Vive Le Difference
BY DARA MOSKOWITZ
Salut Bar Américain
5034 France Ave. S., Edina
Many people use their brains frequently, and some almost constantly, except while driving. So it was quite a shock to read last spring, in a flurry of news reports following a paper published in the journal Nature, that the big, big brains to which we owe so much--and here I speak not only of the Italian Renaissance but also of pizza-cheese flavored corn chips in canisters sized for SUV cup-holders--that our big, big human brains evolved several million years ago because of a mutation in our ape ancestors' jaws, a mutation that led to malformed, weak, and puny jaw muscles. This allowed the skull that anchored those newly weakened muscles to become thin, and thus ever more capacious, and filled with loads and loads of brain.
Now, do I say it was a shock to read this because so many of us believe not in evolution, but in Genesis and the supremacy of a 20-20 shotgun to keep revenuers away from our moonshine? I do not. Do I say it was a shock because I am surprised in a world in which it is possible to follow TomKat hourly on the internet that anyone has time to read something so bereft of shopping tips as a scientific journal? Again, no, I do not. Simply, I say it was a shock because it provides scientific support for something I have long suspected, namely that pillowy layer cakes and silky ice creams are not merely coincidental to the human race, but in fact our very destiny, the one place we were headed with our weak, weak jaws, jaws which lack the powerful bites needed to fell and portion a really good steak au poivre.
Now, a really good steak au poivre is exactly the sort of thing you can get in the newest Edina hotspot, Salut Bar Américain, a place that surely is some kind of evolutionary next level in local dining: It's a half-French bistro, half-all-American crowd-pleaser where adults can partake of some of the freshest oysters in the state, and youth can direct their attention to an ice-cream sundae roughly the size of TomKat's media footprint.
Salut Bar Américain is the latest product from the Parasole Restaurant Holdings folks, the minds behind many of our most beloved, and most profitable, local restaurants, including Chino Latino, Manny's Steakhouse, and the (now independent) Oceanaire Seafood Room. In Salut, you find many of the best tricks from those other Parasole restaurants, incorporated into a room that has a heck of a lot in common with New York City's celebrity-saturated French bistro Balthazar. From the Oceanaire, Parasole borrows scrupulously sourced oysters of impeccable freshness and large fillets of fish simply grilled, steakhouse style; from Manny's comes an affection for steaks, served big and unadorned, and with the option of a lot of $6 vegetable add-ons; and from Stella's Fish Cafe, which Parasole was involved with at its opening, but no longer, come the sassy "oysters Moscow," served with horseradish crème fraîche, caviar, and a shot of vodka, as well as exceedingly affordable house wines in bottles playfully labeled with big stenciled-on numbers: 1--Cheap, 2--Decent, and 3--Good.
Where Salut departs the locally familiar is in the bistro theme, and in the decor, which is all big French bistro. The light is golden, the ceilings distant, the vintage posters gigantic, the bar soaring, and the boars' heads mounted to the wall, remarkably enough, in existence. The place feels energetic, cosmopolitan, and slightly sexy--but the kind of cosmopolitan sexy that accommodates a kids' menu and placemat to color on. (Kids meals: a hamburger, macaroni and cheese, or a cheese pizza along with choice of juice, milk, or pop for $2.95.) The restaurant serves all day, moving from lunch to dinner at around 4:00 most days, and switching from brunch to dinner at 3:00 on Sundays. The menu is printed fresh daily, though it's hard to say why, as the ones I got on visits a month apart were identical except for a single fish special.
In any event, this combination of elements has clearly hit a chord with locals: Whenever I've been there, folks have been stacked up in the bar waiting for tables (they save half the seats for walk-ins.)
If you go, I recommend the steak au poivre ($29.95), a big, ruddy New York strip seared so that the outside has all the crisp char needed to bring the sweetness of the meat into relief, and all the rich brandy and green-peppercorn cream sauce you need to justify ordering another martini to cleanse the thick fire from your tongue. Yes, martinis, and particularly generously poured specialty martinis, are one of Salut's strong suits, like their excellent variation on the Cosmopolitan, made with a touch of pomegranate juice. I was going to try their Key lime pie martini, which contains many things, including pineapple, cream, and Midori, but then I didn't, as I suddenly recalled I wasn't pledging a sorority.
In addition to steak, Salut also excels at steak: Head here for the most deluxe "steak frites" you'll get outside a steak house; Salut offers three kinds, including a filet mignon, for $31.95. If steak is not your thing, how about burgers? Salut offers five, and I've tried two: the cheeseburger royale ($11.95), with vast strips of thick bacon poking out of a pale, airy ciabatta bun, and the Burger Bar Américain ($11.95), with blue cheese, caramelized onion, and sauce bordelaise, which here works as a ketchup variation.
Both times I tried Salut's burgers they looked the picture of perfection: Thick, handmade, rounded patties of beef, a shiny, artisanal-looking bun, and all those fancy accompaniments; both times though, I found the taste to be just good enough, neither here nor there, and significantly short of delicious. I'm guessing the problem is the bread and the meat: The bread is a poor choice, as the undeveloped flour taste of the ciabatta dilutes the taste of the deluxe add-ons. And the meat is dry, with no particular richness or distinct character to it. However, if you eat with your eyes, you'll love it. On the other hand, an accompanying valentine of French fries significantly improves all the burgers. These Salut fries are hand-cut, skin-on in odd corners, twisty, brown and golden, plenty salty, plenty sweet--another triumph in local fry circles. They are also available on their own, for $4.95, with bearnaise sauce.
Aside from the fries and the steaks, I found the rest of the menu to range mostly from pretty good to not quite there. Your best bets tend to be the pricier sea foods: The oysters I had, $21 a dozen, $12.95 for six, were so fresh and cold they quickly remade the world into one of sea breezes and ocean mist. The tuna tartare ($11.95), served in two pretty discs, one topped with a mild horseradish crème fraîche the other topped with a brisk, spicy red pepper aioli, was silky and fine. One night's special of pan-roasted grouper over buttery leeks ($23.95) was light and delicate.
Much more often though, most of the dishes that require a chef's attention arrive at the table as if no one who thinks seriously about cooking has corrected or observed them since the menus were written: A Lyonnaise salad ($6.95) made with bitter chicory and lardons, a French way of serving bacon, arrived not with crisp cubes of blanched and fried pork belly, but instead with gooey chunks of pork fat the size of checkers. A fat Porterhouse-cut pork chop ($17.95) arrived with a Calvados cream sauce so alcoholic I had to wonder if the apple brandy had ever seen the inside of a hot pan. Walnut-crusted walleye ($24.95) featured a beautiful and gigantic fillet, but the fish was so overcooked that the bottom walnut crust was practically caramelized into praline. Meanwhile the menu's advertised apple-cider butter sauce had soaked entirely into the fish, rendering the whole thing candy-gone-wrong heavy and leaden.
Most of the side dishes I had were underseasoned: The macaroni and cheese was mild and forgettable; the almonds on the green bean amandine had no flavor, not even that of salt; and the nine-vegetable sauté was plain as water. (Yes, I too was excited about nine vegetables, but then I discovered that leeks and onions were two of them, and was forced to consult local philosophers on the true point of enumeration.) Then again, if Minnesotans want to pay Salut $31 for overcooked walleye and underseasoned green beans, that might be an issue of state's rights and none of my business.
Still, whatever Salut lacks in correct kitchen execution they more than make up for in sheer likeability: This something-for-everyone work of commercial genius is one of the most enjoyable, all-age-appropriate restaurants to open in quite a long time. Why? It's just nice. The martinis are big; the baguettes and butter are fresh and lovable; the servers are nice, eager, and helpful; the host staff is remarkably on the ball; the wine list is the best a Parasole restaurant has ever had; and the $20 hot-fudge sundae cum banana split is as eye-catching as the Holidazzle parade, and roughly the same size.
Wait, what's that about the wine list? Glad you asked. Wine lists have always been Parasole restaurants' one lackluster point, but the Salut list is a notable departure. It's the perfect length, neither too long and rambling nor too limited. Here, some five dozen options, in red, white, and sparkling, are grouped by categories that are actually useful, such as "crisp and clean" for whites, and "sturdy and rich" for reds, and then further organized within those larger categories by grape varietal. Wines are offered at a wide variety of price points, such as $12 for a carafe of the house cheapie; $24 for a good, buttery-fish perfect wine like Dr. Loosen Riesling; or $70 for famous California steak-appropriate Cabernet Sauvignons, like the one from Mount Veeder in Napa Valley. It's a remarkably real-life-useful list, offering a wide variety of options for the three big categories of wine drinkers: Those seeking the cheap and good enough, those wanting something unique and charming, and those needing to impress the in-laws, clients, or fancy dates.
What, you can't even remember what a fancy date is like, for you are always dining with your eight-year-old twins? Fear not, for Salut also has the Champagne and oysters of the GameBoy generation, and by this, of course, I mean cake and ice cream. Salut offers not only a fine tarte tatin, but also a stunningly good red velvet cake, buoyant and vibrantly colored, but also weighted down in all the right places with an intensely decadent cream-cheese icing; in a few bites you'll feel like you have won some sort of three-legged race at a Southern church fundraiser.
Then there is the sundae. They call it something silly on the dessert menu--a designated driver martini--which I think is preventing many people from ordering it for the folks who need it most: Won't someone remember the children? Children with birthdays, spoiled children, children who have won spelling bees, children who need persuading amidst ugly custody battles, children who are recovering from dire illness. I can think of dozens of categories of children who need to see this $19.95 mad folly of a sundae immediately. Order it and you receive a novelty martini glass about the size of a Tiffany lamp. Inside there is a half-gallon or so of vanilla ice cream, a huge piece of chocolate cake, oodles of whipped cream, bunches of cut strawberries, slices of banana, and, of course, on top, a cherry.
But wait, there's more. After setting this teetering monster on the table, your server will present a pitcher filled with hot fudge sauce and begin to set the thing drowning and melting in fudge. Imagine being presented with your own Ferris wheel and you'll get the idea: It's overwhelming, spectacular, beyond your wildest dreams. Putting a spoon into it feels ridiculous, like using a Q-tip to paint a wall.
While I ate mine, I could only think that all of human evolution, since the very dawn of time, has been leading to this one single thing: a birthday-party destination for eight-year-olds where adults can be in Paris or in a Midwestern steak house, their choice.
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