If it were located anywhere else, the awkwardly named Cedar + Stone, Urban Table would barely register beyond its status as a slick, gets-the-job-done hotel restaurant.
But context is everything, right? Given the nearby competition (or lack thereof), this well-managed newcomer — it’s a key element in the sparkling new 15-story JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America — is practically Michelin star-worthy.
Marriott wisely tapped an 18-year company vet to run the place. He’s chef Everton Clarke, and he cooked in Marriott properties ranging from San Francisco to Dubai before landing in Minnesota.
When the thermometer plunged into subzero territory a few weeks back, Clarke admitted to a brief what-did-I-sign-up-for? moment. Not that he’s spending a lot of time outdoors, thanks to his 14-hour workday.
His effort shows. No one will ever mistake the restaurant as an epicenter of the farm-to-table movement, but Clarke and sous chef Laura Bartholomew tap into locally raised produce and dairy products to a degree that’s (sadly, in this day and age) above and beyond the norm for such a top-down corporate bureaucracy.
The payoff is most evident in the salads, each an essay in uncomplicated vitality. Don’t miss the colorful medley of roasted beets complemented by tangy, hazelnut-crusted goat cheese, or the way wrinkled kale is paired with tart apples and crunchy Marcona almonds and splashed with a refreshing lemon vinaigrette.
There are several vegetable-forward snacks: crisp-edged Brussels sprouts; heirloom carrots roasted to candy-like sweetness, and broccolini, its woodiness tempered over a smoky grill and accented by chunks of sweet roasted butternut squash. Lovely.
Snowy white halibut is about as exotic as this menu gets, and it’s a winner, the flesh so moist and succulent, the skin so crisply, expertly caramelized. Salmon was roasted to velvety perfection. The purity of sweet, juicy scallops, seared to a golden brown, juxtaposed nicely against the brazen fattiness of crackled pork belly.
Short ribs, lovingly braised overnight in veal stock, were mouth-meltingly tender, such ideal cold-weather fare. Hanger steak, glazed in garlic-infused butter, was a fork-tender delight, and served with a pile of snappy, herb-coated fries.
For all the obvious skill on parade, some key details were frequently, frustratingly overlooked. Those glorious short ribs were resting on gluey white grits; the scallops were laid out over mushy lentils, and the overcooked nature of herb-crusted chicken was accentuated by flabby white beans. Only those fries truly impressed, along with the halibut’s sublime carrot purée.
For casual diners, the Taleggio-stuffed burger is a noble (if nakedly pandering) attempt at embracing the local Jucy Lucy franchise.
The pizzas’ doughy, underbaked crusts would have landed with a thud were it not for the lure of the creative toppings. No pastas, but carb-cravers can dive into a half-dozen imaginative, sure-handed sandwiches.
Mall walkers, a new breakfast destination awaits. One caveat: Since very little dips under the $12 barrier, don’t take a table at Cedar + Stone expecting to encounter Grand Slam/Tremendous Twelve-level bargains.
Instead, there’s an omelet filled with quinoa and kale, crisp Belgian-style waffles with all the right trimmings, straight-up buttermilk pancakes, a well-composed croque madame and a basic selection of juices and smoothies.
French toast gets a decadent, bread pudding-like treatment. The usual granola-and-yogurt parfait is upended by layers of a bracing grapefruit curd. The one paean to local tradition, a hearty walleye hash, was distressingly fishy tasting. Was no one monitoring the sell-by date?
Mooney’s desserts also shine. He layers a springy hazelnut sponge cake with a compare/contrast combination of buttery, delicately crispy crumbs and an indulgent white chocolate cream, a winning outcome. He also demonstrates a considerable crème brûlée skill set, infusing each luscious spoonful with a dark chocolate shimmer.
And he produces sturdy, teasingly yeasty dinner rolls, along with a first-rate Cheddar- and peppers-enriched skillet cornbread. Their off-putting price tags — $7 and $9, respectively — make me wonder if the gratis bread basket is going the way of the rotary-dial telephone. They’re certainly indicative of the restaurant’s tendency to nudge prices northward.
Done up in taupes and browns, the airy space (designed, like the hotel, by the Minneapolis office of the DLR Group and Denver-based Design Force) is generically good-looking; if it were in show business, it would be cast in a daytime soap opera.
Culinary on North
This being the megamall, the handful of usual-suspects tenants don’t line up with the name’s lofty expectations, or do justice to the coolly dramatic setting (it’s all gleaming white surfaces, contemporary furnishings and sunlight), with such food court dullards as A&W, Panda Express, Qdoba and Burger King. Why bother?
Fortunately, there’s promise sprinkled among several recent arrivals. Sure, Meatball Spot was a disappointment (the namesake dish was dry and alarmingly flavor-free).
But the first-rate Melt Shop was another matter entirely. The New York City-based chain approaches variations on gooey, buttery grilled cheese sandwiches with the laserlike focus of a superpowered food truck. Reasonable prices, too. The tomato soup? Terrific. The milkshakes and Tater Tots? Textbook. Well done, MoA leasing department.
Another proto-chain with positive buzz, Piada Italian Street Food, is scheduled to open Feb. 26, and a Naf Naf Grill outpost is on its way.
The big news is the we-can’t-wait summer debut of the universally adored Shack Shake.
Things are looking up, indeed.
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