A pretty face on the park

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2010 - 9:36 AM

Familiar food, appealing atmosphere at Loring Kitchen & Bar.

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All vocations have their pitfalls. Here's one in my line of work: Jerks like yours truly tend to fall all over the innovative, even when those flashes end up landing squarely in the pan. So when yet another meat-and-potatoes joint appears on the scene, critics tend to yawn them off, forgetting -- or is that ignoring? -- that uncomplicated, all-American fare is what the vast majority of Minnesota's dining-out public seeks out on a regular basis. Lesson learned.

What sets the Loring Kitchen & Bar apart from its considerable pack of competitors are its good looks and its front-and-center address. Located on a prime ground-floor corner of a slick new apartment house on the eastern edge of Loring Park, the restaurant's urban and urbane surroundings (the work of Shea Inc. of Minneapolis) are several cuts above the cheap window dressings that are often associated with this dining genre.

It's a long, shallow, window-lined rectangle of a space, and each comfortable seat -- right down to the last stool at the bar -- seems oriented to maximize its park views. Not that we need another reason to hope for an early spring, but here's one anyway: The room is edged on two sides by a four-season portico that, in warmer weather, embraces the outdoors better than any other dining establishment in the city. Looks-wise, the restaurant reminds me of what I imagine a cafe at home furnishings retailer West Elm might resemble, and at night the soft lighting is more flattering than the "evening" setting in the changing rooms at J.Crew.

Yeah, it's a looker, and for a while that attribute manages to compensate for the fact that I could rattle off a list of dozens of Twin Cities restaurants serving similar food. Sliders? Check. Pizzas? Check. Iceberg wedge salad? Check. Not that there's anything wrong with that, to borrow from a "Seinfeld" rerun I caught the other day.

Variations with a twist

Despite the familiarity, chef Eric Strathy is cooking with integrity. He's putting out an awesome fried chicken: four big pieces sporting crispy, well-seasoned skin and juicy meat. More fried chicken -- plus a pert cole slaw -- finds its way on top of an offbeat but delicious pizza. The switched-up Caesar salad utilizes grilled romaine and its dressing replaces anchovies with crowd-pleasing smoked salmon. There's a perfectly satisfying grilled beef tenderloin that's priced right ($20) and that same cut, dressed with horseradish and sweetly caramelized onions, livens up a pair of sliders.

Those on the lookout for he-man portions should know that the LK could double as the commissary for the House of Large Sizes. What looks like an entire walleye is rolled in crackers and baked (not fried, a welcome touch), and a stuffed double-bone pork chop is the size of a brick. The burger is a half-pound monster, and side dishes, including fries three ways -- potato, sweet potato and zucchini -- are mountainous. Some dishes ought to be chucked altogether -- a misguided tuna ceviche and a dreary shrimp shepherd's pie, for starters -- while others, including overcooked pasta with overcooked clams and the too-salty soups, would blossom with some TLC. Desserts are passable but forgettable.

Naturally, my attention automatically turned to the "Temptations" menu, a winning but too-brief roster of seven small, affordably priced noshes that nudge the kitchen past its comfort-food comfort zone. Two or three can easily constitute a meal, and when they're good, they're terrific: a nicely seared scallop perched on round slices of gold and red beets, or meaty, melt-in-your-mouth baby back ribs glazed with a captivating sweet-hot sauce.

Others would profit by following the sage advice Coco Chanel once imparted to well-dressed women everywhere, something along the lines of editing out an accessory before leaving the house. For example, succulent, smoky trout is sandwiched between tasty little corn pancakes and topped with a dollop of sour cream. It's an ideal snack, until it's clumsily blanketed under a buzz-killing layer of melted Cheddar. Or robustly spicy meatloaf, sliced and stacked like kindling, is smothered by an unnecessary avalanche of fried onions.

Taste of morning

The weekend's breakfast-lunch service is just what the neighborhood ordered. Again, nothing's revolutionary -- the emphasis is on tried-and-true favorites, served in hangover-numbing portions -- but the kitchen earns points for incorporating a few original touches. One of the handful of gigantic scrambles makes use of that fabulous smoked trout, mixing it with brie and tons of green onions, a swell combination, and a decent maple-kissed house-made pork sausage is incorporated into several dishes, including a breakfast pizza finished with two fried eggs.

The corned beef hash, eggs Benedict and golden, plate-sized pancakes all do the trick, the flapjacks stacked high and dressed with berries and a flavorful Wisconsin-sourced maple syrup -- how refreshing to encounter a no-Mrs. Butterworth's zone. There's also a decent and affordable a la carte selection, and basics such as hash browns and thick-cut bacon are treated with respect.

Still, with each bite of a big, bland, beige Belgian waffle -- I've had better and I've had worse, a sentiment that sums up the Loring Kitchen's menu -- I began hoping for a little in-house a.m. baking. You know, muffins, coffeecakes, cinnamon rolls, anything that might distinguish it from the competitive brunch trade. It's kill-or-be-killed out there, and a pretty face only goes so far.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • LORING KITCHEN & BAR ★★

    Location: 1359 Willow St. S., Mpls., 612-843-0400, www.loringkitchen.com

    Hours: Dinner 4 p.m. to midnight daily (small plates menu from 10 p.m. to midnight), breakfast and lunch 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

    Atmosphere: Approachable big-city style, with unbeatable Loring Park views.

    Service: Highly hospitable.

    Sound level: Only an issue when full, and even then not an ear-buster.

    Recommended dishes: Fried chicken, tenderloin sliders, Caesar salad, grilled meatloaf, scallops, baby back ribs, smoked trout scramble and pancakes.

    Wine list: Boilerplate choices at moderate to medium prices. Full bar with showy cocktails and a value-priced happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 p.m. to close Monday through Thursday).

    Average prices: "Temptations," $7; starters and salads, $11; sandwiches and pizzas, $12; entrees, $18; breakfast entrees, $8.50.

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