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It was probably the best meal I'd ever had at the Mall of America. Granted, that bar isn't exactly stratospheric, although the Bloomington behemoth has recently been making encouraging baby steps in the food-and-drink realm.
But back to that dinner. First up was a flyover-country variation on the crab cake, where poached walleye was fortified with wild rice and pops of lemon and deftly pan-fried until its delicately crispy exterior yielded to a tender interior.
From there it was on to mouth-melting, barely pink shears of pork tenderloin, laid out over oven-browned roasted potatoes, mustard greens sautéed with a nudge of hot peppers and a shallow pool of a vinegar-kissed reduction that subtly reiterated the meat's barnyard roots.
Dessert was a declaration of autumn's arrival in the form of delicate profiteroles, split and filled with vanilla ice cream, lavished with a thick, buttery caramel sauce and finished with hints of apple and cinnamon.
Terrific, right? Somewhere, a switch had obviously flipped, because my last visit to the Napa Valley Grille, in late 2011, could only charitably be described as a disappointment. In the interim, chef Keven Kvalsten has stepped into the kitchen.
If his name rings a bell, it's because of the favorable impressions that he has been making for the past decade at such diverse venues as Corner Table in Minneapolis, the former Green Room in Waconia and the Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul.
Three cheers to his corporate bosses at San Francisco-based Tavistock Restaurants USA -- which operates 16 concepts in nearly 100 locations nationwide -- for making the hire. It's pretty safe to say that the mall's dining prospects would vastly improve if practitioners like Kvalsten were regularly recruited to cook within its vastness.
His most appealing dishes are models of restraint, a trait not frequently associated with 4.2 million square feet of consumerism.
A tasteful delight
The word cornucopia comes to mind when Kvalsten fills half an acorn squash with fork-tender cubes of short ribs, slowly braised in red wine, veal stock and bacon to unlock the beef's full flavor potential. For those on the lookout for a cool-weather dish, this is it.
Leg of lamb -- such a finicky cut, texture-wise -- becomes supple and wonderfully flavorful under nothing more than an expertly executed high-heat sear on the stove. Scallops, seared to an alluring dark copper, are brought to their best advantage with bits of smoky bacon and a rich brown butter sauce.
Another don't-miss dish: the artfully composed Caesar, where smoked trout mellows the anchovy's bite. Other salads stand out for their calendar-appropriate ingredients and carefully crafted embellishments.
Kvalsten has a knack for turning out big, full-bodied soups. A snack platter -- the contents change often, but included smoked fish, duck liver mousse, sausages and house-made condiments -- does the trick.
There's also a short list of grilled basics (a slab of crispy skinned salmon, a juicy, boldly flavored New York strip steak) where little is done beyond nurturing them to full flower on the kitchen's well-seasoned grill.
Ups and downs
Lunch is anchored by a half-dozen smartly executed sandwiches. Grilled slices of an eye-catching marbled rye (the best of the breads imported from Franklin Street Bakery) are alluringly stuffed with thin slices of juicy roast turkey, bacon and a sharp tomato chutney. Plain-old egg salad is cleverly jazzed with dill and pungent smoked paprika.
Then there's the top-notch burger, a doozy of a thing composed of lean, freshly ground scraps of tenderloin, short ribs and New York strip and grilled to perfection and crowned with sharp, barely melted aged Cheddar. If getting a crack at it mandated a knock-down, drag-out for the mall's last parking spot, I would do it. In a heartbeat.
There are misfires. Sometimes the problem is technical, as in an indifferently executed risotto, pasty gnocchi or Brussels sprouts that could have used more time in the roasting pan. Dishes along the lines of dull, heavily breaded deep-fried calamari or a gloppy spinach-artichoke dip don't really fit within the restaurant's nominal Northern California light-and-rustic framework. The bread basket is a bit of a snoozer, and with the exception of those profiteroles, dessert isn't the kitchen's strong suit.
But Kvalsten's greatest challenge is finding a way to effectively cater to the mall's disparate demographics. One strategy that appears to have some merit: He has been judiciously paring the unwieldy and occasionally generic menu, and so far, so good. Sometimes less is truly more.
The restaurant is pushing 20 -- that's roughly a century in restaurant years -- and the dated dining room, a dark-wood-and-marble holdover from a short-lived steakhouse, is clearly showing its age.
Anyone wishing to time-travel back to 1992 should book a table at the Napa Valley Grille, which doubles as a scratch-and-dent sale come to life. The signs of neglect are everywhere: worn carpets, roughed-up woodwork, rickety chairs, dust-covered tchotchkes and dinnerware so battered that it's surprising that anyone has the poor judgment to use them on a $29 entree.
The good news is that the attentive and well-schooled service staff often rises above the warmed-over surroundings in which they work.
Another mark of general manager Kelle Korbel's know-how is the dynamic, wisely chosen wine list, where a French champagne is the one deviation from an otherwise all-California roster. It's customer-friendly, too; roughly two-thirds of the 90 selections on the primary list are offered by the glass, and seven three-pour flights tap into many of the lineup's more compelling labels.
Picture this: a perch at the mahogany-topped bar, grazing through Kvalsten's appealing cheese selection and sipping a bright unoaked chardonnay or a vibrant zinfandel. Yeah, things are definitely looking up at the mall.