One of the Mall of America’s enduring mysteries is squaring its ability to lure buzz-worthy retailers — newcomers Hammer Made, Moods of Norway and Madewell all come to mind — against a dining-and-drinking track record that is mediocre at best.
A welcome catalyst for change, however, may have arrived earlier this year in the form of FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar. Its location, inside the Radisson Blu, is key, requiring shoppers to traverse a psychologically cleansing stroll through a stretch of skyway connecting the mall to the hotel. Once inside its soothing confines — more on that vastly alluring attribute in a moment — FireLake feels miles away from the mall’s general cacophony, yet Nickelodeon Universe’s Jimmy Neutron’s Atomic Collider is just a five-minute walk away.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the Radisson has been operating the original FireLake at its downtown Minneapolis property for the past decade. Longtime chef Paul Lynch made the move to Bloomington, taking along his commitment to locally sourced ingredients as well as his well-practiced knack for pleasing a wide range of appetites.
The lengthy menu’s most appealing dishes are the shareable first courses. Savory lamb ribs are glazed in a sweet-tangy balsamic sauce, with the meat falling off the bone. Garlic-punched pork sausages are part of a fun build-your-own pigs-in-a-blanket platter. Velvety cured salmon is served with dainty blini. There’s an addictive spin on poutine, with sweet potato fries and a zesty pork sausage gravy, and a tasty all-vegetarian bruschetta trio. Mellow maple accents are a sweet foil to the rich punch of a silky duck liver pâté.
The salad portion of the menu is lavished with obvious tender loving care, and some delicious items come hot off the wood-burning grill, including a trio of well-prepared burgers and a few hunks-o-meat options, starting with a supremely juicy smoked pork chop.
Another draw: Lynch leads diners down less-traveled roads. Creamy bone marrow from roasted bison bones, spread across thickly sliced toast. Grilled elk, with its rich flavor accented by tangy lingonberries. Runny duck eggs on a glammed-up BLT. Juicy quail legs, wrapped in smoky bacon. Crackle-skinned roast duckling.
He also takes his duties to heart as the unofficial Minnesota ambassador to the mall’s zillions of out-of-state visitors, plying them with some of the state’s iconic foodstuffs. Wild rice makes several appearances, from a starring role in a smartly composed soup right down to crispy toasts on a platter of well-selected Gopher State cheeses. Walleye is treated beautifully, whether it’s crusted in cornmeal and gently pan-fried, formed into delicate cakes and served with a tangy, tarragon-packed rémoulade, or made the centerpiece of a sort-of po’ boy. Lefse, too, is made elsewhere but is a delicious and oh-so Minnesota delight.
Lynch also strives to break out of the chain hotel mentality by embellishing his dishes with thoughtful garnishes: tangy mustards and flavorful relishes, lovely little celery-fennel salads and small crocks of crunchy, clove-scented pickled vegetables. A small selection of ever-changing items reinforces the idea that the kitchen is aware of the seasons.
That’s not to say that the menu is clinker-free. Pizzas and flatbreads are generously — and ingeniously — topped, but the crusts are dully formulaic. Pastas were curiously bland. A remarkably flavorless grilled flatiron steak was paired with limp, soggy fries. A hefty portion of spit-roasted chicken had all the right scent/taste/texture attributes, but was served in a pool of intolerably salty pan juices. Desserts are serviceable but not particularly inspired. One of the most glaring blunders? The popovers, so tantalizingly warm and nutty brown yet leaden.
Designer Jim Hamilton of Graven Images in Glasgow, Scotland, is responsible for the hotel’s not-your-father’s-Radisson appearance. His dynamic work in the hotel’s ultra-handsome restaurant is a textbook example of the powerful role that good looks can play in framing the dining-out experience.
If Martha Stewart had a 10,000-square-foot Swedish farmhouse — and I’m not suggesting that she doesn’t — it might resemble FireLake. The understated, innately comfortable space is subtly divided into surprisingly roomy zones that share a few visual common denominators. Walls and ceilings are paneled in a veritable forest of weathered wood planks, a volume so great that it’s hard to imagine any 100-year-old barns remain standing in the state of Minnesota.
Patterned tiles, muted colors and crisp modern furnishings all add up to create one of the Twin Cities’ most attractive — and, notably, conversation-friendly — food-and-drink venues. The attention to beauty permeates down to the tableware, enough to make a person wish a where-to-buy list was printed on the menu, perhaps below Lynch’s locally sourced ingredients roll call (although placing Old Home and Gold n’ Plump corporate brands on the “our partner ranchers, farmers & artisan producers” list pretty much defines the phrase “a stretch”).
While it’s perfectly lovely at the noon hour — and beautifully lit after sunset — my favorite time to enjoy FireLake is at breakfast. A wide bank of windows — another megamall scarcity — bathe the room in muted natural sunlight, inspiring Lynch to do some of his most inventive work. The well-composed, something-for-everyone menu shines on its own, but it positively sparkles when compared to the mall’s paucity of a.m. dining options. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a more appealing south-suburban breakfast destination.
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