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True confessions: I have a nerdy hobby. When I can't sleep, or when I'm avoiding work or, frankly, when I just feel like it, I troll the Minnesota Historical Society's online archive of pre-1960s photographs of the Twin Cities. It's a bottomless time-suck activity, partly because the images reveal the lively, human-scaled pasts of both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Of particular note are the hotel lobbies: the West and the Nicollet in Minneapolis, the Ryan in St. Paul, all lost to the wrecking ball. In those black-and-white photos they come off as equal parts crossroads, melting pot and clubhouse, and I find them fascinating. They crackle with activity -- eating, drinking, socializing, people-watching -- and are the polar opposites of today's sterile, don't-you-dare-loiter hotel lobbies.
Which is why I was so pleased to stumble into the Grand Hotel Minneapolis a few weeks ago. The Kimpton chain took over the property last year, and as part of an continuing renovation, the company has converted what had been a discrete bar into a full-fledged main-floor lounge, with casual dining aspirations.
Kimpton has dubbed its new effort the Six15 Room -- a nod to the landmark building's street address -- and while it doesn't get going until 3 p.m. (no afternoon tea, alas), the results are a pleasant downtown addition. The results are more than a hotel guest amenity; it's the kind of big-city hangout that I imagine locals will be happy to frequent.
Chef Kris Koch said he views the menu as his playground, a respite from the more formulaic requirements of the room service and banquet sides of his job. He's certainly making the most of his creative outlet, emphasizing inventive spins on familiar bar standards, often with locally sourced twists.
Variations on a theme
His best dish is a riff on lox and bagels. Tender, carefully smoked trout stands in for salmon, which gets spooned onto crisp, house-baked bagel chips swiped with dill-blended cream cheese. As finger food goes, it's witty and delicious. Second best are the sliders, with turkey replacing beef, the lean meat enriched with red onion and egg. Each nicely charred patty is topped with melt-in-your-mouth caramelized onions and a bit of pepper jack cheese, and stuffed into buns that have been grilled in butter for an unnecessary but welcome jolt of richness. We ordered seconds.
Koch also demonstrates his sense of humor with a basket of what appear to be dinner rolls. Nope, they're miniature all-beef franks wrapped in a pretzel-style dough and served with ketchup that's been jazzed up with curry-infused oil, another unexpected flavor dimension.
Other memorable dishes include cuts of flavorful, grilled beef boasting a subtly sweet caramelized glaze and a pert peanut sauce. Pork lovers can turn to grilled kielbasa, from farmer Tim Fischer in Waseca, Minn., and embellished with a fruity mustard. Oh, and what started out as a brandade evolved into a walleye-enriched Tater Tot. Koch flakes baked Canadian walleye, tosses it with Yukon gold potatoes and then presses the mixture into cork-shaped bites. They're a terrific little fried snack, crispy on the outside and creamy within, finished with a preserved lemon-fortified tartar sauce.
Due to a lease covenant with Rare, the building's second-floor restaurant, Koch has to stick to a small-plates format, but he does sneak in a few more substantial offerings that are billed as "tasting portions." They range from the serviceable -- a cooked-to-order New York strip, a succulent slab of Scottish salmon -- to a satisfying and seasonally appropriate bowl of slow-braised pork tossed with wide ribbons of tender pasta and pops of Swiss chard.
On the downside
I did encounter a few odd blips. A cheese plate appeared to arrive from a completely different kitchen, with a tired assortment straight off a Holiday Inn cocktail mixer, ratty-looking fruit garnishes and "assorted flatbreads" (the menu's language, not mine) that gave off a distinct Sociables-by-Nabisco vibe.
Walleye tacos, one of the four not-quite entrees, were flat-out boring, and the brief menu feels just a bit limited. Prices can lean toward the steep side: Grilled scallop and shrimp satays, with a green coconut curry sauce, were perfectly fine, until I saw the $18 price tag. That supermarket cheese assortment was not worth $15. And does a modest bowl of spiced nuts really merit $6.15?
As for dessert, I nearly yawned off the idea of yet another molten chocolate cake, but it's well executed. Ditto the luscious ginger-scented crème brûlée, a made-for-two portion that would be twice as good at half the size -- and half the $9 price.
The ambitious cocktail program takes a serious stab at both classics and newfangled concoctions. They're terrific, but, let's face it: at $12 a pop, they ought to be. Price-wise, they're on par with the big boys at Bradstreet Craftshouse, Marvel Bar and La Belle Vie, although the Six15 doesn't quite belong in mixology's upper eschelon; not yet, anyway. Kudos to the beer list, which highlights an admirable number of local and national craft brews.
Given the rest of the lobby's somewhat understated persona, the Six15's contemporary decor is a bit much, recalling those over-the-top showcase homes where a phalanx of interior designers unleash every tool in their arsenal. Most of the furniture emphasizes looks over comfort, and there are more annoying flat-screen TVs than a Best Buy showroom. But there are also the kinds of alcoves that nurture conversation over a cocktail and a nosh, always an asset.
Maybe it's me, but there's something that's awfully romantic and urbane about a discreet rendezvous in a hotel lobby. Or perhaps that's a sign that I've spent far too many hours on that blast-from-the-past website. Naw.