What a room.
After more than 60 years as one of the Midwest's most inviting addresses for making deposits and applying for mortgages, who knew that beneath the Farmers and Mechanics Bank's dignified financial-institution mojo beat a higher, truer calling, as a fabulous restaurant?
Westin Hotels, for starters. It's easy to imagine the 5,000 ways this beloved landmark could have been screwed up, none of which seemed to happen under the hotel's respectful and scrupulous stewardship, which slyly reincarnates the bank's beloved 1941 Art Moderne lobby -- one of the city's most thrilling interior spaces -- into what is destined to become a new downtown crossroads.
More than once I found myself seated at a sofa near the main entrance at the appropriately named Bank, blueberry mojito in hand (more on those later) and watched, like clockwork, as obvious first-timers stepped inside, stopped dead in their tracks, slapped an awestruck look on their faces and murmured, "Wow." No kidding. Sheer volume fuels some of that reaction; a hockey rink could probably fit comfortably on the floor, and the column-free ceiling stretches a good 30 feet up. Nobody builds like this anymore. The place is enormous.
And drop-dead gorgeous. Time has been good to the dear old F&M. The building's original late-Depression budget must have gone a long, long way. The bank treated its chief asset with obvious care during the intervening decades and Westin's design team, led by Moncur Design Associates Inc. of Toronto, knows a good thing when it sees one.
An entire Indonesian forest must have been felled to supply the room's stunning teak paneling. The effect is both stately and warm, not an easy equation. And eye-catching quirks -- curvaceous lotus blossom chandeliers, a stunning bank of molded glass windows, carved wood medallions honoring the state's natural riches -- visually anchor what could be an overwhelmingly large space.
The Westin wisely left it all intact, and then some, squeezing in complementary contemporary furniture and fixtures (and plenty of fascinating historic photos) and formulating clever new uses for old components. The vault now stores wines rather than cash, offices have been transformed into private dining rooms and the former teller windows are now a counter with front-row views into the gleaming, lavishly tricked-out kitchen.
Oh, yeah, I nearly forgot: There's food here, too, and the good news is that chef Todd Stein's work is worthy of the singular setting. He has a touch for both finesse and flair (the Westin recruited him to Minnesota from Chicago's well-regarded MK), as well as a nose for premium ingredients and an artful eye. Eating his food is a pleasure.
A crackling spit-roasted pork, a juicy chicken singing with fennel and chile accents, a robust leg of lamb, a knife-tender rib-eye with a mellow red wine reduction and swooningly creamy potatoes; yeah, this guy is the real deal. There are nice little surprises, too, as Stein teaches old culinary dogs appealing new tricks. Tartare is tackled twice: salmon and tuna, sweet and hot. A hint of lobster sneaks its way into lovely little croquettes. The slight sting of kaffir lime teases extra flavor into plump steamed mussels. Even the lowly burger gets a new set of designer duds, and they fit.
The soups, served piping hot in tureen-size bowls, are spectacular. One lucky day it was a silky corn touched with cream and dressed with cool bits of crab enrobed in parsley oil. On another it was a kale purée, the intense color reminiscent of the rind of a Haas avocado and enriched with a thick potato stock; so beautiful, so delicious.
Straying into daily specials territory proved highly rewarding, too. One night I struck upon a remarkable two-fer: succulent pan-seared halibut over slim rods of white and green asparagus, and sizzling, crispy-skin quail with lovely light-dark background notes in the form of husky morels and sprightly spring peas. Stein composes a visually arresting salad of beets, tartly pickled onions and gentle ricotta; even his wisely chosen array of small-batch cheeses nearly glows with an artist's touch.
Breakfast is particularly fine. Sunshine imbues the room with a honeyed glow, and the well-edited menu is all about well-stuffed omelets and frittatas, marvelously crispy hash browns, glorious baked goods and a few nods to big-spending movers and shakers, including an ostentatious Benedict topped with butter-poached lobster, the city's top new power breakfast.
As the day progresses, the bar shows off its talent for shaking up seductive, you-have-to-try-this-one cocktails. I've developed a dangerous attachment to the refreshing blueberry mojito, although at lunch I judiciously limit myself to the tartly refreshing (but sadly Stoli-free) version. Pastry chef Elizabeth Matheson's work is a clear reason to visit, too, particularly for her quick and simple (and cheap: $2.50) desserts that she slips into juice glasses. There are a dozen in all, and whether it's tart rhubarb crisp, smooth panna cotta, delicate little cinnamon-dusted churros in a pool of tangy chocolate sauce or a cool lemon parfait, chances are it's a winner. They're just what the dietitian ordered, a few quick, satisfying bites and you're out.
There are some disappointments. Sometimes it's technical (deviled eggs, for example, topped with glistening caviar, are overcooked). Sometimes it's more philosophical. Because he's employed by a you-have-to-please-everyone hotel, Stein plays it pretty safe, covering all the usual suspects -- beef, salmon, chicken, lamb, pork. Don't get me wrong, the execution is obviously sure-footed, but I wonder if regulars -- i.e., locals, not hotel guests -- will grow restless.
The restaurant's marketing touches are a tad grating. Starting with the logo outside the door: "Savor. Experience. Share." I'm guessing they left out "Gag." on purpose. The menu's format is equally cloying, divided into "shared currency" (appetizers), "long-term interest" (entrees) and "surplus" (sides). We get it already: We're dining in a former bank -- which may justify some prices, particularly at the bar, which occasionally resemble the borderline-usurious service fees that my own bank charges.
But my biggest gripe involves the maddeningly uneven service, which bounces from brisk and polite to friendly and semiclueless to forgetful and interminable -- sometimes inexcusable -- waits from both the kitchen and bar.
Just when I would start mentally booking my next anger management seminar, I'd take a look around where I was lucky enough to be sitting and calm down. Although Bank's mood-elevating surroundings are almost entirely devoted to the demands of the restaurant and lounge, they also act as the Westin's de facto lobby.
It's a Christmas present that landed gift-wrapped on the city's doorstep a half-year early, and it's about time. Minneapolis has gone without an impressive big-city hotel lobby since the days of the grand old dames like the Curtis, Leamington and Nicollet. Luckily for all of us, the F&M -- sorry, the Westin -- fills that bill, big time.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757 • firstname.lastname@example.org