Homestyle cooking gets a new taste at Landmarc.
The Normandy Inn is the Rodney Dangerfield of downtown Minneapolis hotels. It gets no respect.
Maybe that esteem deficit is rooted in the Normandy's middlebrow Best Western nameplate. The less-than-desirable address, across the street from a steam-belching heating plant, could play a role. The building's brazenly schlocky faux-Tudor exterior might be a contributing factor. It can't be the hotel's obviously savvy business plan, because the place has a booked-solid appearance.
Whatever the reason, there were a few schadenfreude snickers among the foodiscenti when Michael Morse, the schmoozemeister behind the former cafe un deux trois -- or, as a friend of mine used to affectionately call it, cafe expense account -- announced last spring that he was partnering with Normandy owner Michael Noble to launch the Landmarc Grill. (Notice that name is not a resurrection of the Normandy Kitchen, the hotel's beloved but long-gone restaurant; perhaps comparisons to the slick Chambers Hotel's equally slick Chambers Kitchen were best avoided.)
Gossips wanted to know: Will Morse's cashmere clash with the Normandy's cotton-poly blend? The jury is still out on that one, although the change in venue hasn't dulled the fidgety, prickly, send-a-comped-dessert-to-table-10 Morse. When I asked a server what it was like to work for Morse, she laughed and said, "Well, I started smoking again, what does that say?" While the Landmarc lacks 1-2-3's gloss -- and bold-face-name profile -- its head honcho remains a bracing splash of fire-engine red among the decidedly taupe and beige-accented local restaurant landscape.
What Morse and Noble have created is a respectable and reliable restaurant, a nod if not an outright throwback to the no-surprises eateries that once peppered downtown's sidewalks. The Normandy Kitchen, for one. They even throw in a few token references to their predecessor: warm popovers at dinner and a thick, juicy cheeseburger they insist is based on the hotel's fabled Henry VIII burger. (Who knows if it's authentic -- contrary to popular belief, I'm not that old.) It's perfectly satisfying, especially when paired with the kitchen's skinny, crisp and nicely salty fries.
Those excellent fries are just one of many former un deux trois touches that seem to have been resurrected for the Landmarc. A salad built with radicchio, tender chicken and a brisk peanut-sesame vinaigrette was a welcome sight, as was a no-nonsense Nicoise. Ditto the ruddy veal meatloaf, dressed in a thick mushroom gravy. A roast chicken, with tarragon grace notes, was just right, and the mashed potatoes were everything they should be: smooth, creamy, reassuring. Crab cakes, lightly fried and generously crabby, were accompanied by a fresh and flavorful corn relish, and chilled shrimp were plump and snappy.
The appetizer of the moment, deviled eggs, arrived stuffed with bits of shrimp. In fact, the menu's retro touches seem tailored to the vaguely Rat Pack-ish surroundings: liver and onions, a tuna salad sandwich, a tall wedge of iceberg, finished with a punched-up blue cheese dressing, a plentiful Cobb salad with Thousand Island dressing.
Food snobs might not be impressed, but it's their loss, at least some of the time. The kitchen, which has been through more chefs than Lindsay Lohan has suffered through scandals, definitely has its share of missteps, as Morse tries to find his way in an unfamiliar world. Sometimes it's a technical issue: A New York strip was tough and overcooked, a Caesar salad was little better than bagged Dole and a refreshing salad of cool melon and peppery arugula classed up a lifeless plate of pounded and grilled chicken breasts. But larger problems occur when the menu strays from its fanfare-free American grill format. With the exception of a robust spaghetti and meatballs, pastas tend to be dull and uninspired, and the daily seafood specials I sampled were not much better.
Desserts have an appealing honesty. There's a splendid apple tart, all flaky puff pastry and sweet-tart apples, and decent profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with a no-nonsense fudge sauce. I loved the bite-size cupcakes, a chocolate, vanilla and lemon trio, and a plain cheesecake jazzed with lemon and berries ably does the job.
Breakfast, a perfunctory list of a.m. basics, is served in a flash at the right price, with nothing over $8.50. But for every pleasant touch (excellent bacon, strong coffee) there is plenty of room for improvement. A sandwich, built on a snoozer of a roll, is filled with nothing but egg. The granola in the yogurt is as plain as plain can be. Real maple syrup, not a high-fructose corn syrup substitute, is what the tender, plate-size pancakes deserve. And on one visit I heard a server offer apologies because, no, for the third day in a row, the kitchen hadn't replenished its oatmeal inventory; what, no one can be convinced to make a Lunds run for a can of McCann's?
Every self-respecting hotel needs a good bar, and with the Landmarc the Normandy finally has one: warm, woody and welcoming, with a row of tables ringing a long stretch of a bar, a reliable postwork destination for a bump and a bite. It may be several blocks away from chic, but it's definitely comfortable. After losing un deux trois and spending a couple of up-and-down years of working for other restaurateurs, Morse seems to have found a place in the background, and you know what? It kind of suits him.
Rick Nelson 612-673-4757