T here's no more spectacular display of Art Deco than the interior of Forum, the latest incarnation of the downtown Minneapolis landmark once called the Forum Cafeteria.

To say that they really don't build them like this anymore is an understatement. Where else but this mirrored time capsule can diners get an immediate and visceral sense of how 1930 looked and felt? (One hint: For the Depression, it was anything but depressing.)

Imagine walking into Cosmos (the restaurant in the Graves 601 Hotel) in the year 2080, and its dazzling, contemporary-to-our-eyes setting had remained relatively unchanged during the intervening decades. It would be a happy shock, right? That's how Forum feels. Every time I visit, I fully expect a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance number to unfold in front of me. Disneyland, shmizneyland; for me, this glorious room is the Happiest Place on Earth.

Fortunately, co-owner Jim Ringo doesn't treat the Harlow-era beauty like a hushed museum. He understandably fell in love with the place at first sight and was just handed a much-deserved award from the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission for reviving the long-empty space (its previous tenant, Goodfellow's, unplugged the chandeliers in 2005).

After all, the restaurant spent its first 44 years as the McDonald's of its time, a low-budget cafeteria that served inexpensive ham loaf, lime gelatin and prune chiffon pie to thousands of downtowners on a daily basis.

Ringo and his spouse, Stefanie, have admirably gone to great lengths to spiff up the joint, starting on the outside, where a stylish sidewalk cafe does wonders softening the grim pedestrian gauntlet of 7th Street.

It's funny, but City Center's relentless banality -- it's the architectural equivalent of the halitosis-stricken bore who corners party guests and drones on and on -- perversely works in the room's favor. The contrast between the complex's Soviet-bloc exterior and Forum's giddy interior is as gleefully startling as the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when Judy Garland's black-and-white world bursts into Technicolor.

A balancing act

For chefs, Forum presents a formidable challenge. Its green-and-silver beauty is inspiring, yes, but the potential for being overshadowed is huge. Chef Christian Ticarro, formerly of the Canyon Grille in Coon Rapids, clearly can cook, and there's plenty to enjoy and admire in his work.

I loved his halibut-scallops ceviche, which jumped from cool to fiery and back again in five seconds flat. The hearty chicken-wild rice soup hits all the right flavor and texture notes. It's impossible not to greedily eat every bite of an exceptional thick-cut pork chop, each bite boasting a sizzling, crisply charred crust and nuanced layers of apple flavor notes.

I'm not sure if there's a more seductive plate of short ribs in the city right now, and there's a deliriously good burger that gets its considerable oomph from house-ground steak, pepper-tipped bacon and a formidable onion bun. Salads, fresh and vibrantly flavored, taste as good as they look. Oh, and chili aficionados should weigh in on Ticarro's take on Cincinnati's trademark dish; I loved it for its teasing cinnamon-allspice tones and takes-no-prisoners hot pepper sauce. Portions throughout are more than generous.

No sense of identity

Still, after eating my way across several iterations of his menus, I'm not gleaning a strong sense of who Ticarro is as a chef. The pleasantly generic and seasonally indifferent offerings could have been lifted from the dining room of a well-managed hotel. Aside from the many labor-intensive cocktails, and the occasional tidbit (walleye strips, deep-fried State Fair-style and served on a stick), where is the sense of fun? If Forum's irrepressible Jazz Age setting screams anything, it's "Let's have a good time." Right now, Ticarro is delivering a "Let's have a Minnesota Nice" time. There's a difference.

It doesn't help that Forum is borrowing the monthly "destination" menu format from Ringo, the recently opened St. Louis Park restaurant, also by the Ringo duo. At Forum, the focus is on a different American regional cuisine, and Ticarro started with a tribute to New Orleans. Approximating that city's distinct cuisine has never really worked in the staid Midwest, but this menu, despite shrinking as the weeks passed, did feature respectable versions of crawfish étouffée and chicken-andouille sausage gumbo; best was a creamy, cayenne-fueled shrimp-peppers concoction liberally spooned over springy corn bread that's now a fixture on the main menu.

Aside from tostadas filled with tender, slow-braised goat and a hefty platter of shrimp tacos, June's ode to Santa Fe is notable for its fatty-yet-gristly steak, bluntly coated in pepper and borderline inedible. (Both a rib-eye and a bone-in strip steak on the standard menu also disappointed, but not to the same what-a-waste-of-money degree.) Skipping the distractions of the "destination" routine and focusing the kitchen's resources on a single menu might do a world of good.

Another complaint: The not-so-proletariat prices, particularly at lunch. Here's just one example: A chicken salad -- a lovely one, tossed with tangy goat cheese and marvelously smoky bacon -- was going for a silly $19 (it's now $14, a smart tweak). With the exception of a so-so crème brûlée, the less said about the unremarkable and overpriced desserts, the better.

All in the details

Service is problematic. For every smooth operator, I also encountered staffers who would benefit from a training refresher course. It also made me wonder: Are these kinds of glitches the byproduct of first-time restaurateurs launching two major dining venues within 10 days of each other?

Instead of recounting some rather egregious examples of How Not to Run a Restaurant 101, I'll ask this question: Why, in a nearly empty dining room, would a host seat guests at a mostly view-less table in the rear, when, hello, isn't everyone in the restaurant there for a big-old side dish of Art Deco? This happened to me, twice.

The Ringos pulled the plug on weekend brunch after less than two months, but don't tell me that Forum is jinxed. "Even Goodfellow's failed there," said a friend of mine, which elicited a major eye roll from yours truly. Come on: Goodfellow's enjoyed a nine-year-run at the Forum, two years longer than its stint in its original Conservatory home. That's hardly a flop. I'm also not buying the iffy address argument, when one of the city's top-grossing restaurants, Fogo de Chao, is about 50 feet past Forum's front door.

Forum has the looks, in spades, and the kitchen and service staff are delivering some of the goods. Here's hoping that with some fine tuning, the restaurant will become, as a friend of mine is fond of saying about potential date material, "the total package." The priceless setting deserves nothing less.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757