Looking good at Uptown Cafeteria

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2013 - 1:07 PM

Parasole’s latest crowd-pleaser is wrapped in a slick package. Does it matter that the food isn’t on the same level? Not really.

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Where's the party? At Uptown Cafeteria, where the first-floor bar and dining room open up to Lake Street. The rooftop deck is another people magnet.

Photo: TOM WALLACE, Star Tribune

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If only Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group tasted as good as it looks.


The Calhoun Square newcomer is the work of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the hospitality think tank behind Manny’s Steakhouse, Salut Bar Americain, Chino Latino and other mainstream cash cows, sorry, crowd-pleasers.


If any local restaurateurs were doubting the power that design plays in the dining-out experience, they need only take a seat near a wait station and start tallying the endless credit card swipes. Hello, gold mine.


Here’s how good the place looks: If it were on a casting cattle call for a reality TV series, Uptown Cafeteria would be handed a contract, immediately. The company’s house designers, New York City-based Moschella + Roberts, have skillfully woven together a contemporary-yet-retro setting. It’s people-watching central, and hordes of what a friend of  mine refers to as “the Hot Community” are clearly thinking of it as their new clubhouse. Who needs online social networking when there’s Uptown Cafeteria?


Just walking in is a mood enhancer. Glass garage doors doubling as windows lure the outdoors in, and both a central bar and an open kitchen (flanked by the now-requisite counter) animate an already animated space. A color palette of saturated oranges and aquas, popping against several shades of white and cheesy-hilarious plastic wood panels, recalls a “Mad Men”-era Howard Johnson’s (ironically, the 20-ish demographic probably draws a blank on the HoJo’s name). Geometrically arranged school cafeteria trays adorn the entrances, and the men’s room sports what is easily the city’s wittiest above-the-urinals art.


The topper, literally, is the restaurant’s vast and vastly popular rooftop lounge. Besides Target Field, this standard-setter is where the crowds are hanging this summer, sucking up the scenery and whining about the first-come, first-serve policy. Uptown, which is enjoying a resurgence after a long drought, hasn’t had a talker this buzzy since Parasole opened nearby Chino Latino 10 years ago.


There’s just one slight problem: The food doesn’t always live up to the surroundings. There isn’t much rhyme or reason to chef Jeff Anderson’s eclectic menu. That’s by design. Items were selected because they’re what the Parasole powers-that-be most enjoy eating themselves.


Fair enough, since their collective tastes have pretty much mirrored — or is that driven? — a big slice of the local dining-out scene for years. The key words here are affordability — most prices rarely tiptoe past the low teens — and familiarity.


In other words, nothing here will advance the city’s food culture, and you know what? Big deal. We can’t all eat at Piccolo or La Belle Vie seven nights a week. Sometimes a hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy, or tender Cheddar-onion biscuits, or a gi-hugic serving of a by-the-book pot roast stroganoff, served with the collective eagerness of the cast of “Glee,” is exactly what fits the bill.


Flavor still counts
But imagine a world where Parasole put as much effort into the nuances of cooking as they do into the nuances of design. Now that’s an Uptown Cafeteria (which, by the way, isn’t a cafeteria) that I’d praise to the stars. The disparity seemed particularly acute at weekend brunch. I love me a good plate of chicken and waffles, and the fried chicken is right on, with crisp, nicely seasoned skin and an abundance of juicy, tender meat, but it’s resting on a leaden lump of a waffle (don’t get me started on the Mrs. Butterworth’s “syrup,” which no person beyond the second grade should ever be asked to consume). A Florentine-style Benedict was cursed with the fishiest smoked salmon I’ve ever had the misfortune of being served. Standard-issue breakfast sausages, speared and dunked in what was billed as pancake batter and then deep-fried, was good for a few State Fair-inspired yuks, but the results could have been so much better.


The lunch-dinner menu has its roadblocks, too. A daily fish special turned out to be a clunky carb-fest, with overcooked salmon resting on rice and topped with a bizarre fried potato gaufrette so big it rivaled the Sunday church lady hat that Aretha Franklin wore to the Obama inauguration. Plain grilled chicken, served in a pool of basil broth devoid of the slightest trace of ­herbed flavor, made me wonder if Anderson should forgo his more ambitious dishes, and polish the short-order cooking that he and his crew do best: a terrific burger, a feisty sloppy Joe, a pleasing array of salads, a hearty chicken noodle soup, satisfying takes on mac-and-cheese, chicken curry and meatloaf, a tasty facsimile of the Pop-Tart.


Best are the parade of nightly specials that include a classic turkey-and-trimmings dinner (Monday), an all-you-can-eat fish fry that would put a Wisconsin supper club to shame (Friday)  and a Minnesota-style chow mein (Tuesday) that’s fresher and tastier than anything I recall encountering at the late, great Nankin. Some seasonality wouldn’t hurt, either. Why not, for example, take advantage of the heirloom tomatoes flying off local farms and pull together an awesome BLT?


Too much = too much
The company’s bedrock equation — big portions = value — is also in play, no big surprise. It’s a strategy that obviously works, but every time I encounter it I wonder why the quality = value theorem doesn’t get an occasional test drive. One example is the gently sweet, golf ball-sized walleye-corn fritters. They’re fine, in an overfried kind of way, but rather than cranking out a teetering pile of indifferently produced ones — the first few in each serving are appropriately hot, while the rest cool down into drab sogginess, fast — why not concentrate on making three or four perfect, sigh-inducing ones that leave us impressed and wanting more?


The desserts are the most egregious plus-size offenders. “I would be mortified if I was dining alone and was seen ordering this,” said my friend as we stared down a slab of chocolate layer cake so over-the-top enormous that it would barely fit within the confines of Brett Favre’s helmet (to the menu’s credit, it’s labeled as a treat for two). Still, I didn’t have any problems knocking back a sizable portion of the spongy, lemony, chiffon-style cake, and my fork continually found itself returning to the red velvet cake’s luscious cream-cheese icing. The sanest of the desserts is a straight-up hot fudge sundae, worthy of a vintage Bridgeman’s counter.


The abbreviated rooftop menu, its items culled from the dining room below, recalls the kind of poolside cabana fare my friend Wendy and I used to presumptuously charge to her grandfather’s account at the Edina Country Club in the late 1970s. You know: big enough for two, uncomplicated, comforting. Would I drive across town for a crack at a two-fisted pita stuffed with grilled, modestly seasoned shrimp and shredded lettuce, or do-it-yourself butter lettuce wraps built with tender grilled chicken and a lively pepper slaw, or a gooey, slightly decadent grilled brie sandwich? Probably not, but on a breezy August afternoon, pre-Lagoon matinee, they more than suited my needs.


Friendly service counts
The big-smiles service is another highlight. The kitchen sends food out in what feels like the blink of an eye, and honesty is obviously the floor staff’s policy. When I asked whether I should order the “employee meal,” the daily budget-priced ($8.95) special, I got a refreshingly straightforward “I wouldn’t.” A few days later, an inquiry into the shrimp pad Thai was met with a “You’d be better off at a Thai restaurant,” which proved to be a dead-on assessment.


Oh, and talk about sharp customer service: After asking a staffer for her recommendation between a pair of dishes, I opted for her favorite of the two and was less than thrilled; just as we were leaving, and without prompting, she delivered a takeout version, no charge, of the dish I should have ordered. That’s the kind of quick thinking that converts first-time customers into regulars, although, I have to admit: They had me at the furniture. And the wallcoverings. And the graphics. And the light fixtures.


Rick Nelson • 612-673-1749
 

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  • UPTOWN CAFETERIA AND SUPPORT GROUP★★

    Location: 3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-877-7263, www.uptowncafeteria.com

    Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday.

    Atmosphere: A dream version of a 1960s elementary school cafeteria. Bonus points for the primo rooftop lounge.

    Service: Young, eager to please, not necessarily polished.

    Sound level: Lively but not overwhelming.

    Recommended dishes: Lettuce wraps, chicken soup, salads, burger, meatloaf, nightly specials, lemon cake, Pop-Tarts, Cheddar biscuits.

    Wine list: A short, no-surprises roster; the beer selection is more thorough. The hard-drinking cast of “Jersey Shore” seems to be the cocktail menu’s target market.

    Price range: Aimed at the first-apartment crowd, with few items above $15.

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