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"At what point did restaurateurs come to equate 'loud' with 'successful'?" asked my friend, although I could barely hear him. We were in the middle of a standing-room-only Friday evening at Primebar, and our ability to converse was being squeezed by an ever-escalating chorus of human voices, each seemingly struggling to be heard over the sound system's incessant, sink-into-your-bones beat. Let's put it this way: I have never felt older.
Or maybe it's because Uptown, or at least this particular corner of it, never seems to age. I'm referring to the longtime home of Figlio -- and its short-lived, ill-conceived successor, Il Gatto -- which is now occupied by what Chicago-based Restaurants-America is touting as its "upscale gastropub."
One reason why it suddenly feels like old times is because Primebar looks the way Figlio probably would, had it survived to 2012: An enormous, roughly circular bar rests in its rightful place in the center of the room.
Honey-tinted wood floors, walls of salvaged planks and roomy booths impart a warmly appealing mix of modern and traditional, and a string of communal tables are lined up along a prime stretch of people-watching sidewalk. Even Figlio's clumsy, multi-level floor has been conveniently smoothed out.
Volume issues aside, it works, and when it's packed -- which is often, a factoid that must depress the heck out of the folks at Parasole Restaurant Holdings, Figlio's parent company, who have surely grown weary of the word "hindsight" -- the place buzzes like the Ghost of Figlio Past.
Primebar's something-for-everyone menu occasionally tastes that way, too. It's all fairly corporate, with a calculating vibe that exudes more savvy market analysis than the musings of a curious culinary mind. If it's currently on trend, it has a berth on the Primebar menu. Pork belly? Check. Cooked eggs as garnishes? Yep. Designer tacos? Uh-huh. Fries topped in everything but the kitchen sink? Sure.
Nothing wrong with any of that, especially when it's well executed. It's easy to love the deviled eggs, their creamy bite jazzed with a crumble of the kitchen's peppy chorizo. I can't imagine dropping in after a movie and not ordering the gloriously fatty bacon "roll," a spiral of slow-braised pork belly resting on a marvelous succotash of toothy white beans, sweet carrots and bits of fried mint, all bathed in a gently porky broth. Instead of some same-old, same-old bruschetta, there are golden, oven-warm pretzel sticks, each as fat as a stogie and flecked with salt, paired with a sweet mustard sauce and a fondue-esque Cheddar dip.
Sliders, tacos and more
Much of the menu's greatest hits are tailor-made to pair with the bar's exceptional beer list. Pulled pork, a house specialty, boasts tender and succulent meat teased with a bit of vinegar. It's stuffed into toasted slider-size buns and topped with crunchy slaw -- what a great snack -- or spooned into corn tortillas and topped with avocado and cilantro. Actually, the tacos -- four to a serving, filled with a medley of freshly flavorful ingredients and displayed in cute stainless steel pedestals reminiscent of toast racks -- are reason enough to visit.
Making a habit of duck confit taco, with its crunchy cabbage and creamy goat cheese, or the cool, pink tuna and its rich guacamole and tangy pickled vegetables, is easy enough. Ditto a number of plus-size sandwiches, particularly one that layers bacon and brie over a thick chicken breast. The first-rate burgers -- enormous, like just about every dish on the menu -- are done straight up or dressed with a harmonious, semi-luxurious blend of roasted tomatoes, sprightly butter lettuce, decadent brie and a smoky-salty bacon jam.
For an operation that strives to get details right -- the crisp, well-seasoned skin-on fries (go ahead, order the over-the-top poutine) and the imaginative entree-size salads, among many examples -- there can be odd missteps. Witness a pretty but pretty dull hummus, or meaty chicken wings glazed in a too-sweet sauce, or a wonderfully ginger-laced turkey burger that spent far too much time drying out on the grill, or oversalted soups, or a flimsy roll that lets down an otherwise textbook prime-rib sandwich.
Less is more
All easy fixes, but other remedies are more complicated. Because Primebar inherited Figlio's storied 27-year-old, wood-burning pizza oven -- the Twin Cities' first -- it would be safe to assume that such an asset would inspire greatness, at least regarding the menu's half-dozen flatbreads. Regrettably, that isn't the case. Not only are the crusts dull beyond description, but nearly every one of these overdressed faux pizzas would improve by following Coco Chanel's sage advice about removing one accessory -- or, in this case, one topping -- before leaving the house.
Desserts pretty much personify the phrase "sugary overkill," while weekend brunch has a perfunctory air. And beyond an admirably restrained mac-and-cheese, the menu's more substantial entrees (braised lamb shanks, cedar plank-grilled salmon, peppercorn-crusted New York strip steak) taste just beyond the reach of what is essentially a bar-food operation, even one so semi-polished.
Still, the restaurant hits its casual-dining demographic more than it misses. It's also one of those environments where the number of flat-screen TV monitors rivals a Best Buy sales floor. The only time that the visuals aren't annoyingly distracting and superfluous -- I'll catch Anderson Cooper at home, thank you -- is during football season, when NFL Sunday Ticket replaces that thundering stereo.
Game time means $1 bloody Marys, $5 carafe-size mimosas and $14 all-you-can-eat wings, although all are overshadowed by a phone directory-length tap beer list, a serious and well researched 50-plus roster that's roughly split between local craft brews and regional and national names.
It's Primebar's true sweet spot, and it just might singlehandedly return this particular corner of Hennepin and Lake back to Figlio's heyday.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib