“This food tastes like nothing,” said my friend. I had to agree.
With that, he pushed aside his tacos, each one filled to the brim with chunks of fetchingly pink but utterly flavorless tuna and a dreary cabbage slaw possessing a depressingly singular sensory attribute: crunchy.
We were at Ling & Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill — it’s a small chain from the same company behind Rojo Mexican Grill — and the dish was an edible metaphor for the restaurant itself: great to look at (more on that in a moment) but ultimately skin-deep.
The expansive menu has a something-for-everyone vibe, and as is often the case, what happens is that by hoping to please everyone, it ends up pleasing no one. OK, that’s a little harsh. But the kitchen seems to be inundated in one lost opportunity after another.
There are about a dozen wok dishes, and the six I sampled all suffered from Too Much syndrome: too much salt, or too much sugar; sometimes, oddly enough, it manages to be both, with dishes drowning in the same handful of indifferent, interchangeable, straight-out-of-a-bottle sauces. And the outcome could easily be so much better, given a modicum of effort.
Here’s just one disheartening example: kung pao chicken. “Bland” is not a word that should ever come within a mile of this traditionally spicy dish. It’s as if the kitchen fully embraces the cliché of the heat-averse Minnesota palate, ignoring the tantalizing hot-sour sizzle that is kung pao’s signature. Instead, a dried chile appeared to be used as a garnish, rather than as an essential flavor-building component. Where’s the bite?
Other efforts would surely blossom under a bit of discipline. A rote and indifferently prepared selection of sushi, sashimi and nigiri could benefit from a little love and a wider worldview; there’s more to the sea than tuna, salmon and crab.
Stale spring rolls were vermicelli noodles and little else. How’s about more shrimp and herbs? A heaping platter of pad thai lacked even trace elements of the pungent fish sauce that is a foundational element of this evergreen dish.
I was thinking larb — that wonderfully fiesty Thai salad — when the chicken lettuce wraps arrived, but it turned out to be rubbery chicken flecked with wilted Thai basil and drowning in a syrupy sauce of indeterminate nature.
Potstickers, steamed (limpid) and pan-fried (greasy), were probably delicious when they should have left the stove; unfortunately, they stayed beyond their due date. Such clueless cooking is not unexpected at a food court. But at a busy, beautiful restaurant on Minnesota’s Main Street?
Comfort food twist
It’s strictly hit or miss with a handful of hedge-betting, all-American crowd pleasers; welcome to the latter side of the L&L equation, a fictitious tale of love and cooking between a Shanghai gal named Ling and her Toledo galoot named Louie. Seriously. In the spirit of theme restaurants, all of these dishes unnecessarily include trace elements of a token Asian ingredient or two. Not that you’d notice.
Sliced beef sliders, loaded with blue cheese crumbles and bacon and drizzled with a garlic-ginger-soy sauce, were perfectly fine bar fare. Ditto the crispy fried calamari. And treating salt-flecked edamame like a healthier version of a bowl of peanuts — and washing it down with a Fulton Lonely Blonde ale — was a more-than-fine approach to happy hour.
“Asian nachos,” with paper-thin fried wontons subbing for corny, salty nachos (and a sugary barbecue sauce infused with the faintest trace of hoisin), probably sounded amusing in a brainstorming session, but the novelty wears thin, fast.
Truth to tell, I couldn’t detect any wasabi in the mashed potatoes served with a lifeless meatloaf and limp green beans. A hefty slab of sea bass, gleaming with miso, possessed all the delicacy and nuance of a steamroller.
Not all is lost. I’d happily return for the plump, juicy skewered chicken, served with a rich, well-seasoned peanut sauce. Tuna, seared but still coolly sumptuous, paired nicely with a tangy mustard. Although overdressed, a salad of greens topped with grilled, sesame-glazed salmon makes for a more-than-acceptable lunch; ditto a predictable cabbage-chicken salad.
As for the three desserts, exercise caution. Best, and that’s a relative term, is a spring roll — hey, it’s Asian! — that’s filled with a gluey banana cheesecake, deep-fried and dusted in prodigious amounts of sugared cinnamon.
Service and setting
The restaurant has several not-so-secret weapons in its arsenal. The he-man portions, coupled with reasonable prices, certainly suggest value.
Someone has done their hiring and training well, because the dining room and bar are blessed with a friendly, accommodating, fast-on-its-feet service staff, one that’s particularly adept at moving noon-hour diners in and out quickly, without making anyone feel rushed. That’s a skill that other downtown restaurants could emulate. The greeting at the door is warm and welcoming, and if there’s a water glass that has dipped below half-full, someone materializes with a pitcher, fast.
Finally, Ling & Louie’s is a visual knockout, a wide-open, double-height space gracefully anchored by dramatic, beehive-shaped paper chandeliers. Remove the scene-setting Buddha likenesses and the swank backlit bar, and the industrial-loft space could easily be flipped into a hip CB2 store. Kudos also to the slick rooftop patio, now in hibernation.
Designed by Cuningham Group, the Minneapolis architectural firm, the well-detailed setting is also noteworthy for its conversation-friendly acoustics. Too bad the same consideration wasn’t applied to the kitchen’s ventilation system. Even after the briefest of lunches, my clothing gave my dry cleaner the impression that I’d just pulled a double shift at Panda Express.
Impressive as it is, the restaurant’s alluring setting is a bit of a bait-and-switch. How could such promising surroundings deliver such mediocre food? Maybe the answer is filed in the business plan under N, for “No one will notice.”
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