When the Boys Came Home

Craig Lassig

Jax Cafe
1928 University Ave. NE, Mpls.; (612) 789-7297
Hours: lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday 3:00-10:00 p.m. (Friday and Saturday till 11:00), Sunday 3:30-9:00 p.m.; brunch buffet Sunday 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. (last seating 1:30 p.m.)

Gazing into the dark, shallow water, I watch the midnight-colored fish, the slow and the quick, the adventuresome and the stealthy, and I make the life-and-death decision. Exactly how hungry am I? Eight-inch hungry, or ten-inch hungry? Are the slow trout exhausted, or just lazy? Are the ones out in the open water pleading to be done with life?

Granted, in the Jax Cafe's backyard trout stream, a miniature river that threads between flagstones and runs from picturesque waterfall to cutesy water wheel, life-and-death decisions are moot in the long run: Every one of these rainbow beauties is destined for a big, oval plate beside potato and vegetable. So I hold my breath, plunge the net after a lazy fish in open water, and scoop. As the trout thrashes, I burst out laughing with surprise at how quickly internal debates become meaningless. My waitress clicks a Polaroid, takes the fish from me, and whisks it away to the kitchen.

I'm left out on the patio with my friends, and I tell them that I feel like a polar bear, triumphant at the hole in the ice. They scoff at my city-slicker, never-caught-a-fish-before naiveté, so we head back into the classy, Truman-era dining room, regroup around the cozy pink-cloth-draped tables, and sip expertly poured Manhattans. Soon my prey arrives: Now he's steel-and-sand-colored, pan-sautéed, tender, delicious. One more rainbow trout entered into the ledgers of history.

History isn't only for fish at Jax--just ask Bill Kozlak Sr., age 63, current patriarch of the big brick building on University. There's family history here: Kozlak's grandfather built the place in 1910 as a combination dance hall, furniture store, hardware store, and mortuary. ("Don't ask me why," Kozlak says, "but furniture and mortuaries went hand in hand in the old days.") Now Bill Sr.'s son Bill Jr. is poised to take over the business. There are other families' personal histories: Thousands of weddings have taken place in the banquet space upstairs, and Jax has seen 70th anniversaries celebrated on the same floor the bride and groom first danced on. There's Minneapolis dining history: Jax was granted the city's second liquor license in town after Prohibition ended in 1933, and Kozlak says the outdoor patio--put in circa 1954--was the first in town. And, of course, there's political history. Kozlak's father, Joseph, was a member of first the state House and then the Senate in the Thirties, a friend of Gov. Floyd B. Olsen, and a key figure in the founding generation of the DFL. "We had lots and lots of political rallies up there" in the dance hall, remembers Kozlak. "They'd invite everybody to come, telling them the beer was free. But when the crowd got here, they found a politician standing on the keg, and the keg wasn't opened until the politician had said what he wanted to say and climbed down. That sure kept everybody's attention."

Then the war came to Northeast. "Those were the days when every window around here had flags in the front window," Kozlak recalls, "and there were stars on the flag that showed how many children you had in the service. Nearly everybody had two or three stars, but some had four or five, and if your kids got killed in combat you turned those stars to gold stars. When the servicemen started coming home, the economy heated up, and Jax really started to grow. After the war was the first time the neighborhood really came out of the Depression." In 1951 Jax underwent a major makeover, and in 1958 the dance hall was renovated; virtually every interior or architectural detail about the place has been preserved intact since then.

So am I saying that Jax is essentially a period room with food and drink, perfectly showcasing postwar prosperity? Yes, yes, I am. And I'm delighted with the time travel, even if the fare isn't as arugula-pesto-fancy as 1999 generally demands.

The best items on Jax's menu are the strictly cook-and-serve dishes, like the broiled walleye ($18.95) or my rainbow trout--an excellent fish, and an unforgettable experience. The trout stream is stocked from April to October, and if you're not into catching your own, a chef will snare the fish for you. It's available pan-fried--an excellent, campfire-plain presentation that costs $18.95--as well as in one of a variety of preparations that change with the seasons, such as a mustard-crusted trout on whipped potatoes ($21.95). All dinners at Jax come complete with a first-course choice of soup or salad, and most include a choice of potato and the vegetable of the day.  

I tried the stuffed pork chop, which is Jax's special anniversary dinner; for the remainder of 1999, $19.95 gets you a beer or glass of wine, soup, salad, the pork chop with garlic mashed potatoes, vegetables, and a giant portion of very tasty, buttery, hot and steamy bread pudding. The chop itself was nothing spectacular; it tasted like wedding food, dense and rich and inoffensive. But a rural-Wisconsin-raised friend at my table swore it was the only restaurant food available in the metro area that wouldn't scare her grandparents to death. The prime-rib dinner ($20.95) was tender, served at the proper temperature, and otherwise unremarkable.

Not so for the bone-in steer tenderloin ($32.95), a great rendition of the often underwhelming filet mignon. The filet mignon is supposed to be the most tender cut on the steer, but since it's butchered off the bone and not aged, lacks the winey, big taste of a great steak. They've thought their way around this at Jax, where the tenderloin is cut into chunks along the bone and grilled like that. It's not a beautiful presentation, since the steak ends up taller than it is wide and looks like a lopsided tent, but it's incomparably tender and has all the depth and thunder of the greatest steaks.

The items that come with the critters--the salads, sautéed fresh vegetables, big, soft breadsticks, and such--are all of the high-class supper-club variety. Think chopped romaine coated with a creamy, vaguely garlicky dressing, interlaced with good, crispy croutons and topped with the expensive variety of pre-grated parmesan--you know the stuff, the kind that comes shredded, not powdered. My big disappointment were the mushy hash browns and frozen fries. If I had one piece of advice for the next generation of Kozlaks, it would be to make a better French fry. It's one of those things that costs a little more, but makes a tremendous impression.

Desserts run the gamut from sugar-sweet eye candy, like the wedding-cake-pretty Bailey's Irish Cream torte ($4.95), to the surprisingly good--like the fruit tart ($4.95), a crisp, buttery pastry filled with a vanilla-rich custard and topped with absolutely perfect berries. I've gotten used to tired old pieces of tart with the fruit bleeding into the custard, but Jax's pristine rendition single-handedly revived my appreciation for one of summer's best desserts. Curled up at the table, a bottomless pot of coffee at my elbow, watching the restaurant's clockwork hum in its perpetual perfection, I was charmed near to purring. Surveying the room, all dark and rich like the inside of a jewelry box, I asked myself: Had time really been stood still here? There were, it must be said, a few indications that the days when Bill Sr. fished off the Lowry Avenue bridge pier, icemen lugged 100-pound blocks into Northeast kitchens, and neighborhood kids spent their Saturday mornings at the Ritz are long gone. For one thing, the menu featured lattes ($3.25). For another, what was that at the table next to me? Half the size of a bread stick, one-tenth the size of a slice of prime rib--of course, a cell phone, ready to jerk its owner back to 1999.



WHINE TO CHANGE THE WORLD: My incessant whining about restaurants' irritating no-reservations policy has finally paid off: Both Big Bowl and Campiello now take reservations. "We were inspired by wonderful write-ups in the paper, like your own," says Drew Gass, general manager at Big Bowl, and self-described "sometime kicking ball." What Gass has come up with is actually not a full reservation policy: You can call ahead no more than an hour before you plan to dine. Even this modest concession has killed off the maddening three-hour waits for tables--and that, coupled with the fact that Big Bowl can now put real, live, hard alcohol in its funky drinks should pretty well wipe out all of my (ahem) reservations about this Edina hot spot.

Want to put them through their paces? Big Bowl is hosting a Château St. Michelle wine dinner on July 28, put together by executive chef and food-world giant Bruce Cost. The meal will feature five full courses, pushing the boundaries of Asian-fusion cuisine--think curry flatbread, Thai crab cakes served with a "lotus package" (a steamed side of a sort of black sticky rice), and specially made Sonny's lemon-lime ice cream paired with fresh peaches. The date is Wednesday, July 28 at 7:00 p.m., the cost is $38 per person, including wine, tax, and gratuity. Big Bowl is inside the Galleria, Edina, (612) 928-7888.

Making even greater strides, Campiello has embraced a full, conventional reservation policy--you can get a table up to two months in advance. "We had been hearing about [the reservation policy] from customers for a long time," says Ann Grant, Campiello Uptown's general manager. "In Uptown, people were trying to make movies or plays, while in Eden Prairie we have more of a business client, and they wanted to eat at exact times. So we've tried it at the two restaurants for different reasons, and it's worked out great." Campiello has hit on a compromise solution: About half the restaurant's tables are under the full reservation policy, while the other half is held for walk-ins and call-aheads. Has the change had any effect on the clientele? "We're doing a lot more romantic dinners," concedes Grant. Well, I should hope so. All the couples that have met in the restaurant's hopping bar should be allowed to celebrate their love in the (flattering, amber) light where it was born. The Uptown Campiello is at 1320 W. Lake St., (612) 825-2222; the Eden Prairie location is at 6411 Shady Oak Rd., (612) 941-6868.

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Jax Cafe

1928 University Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418



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