With all the construction surrounding it — two mammoth academic complexes, a flurry of apartment buildings and, of course, the traffic-disrupting Central Corridor light-rail line — it's easy to overlook all the changes at what was once the Radisson University Hotel.
After all, most of the project's improvements — all $14.8 million of them — are internal, and not easily apparent when standing outside the massive U-shaped building. The name on the door now reads Commons Hotel, and aside from an Applebee's franchise, an unfortunate holdover from the previous regime, the transformation is fairly impressive. So long, tired 1980s period piece, hello 2013.
A welcome sense of energy is most evident at Beacon Public House, the hotel's promising new restaurant. As remakes go, this was no perfunctory exercise. The Beacon's ambitions are clearly set to draw not only from within the building's 300-plus rooms, but also to reach out to the greater — and surprisingly underserved — University of Minnesota community. Who knows why, but nailing down a reservation for a decent business-related meal is a rarity in this neighborhood, a mysterious deficiency given the thousands of nearby academic bigwigs.
The kitchen is run by chef Roly Cruz-Taura, a Miami import, and he knows how to write menus that cater to the wide demographic spectrum that walks into his restaurant.
His most appealing meal is breakfast, with its inventive forays into egg, pancake, waffle and hash territory, each embellished with fresh, creative touches, including a small but winning selection of house-baked pastries.
Lunch has its moments, too. Along with a half-dozen generously stuffed sandwiches — including two whopper-level burgers, one composed of beef short ribs, the other turkey — and a similar number of well-composed salads, Cruz-Taura puts out a handful of eclectic entrees, including ricotta-fortified gnocchi, a pleasant bowl of bucatini done carbonara-style and delicate cornmeal-crusted walleye. Desserts, made with obvious care, are a highlight.
Unfortunately, the Beacon is not without its issues. Service was friendly — truly, fraternity rush-friendly — but often bordered on clueless. At times, exasperatingly so.
Pacing is also a problem. No weekday sandwich-and-salad lunch should require a two-plus-hour time commitment; I dine out for a living and even my schedule doesn't permit such a lengthy midday meal. It was no fluke mishap, either; at two dinners, the wait between appetizer and entree stretched to nearly an hour.
Unacceptable, right? And I'm sorry to say that much of it wasn't worth the wait. Pork shoulder was stringy, dry and depressingly flavorless, which pretty much describes another slow-cooked meat, beef short ribs braised in cabernet. At $22 and $30, respectively, it's not unreasonable to expect more.
Consistency is another problem. On one visit, a lamb ragout spooned over toothy rigatoni was the personification of hearty, well-seasoned comfort food, and on another it had the appeal of a boxed supermarket product. The same with pan-seared salmon: crisp-skinned and velvety at one dinner, charred and rubbery at a subsequent visit.
As is so often the case, appetizers trump entrees. Pork (specifically, ham hock from first-rate Fischer Farms in Waseca, Minn.) was the delicious cornerstone of a pile of nachos — and if nachos aren't an ideal college campus snack, what is? I love the dainty and tender Cheddar- and bacon-filled biscuits.
There's a satay of lean, ruby red grilled venison, its gentle gaminess countered by a sassy peanut sauce. Oh, and Cruz-Taura puts out a terrific bangers and mash, calling upon a zesty bison sausage and lacing the potatoes with horseradish.
Some dishes sound great on paper but deliver less. Rather than exuding a rich freshness, cured salmon tasted fishy. Burrata, spread on toasts with a lively bacon-tomato jam, is a fine idea, but $16 merits more than a few measly slices of stale bread.
On the plus side, it's a great-looking space; if a reality TV series were tasked with designing a hip college-age clubhouse, the Beacon would be the result. The bar makes an effort to embrace both the handcrafted cocktail and local craft beer crazes.
In short, U of M-ers should be glad the Beacon is in their midst, but if serious diners are to take it seriously, the restaurant is going to have to demonstrate some discipline.
615 Washington Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-8888, www.commonshotel.com. Open for breakfast 7-11 a.m. Mon.-Sat., 7-11:30 a.m. Sun, open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sun., open for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Bar open to midnight Sun.-Thu., to 1 a.m. Fri.-Sat.
On the Nicollet Mall
Meanwhile, the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, that sterile early-1980s pile of white concrete on the south end of Nicollet Mall, is enjoying the fruits of its recent $25 million rehab.
Its vast and vacuous lobby once had all the appeal of an airline hangar. Now? With its warm tan-and-gray color palette and dramatic fireplace, it's an environment where humans actually enjoy congregating. The lobby's former restaurant — an enterprise so forgettable that I can't recall its name — has been replaced by Prairie Kitchen & Bar. While it's far from perfect, the restaurant is also an enormous improvement over its predecessor.
There's a lot to appreciate, looks-wise, including handsome Danish Modern-esque furniture, a comfortable center-of-the-room bar, massive industrial-inspired light fixtures and an abundance of natural light pouring in from windows fronting both Nicollet Mall and the Loring Greenway.
If only the cooking lived up to the surroundings. Well, it does, occasionally, particularly when the efforts remain on the simple side. Breakfast is a strong suit. Innovation is not on the menu, but no one dines at a Hyatt for cutting-edge cuisine. Instead, expect to encounter straight-up versions of egg dishes and griddle favorites.
There's an agreeable design-your-own salad program at lunch, an idea that blossoms at dinner, when it becomes a terrific appetizer: Create-your-own crostini, featuring such items as cured salmon, succulent smoked duck, hard-cooked eggs, goat cheese and tangy lingonberry jam.
There's a decent veal meatball, served in appetizer and entree portions, and an eye-catching beet salad.
Still, many dishes would have benefited from modest tweaks. Is no one paying attention to basics? A little salt and pepper would have punched a chicken salad sandwich from rote to remarkable. In a generously stuffed hoagie, turkey meatballs, nicely grilled, were crying out for garlic, pepper, an herb or two, anything. If someone had paid attention to removing bones, a colorful and flavorful fish-bacon stew would have been lovely.
Indifference seems to be the kitchen's default position. A squash soup was billed as "silky" but arrived unappealingly gloppy and entirely without nuance, its overriding flavor profiles merely sweet and fat.
Pan-roasted salmon was burned outside, raw inside, and served with the most flavorless asparagus imaginable (sampled in February, definitely not asparagus season). A bison osso bucco — nice idea — was chewy and flavorless. I can't recall a more amateurish roast chicken, the dried-out skin falling off the overcooked meat, the pan juices little more than water. Desserts? Thanks, but no thanks.
As a barometer of the room's draftiness, we were forced to fend off a particularly chilly night by dining in our coats and ordering coffee, not to drink (it was awful, by the way), but to transform the cup into an impromptu hand-warmer. Service was all over the place, from brusque and largely absent to well-meaning if unpolished.
Prairie Kitchen & Bar isn't a total cookie-cutter chain hotel effort. For starters, the space tries to reflect the region's cultural history, and someone is making an attempt, cursory as it might seem, to source locally made ingredients.
But is that enough for locals to want to make a habit of the restaurant? Doubtful.
1300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls., 612-596-4640, www.prairiekitchenandbar.com. Open for breakfast 6:30-11 a.m., open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Bar open to midnight.
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