From the vantage point of my table at Lela, I couldn’t help but appreciate how much the Twin Cities area dining scene has improved over the past decade.

Had it opened in 2005, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the restaurant occupying an upper-echelon berth on the city’s food chain. Today? It’s one of many well-managed dining destinations, a scenario that benefits consumers but isn’t exactly ideal for restaurateurs duking it out in a crowded, highly competitive field.

The restaurant is located in the Bloomington Sheraton Hotel. If that sounds unfamiliar, it’s the recently renamed property at the northwest corner of Hwy. 100 and I-494 that will probably be forever known — to any local over the age of 20, anyway — as the Hotel Sofitel.

Co-owners Warren Beck and Paul Wischermann insist that Lela isn’t a hotel restaurant, and in many respects, they’re right. No breakfast, for starters, although there’s a modest Sunday brunch. While the restaurant is easily accessible to the Sheraton’s guests, Lela does its best to forge its own identity, de-emphasizing its connection to the hotel’s lobby and welcoming diners through a separate front door.

They’re also setting the restaurant apart with a menu that is frequently and refreshingly un-hotel-like. At least on the mid-level Sheraton/Marriott/Hyatt circuit.

Impressive crudo and steak

Starting with crudo. Those trendy raw seafood dishes are the kitchen’s most admirable efforts, presented as contrasting and complementary sensory experiences. Color, texture and flavor are all skillfully considered, and, given the craftsmanship, the midteen prices are reasonable.

Firm, fatty opah blossomed against tart lemon and crunchy, paper-thin parsnip chips. Velvety, ruby red yellowfin tuna’s suppleness was artfully accentuated with signature Japanese flavors.

It’s easy to love the shimmery scallops, finished with a can’t-miss Mediterranean combination of orange and black olives. And acidic grapefruit — and nutty toasted pine nuts — played well against pristine striped marlin. Chef Oscar La Fuente, working in his official capacity as Wischermann Partners corporate chef, should continue to explore what is clearly a strong skill set.

Steaks are also a smart bet. At dinner, a half-dozen choices start at a more-than-manageable 6-ounce petit filet and zoom up to two monsters: a 36-ounce rib-eye and a 40-ounce porterhouse. At lunch, the heftiest size belongs to a 16-ounce strip loin.

Whatever the cut, the kitchen works the grill with a diamond cutter’s precision, imbuing the premium beef with a just-right caramelized crust. A quartet of specialty salts that materialize at the table aren’t just for show — they further accentuate the steaks’ bold flavor.

Along with embracing the genre’s eye-popping prices, the steakhouse vibe continues with a handful of appropriate, well-rendered side dishes, including creamed spinach, steamed asparagus and crispy, thick-cut fried potatoes.

Hits and misses

The weak link is the half-dozen pastas. They’re prepared in-house, an admirable commitment. Unfortunately, they’re frequently overcooked and are either choked in too-rich cream sauces or limp along in weak, flavorless broths.

Looks vary, too; sometimes they’re pretty, as is the case of penne-like garganelli that’s tossed with a rustic slow-braised wild boar and colorful radicchio. Or, in the case of clumsily stuffed agnolotti, they’re ugly ducklings.

As for the rest of the menu, it doesn’t stray too far from the something-for-everyone emphasis that makes so many hotel restaurants interchangeable with one another. The covers-the-bases assortment can feel a little calculated, the result of focus group feedback rather than a chef’s passion, curiosity or whimsy.

Order right, and you’ll hit the menu jackpot. Ripe, late-season heirloom tomatoes of all colors and shapes adorned a plate with ultra-creamy burrata — a fail-proof combination — cleverly finished with toasted oats and other offbeat, granola-like flourishes. Early autumn has never tasted — or looked — better.

Eye-catching deviled eggs boasted a luxurious lobster bite. Grilled halibut, so firm and juicy, was balanced against pungent green olives and gently mellow fennel. I loved discovering the textural similarities between seared scallops and roasted and puréed cauliflower.

As for dessert, stick with a moist, golden olive oil cake, finished with tangy, maximum-contrast pineapple. It’s uncomplicated, and lovely.

Disappointment is possible, too. A crabcake was fried into near oblivion, the stove pulverizing any succulent sweetness from the scant meat. The less said about a heavy-handed onion-parsnip bisque, the better.

A plentiful portion of chicken looked great, but the meat was overpoweringly salty. Ditto a pretty and delightfully tart lemon tart, marred by a soggy, over-refrigerated crust.

Sometimes the kitchen needs to assert itself. A Caesar-esque salad was crying out for the punch of garlic and pepper, and a veal-pork meatball, big enough to share, was dry and curiously flavorless. A basket is filled with three house-baked breads, but the loaves all come across as cut from the same generically spongy cloth.

A winning design

One of the restaurant’s primary assets is its good looks. In eliminating all traces of the former Sofitel’s restaurants and starting from scratch, ESG Architects of Minneapolis has performed the design equivalent of a ritualistic sage burning.

The wide-open kitchen — flanked by the requisite counter, home of my favorite seats in the house — gives diners a fascinating glimpse into the action. The adjacent bar, with its ingenious partitions fashioned from stacked wine glasses, clearly emphasizes comfort without forgoing style. Another plus: conversation-friendly acoustics.

As for the roomy, uncrowded dining room, it’s done up in tasteful shades of taupe, gray, copper and cream and is notable for its swaths of gleaming tiles, a near-acre of warm, rough-hewed wood floors and handsome contemporary furniture. It’s like dining inside a Room & Board catalog. Nothing wrong with that.

The setting’s best moments are at lunch, when serotonin-boosting natural light floods in through wide stretches of enormous windows (too bad they overlook a parking lot, and a freeway). Although the selection isn’t as extensive as at dinner, the menu’s three leading categories are all represented (more crudo, please), supplemented by a half-dozen well-constructed sandwiches and a few decent if familiar salads.

During my last visit, I compiled an informal database. It appeared as if at least half of my fellow diners were conducting business over lunch.

Smart of them, especially the tables enjoying that beautiful yellowfin tuna. If I worked in the neighborhood, Lela is exactly where I’d choose to close a deal, too.

 

Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib