesn't help the matter.
The specialty rolls—multi-ingredient affairs dressed with sweet sauce or mayo sriracha—are tasty enough but not remarkable compared to those offered just up the street at Mt. Fuji. Still, they're more interesting than the American food. Most of the items I tried from the Plates to Share section, such as the turkey/apple/Brie panini, cheesy baked penne, and the flatbread topped with figs and nubs of chewy pancetta, were perfectly serviceable, but seemed more like they belonged at home with a Netflix than a night out at the Uptown or Lagoon. (By the way, Fusion's Tuesday Date Night deal offers an appetizer, salad, bottle of wine, dessert, and two Landmark movie theater tickets for $30.)
Those dishes were better than the baked goat cheese, which could have used something sweet or tart to cut its richness, and the shrimp quesadilla with Gouda cheese that didn't really make sense in any culture. But the dessert list, wisely retained from Zeno, is just as successful as ever. The cheesecake and molten chocolate cake show why those dishes are so universally popular: When they're done right, they're worth every calorie. The only one I couldn't get into—literally, I was trying to chisel off bites by pounding a fork and knife—was the rock-hard fudge cake with caramel ganache.
I think Fusion has more to offer than Zeno did, but until its concept fuses, it may be trying to do too many things, without really nailing any of them.
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