Playing ball at Sapor

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2010 - 9:37 AM

The place to eat near Target Field? That's simple. It's the restaurant with the name that's Latin for flavor.

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Sapor co-owners Tanya Siebenaler, left, and Julie Steenerson are the formidable forces behind their 10-year-old North Loop restaurant.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Spend even a few minutes inside Target Field, and even the average fifth-grader could see that each sparkling inch of the place is designed to extract every last dollar of discretionary income from Twins ticket holders.

So where does that leave the neighborhood's restaurateurs, barkeeps and baristas, all salivating at the prospect of 39,000 out-on-the-town visitors landing in their laps 80 or so game days a year? If they've visited the ballpark, my guess would be nervous.

Then again, the Bull's-eye is so ingeniously plugged in to its downtown fabric that it's hard to imagine that crowds won't eventually spill out onto the sidewalks and explore their new surroundings. Which leads to the inevitable question, at least the kind fielded by people in my line of work: Where should we eat? Naturally, I have all kinds of suggestions, but I'll frame the dialogue this way: Where would I want to eat near Target Field?

It took a few seconds, but here's my answer: Sapor Cafe and Bar. Who knows for certain why this North Loop pioneer routinely falls off my dining-out radar. Is it the wallflower street presence? The who-knows-what-that-means name (it's Latin, for flavor)? The proximity to a bevy of attention-getting new neighbors (Black Sheep Pizza, Be'wiched Deli, Bar La Grassa) that have moved in up the street?

No matter, because 10-year-old Sapor now boasts an attribute few others have: an enviable four-block walk from the ballpark. No other nearby restaurant also features a talent like chef Tanya Siebenaler, or her inspired, continent-hopping cooking style.

The current menu borrows flavors and traditions from India, China, Morocco, Russia, Italy, Mexico and the American Southwest, a culinary polyglot that could come off as a discordant jumble or an exercise in spreading one's self too thin, but Siebenaler almost always makes it work, beautifully.

The daily fish special is a smart jumping-off point. A few weeks ago it was a transportingly delicious piece of halibut, seared in the pan so each bite was a perfect contrast between opposing forces; crispy and teasingly peppery on the outside, succulent and tender on the inside. The right-sized portion was served in a fragrant, saffron-kissed tomato broth brimming with white beans and kale, and it couldn't have been a better example of Siebenaler's approachable and sensitive cooking style. It was $13 at lunch, $24 at dinner, and a bargain either way.

I love how Siebenaler routinely fashions a lot out of a little. She turns plain-old Bibb lettuce into a birthday party, dressing it up in tons of herbs, lemon and hints of honey, and makes the combination of tart grapefruit and smoky salmon seem utterly natural -- inevitable, even. Her soups are gorgeous, whether she's turning potatoes and cream into something as supple as a piece of silk, or putting her reliably light touch on the often-ponderous combination of peas and ham.

Tasty choices

That sense of economy works its way through the too-brief menu. At dinner Siebenaler offers six entrees (half of them available in either full- or half-size portions, a thoughtful touch), a somewhat skimpy total, particularly when one or two are a little off. Her pastas, for example, can be a tad dull; but when they're right on, they're golden. Her fiery kung pao chicken is the last word on the subject, and her version of short ribs -- with their kicky Latin American accent -- is a dream.

Ditto the starters. Her kinder, gentler version of Navajo fry bread was far tastier than anything I've encountered, particularly when topped with slices of rare grilled lamb, black beans and a minty salsa.

Sports fans in search of a snack should drop the Dinger Dogs and dive into Sapor's short bar menu, which features a half-dozen well executed nibbles at inexpensive prices, including spicy chickpea croquettes with a bright feta-cucumber salad dressed in a parsley-flecked yogurt, tasty tube-shaped tacos filled with mashed potatoes and paired with a kicky tomatillo salsa, a hearty plate of fish and chips and a decent beef slider topped with tangy house-made pickles.

A careful eye

Team Sapor pays attention to oft-overlooked details. Coffee is served in warmed mugs that are substantial enough to retain their heat. Meals start with chewy sourdough rolls served with sweet whipped butter infused with parsley and basil. The check arrives with simple, cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles.

Speaking of checks, Sapor just might be the last restaurant in Minneapolis to accept personal checks. How Minnesota Nice is that? Desserts are fine but don't particularly stand out, with one notable exception: delicate, piping-hot churros, dusted with cinnamon and sugar and served with an irresistible hazelnut-chocolate sauce.

The spare warehouse setting is all beiges, coppers and chocolate browns, a muted backdrop that puts Siebenaler's colorful cooking front and center. When there's not much of a crowd, the dining room feels a tad cavernous. As long as I'm whining, what would it take to get Siebenaler to revive her fantastic Sunday brunch service?

Spend even five minutes chez Sapor and you'll discover that the setting's most valuable asset is the seemingly eternal presence of co-owner Julie Steenerson. She's forever in her restaurant, an Energizer Bunny of sheer ebullience greeting guests at the door, hanging coats, seating customers, running plates from the kitchen or drinks from the bar, filling water glasses and chatting up her guests, usually by name. She watches over her serene dining room with an eagle-eyed brand of hospitable warmth that's oddly rare for a business that's all about hospitality. That makes her a role model for restaurant owners everywhere.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • SAPOR CAFE AND BAR ★★★

    Location: 428 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-375-1971, www.saporcafe.com.

    Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

    Atmosphere: Loft-style minimalism, although maybe a little too stark. The cozy bar is a charmer.

    Service: Smooth and genuinely gracious.

    Sound level: Not an issue.

    Recommended dishes: Smoked salmon-grapefruit salad, soups, parsnip samosa, Kung Pao chicken, beef short ribs, daily fish special, churros.

    Wine list: Small, well-chosen, affordable. Quirky beer roster (don't miss Furthermore's red beet brew) and lovely hand-crafted seasonal cocktails.

    Price range: Starters $6 to $11, entrees $8 to $20 ($7 to $11 at lunch), desserts $7, bar snacks $3 to $8.50.

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