If r.Norman's were the first steakhouse to grace the mean streets of downtown Minneapolis, it would probably be a runaway sensation.
But because it has sprouted in the shadows of six or seven other well-established bovine shrines, it has some tough competition. Not that it doesn't rise to the challenge, because the ambitious operation has a lot going for it, starting with the address, the long-empty building that wraps around the Pantages Theatre. Owners David Koch and Randy Norman (they're the folks behind the nearby Bellanotte) deserve a big collective wet kiss from the city for brilliantly defibrillating a flat-lining Hennepin Avenue corner.
The joint looks good (the design is by Shea Inc. and the Koch Group of Minneapolis), and it feels good, too. Step in off the street and you're welcomed by a roomy bar slathered in buttery backlit onyx. Just beyond a two-story wine tower is the airy, angular dining room, all crisp whites and browns, noteworthy for its tall, scene-setting windows (unfortunately, they look out on the city's sorriest streetscape, the throwaway facades of Block E and City Center). And that's just on the first floor.
On a busy weekend night, it's hard not to follow the parades of glamizons as they flock upstairs to Seven Sushi and dive headlong into what has quickly evolved into a bona fide scene. It's a frothy mix of nigiri, sashimi, cocktails and flirting, set in a vast lounge punctuated by upholstered pillars illuminated by a pulsing array of pastel lights. It's the kind of room made for showing off a well-used gym membership or a well-padded bank account.
There's more: A rooftop lounge that appears to be the size of a smallish Target store. Once this weather changes, I imagine the two best words to describe this chunk of open-air real estate will be mob scene.
Like I said, plenty of valuable assets here. So why was it that every time I settled into that handsome dining room and perused the menu, the gently accented voice of "Project Runway" judge Nina Garcia would pop into my brain? It became my own personal YouTube download: Contestant Rami Kashoú is parading his umpteenth draped Grecian getup on the catwalk and yes, it's lovely to look at, it hangs like a dream, it's tailor-made for a Nicole-Kidman-on-the-red-carpet moment, blah, blah, blah. Yet Garcia sighs, brushes a manicured talon across her bangs and says, "Show me what else you can do."
Downtown Minneapolis lacks for many things, but another steakhouse ain't one of them. Koch & Co. have all the goods here: location, cash and an obvious knack at hospitality; couldn't they show us something we haven't seen a thousand times?
They have it in them because when the restaurant follows Garcia's advice and it tiptoes away from the wearisome steakhouse comfort zone, it scores. I love this novel idea: Kobe-style beef, sold in incremental 2-, 4- and 6-ounce portions (and charged accordingly, at $13 per ounce) and prepared with obvious skill. It's so tender that a knife slides rather than saws through it, and the meat's mellow tanginess hangs on your tastebuds like a beautiful pinot noir. Try finding that at Fogo de Chao.
Examine r.Norman's on its own steakhouse terms, and my assessment is that much of its lengthy menu is perfectly pleasant. Premium-quality beef is cut a half-dozen ways and nicely grilled; toss in a few extra bucks and select from 12 complementary sauces and flavored butters.
The most reliable seafood is the simplest, just flavorful slabs of salmon or sea bass seared on the grill, steamed whole lobsters, chilled crab legs. But when the kitchen attempts something more ambitious it can lose its footing, because for every winner (abundant shears of sesame-crusted tuna, jazzed with a punchy wasabi-ginger-soy sauce) there's a disappointing counterpart (overcooked scallops overwhelmed by a clumsy, out-of-season corn relish).
Starters include all the usual steakhouse suspects. Best are a prodigiously lumpy crab cake, wonderfully crispy onion rings, fresh $3-a-pop oysters and a trio of two-bite burgers made with that divine Kobe-style ground beef. I wasn't wildly impressed by the lifeless soups, the mushy crab-lobster ceviche, the flavorless shrimp cocktail. Salads are hit-and-miss. Love the lively riff on the Cobb and the decent steak-onion-blue cheese toss, but an iceberg wedge felt indifferent at best and the Caesar was a flat-out yawner.
In true steakhouse tradition, there are sides for days, and some show real imagination and finesse. Don't miss the tall cone of sweet potato fries (the thick mashed sweet spuds are also a treat), the haystacked hash browns, the marvelous coleslaw. Others are merely dutiful. But an $8 baked potato? Come on. Wait, I almost forgot: Charging a lot for a little is a time-honored steakhouse tradition.
Desserts are largely forgettable, with one exception: a showy if bland bananas Foster, prepared tableside with a vaudevillian flourish. I suggest you order one of the bar's well-composed after-dinner drinks instead. Lunch shrinks the dinner menu by half but adds a long list of sports bar-like sandwiches and burgers.
Upstairs at Seven Sushi, the drill is pretty much the same. The genial staff slicing and wrapping away behind the sushi bar is perfectly competent, turning out perfectly competent fare at slightly higher-than-competitive prices. No surprises, no disappointments. You go for the on-the-prowl room (and the great late-night hours), and, oh, while you're there, you order a few dynamite rolls and you sample a sake or two.
Sure, OK. Nothing wrong with that. It's fine. I just wish my Minnesota nasal twang would evaporate, and Ms. Garcia's pearly purr would take its place, when I say this to the r.Norman's gang: Guys, we know you're talented. Now would you please show us something else?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757