Once again, the dinner topic was the Twins ballpark brouhaha.
"Not a dime of taxpayer money," one friend said, for the 10,000th time.
"It only makes sense in the Warehouse District," said another pal, doing a fairly convincing R.T. Rybak impersonation. Everyone dropped their forks when our group's loudest City of Lakes cheerleader chimed in. "Let St. Paul have it," she said. "Now that we've got the Dakota, what do we need with a stadium?"
Point well taken. In October, in the latest bit of Twin Towns turf war, the Minneapple pulled a two-fer on its sibling when the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant relocated from St. Paul's somnolent Bandana Square to 10th St. and Nicollet Mall. Not only did downtown Minneapolis got a much-needed nightlife booster shot (as well as a smart new lunchtime destination) but business is booming: a slow night in the new place bests a busy evening in the old one.
Owners Lowell Pickett and Richard Erickson, working with the talented Shea Inc. design firm and a pile of cash, have reversed the jinxed karma of predecessors Zinc and Merchant's, replacing those failures with a sauve setting that's not only a swell dining and drinking destination, but also a gift to music lovers. Unlike the clumsy compromises of Metrodome-style stadiums built for both baseball and football but suitable for neither, this ingenious and attractive bar/music hall/restaurant hybrid actually works; the accoustics and sightlines rival those of neighboring Orchestra Hall.
While chef Ken Goff used the move as an opportunity to reinvent parts of his menu, his 20-year commitment to seek out and celebrate regional producers remains unchanged.
Rather than compete with the high-voltage energy on stage, Goff wisely keeps his work less flashy. A perfect example is the addition of a half-dozen contemporary comfort-food plates, headlined by a grown-ups' version of macaroni and cheese, a chicken pot pie and a hearty stew of root vegetables and beef braised in red wine and saffron. Other standout newbies include a beaut of a roasted beet-fried fennel salad, a marvelous smoked trout-chÃ¨vre flan and a fetching toss of arugula, spinach and chÃ¨vre splashed with a subtle hazelnut vinaigrette.
It's very easy to admire what Goff does with walleye. There's a fairly standard but still expertly broiled fillet with a snappy horseradish sauce. It's good, but overshadowed by the bar menu's melt-in-your-mouth walleye fritters, and a robust chowder of walleye, smoked whitefish and wild rice. Those in turn are upstagedby walleye dumplings, aloving valentine to Goff's Norwegian mother. Four to a plate, they're a gently poached blend of walleye, cream and onions, crowned with crayfish and served with boiled new potatoes.
Some Dakota standards remain. Goff probably would be run out of town if he chucked his signature brie-apple soup, a potato-cream-leek base enriched with cheese from tiny Belmont, Wis. Luxuriously velvety as always, it's now elegantly garnished with drops of rosemary-infused olive oil. The Caesar is still not shy about its garlicky kick, the blue-cheese stuffed burger continues to put other Juicy Lucys to shame, the kitchen undoubtedly runs through wild rice by the truckload and one taste and you'll grasp the popularity of a strip steak and its richly flavored au jus built with a sturdy red from Hasting's Alexis Bailly Vineyard.
Goff isn't afraid to let exceptional ingredients stand on their own, from a poetically arranged plate of smoked salmon and smoked sturgeon to a you-gotta-try-this selection of sausages from Kramarczuk in Minneapolis. Vegetarians and vegans aren't left in the dust, and much of the menu is ideal for low-carb dieters.
Pastry chef Amy Broderick's dessert menu rivals my Marshall Field's credit-card statement in length, and the vast majority of it personifies simple, deftly-crafted pleasures. A crisp of pears and dried blueberries is virtuous but not preachy, a maple frango with blueberry syrup has a delightful "up north" vibe and the single-serving lemon meringue pie is adorably delicious. A pudding, intensely chocolate, is irresistible, and Broderick flaunts her playful streak with a handful of old-fashioned floats, sundaes and milk shakes.
The Dakota doesn't always bat a thousand. Execution suffers during sellouts; during peak hours the kitchen can't quite handle the demands of Goff's pages-long menu. On one jam-packed night (capacity is nearly 300 seats), it's not a huge exaggeration when I say we feared for our kidneys while consuming the saltiest meal I've had in memory. Other seasonings can sometimes be a crapshoot. A chicken breast's clever cinnamon-saffron-vanilla sauce was mellow and marvelous one evening, obnoxious a week later.
Some ideas just don't work. There are no kind words for the tough, dried-out slab of overcooked pork, and a few dishes -- grilled polenta, wild-rice cakes, white-chocolate cheesecake -- are a big snooze. And despite its highly urban setting, it's disappointing that most of the room turns its back on the sidewalk, relinquishing a long stretch of Nicollet Mall windows to a blank-wall corridor.
Still, these issues can evaporate when when you've scored a roomy booth or a mezzanine two-top, enjoyed a good meal and lost yourself in the likes of Ginger Commodore, Larry Coryell or some other jazz great. Not only does the Dakota have these kinds of moments down to an art form, but Pickett and Erickson invested in Minneapolis without a public subsidy. Does Carl Pohlad know about this?
*** Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Location: 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612-332-1010.