A familiar face returns to Lowertown

David Fhima is the face back in the spotlight at Faces Mears Park. He's remade his LoTo, the five-year-old bar-cafe-deli that, well, faces scenic Mears Park.

Cher could learn a thing or two about comebacks from the resilient Fhima, a human Energizer Bunny whose name -- and face -- has been associated with so many restaurants that I wouldn't be surprised to find his résumé immortalized as a Trivial Pursuit question.

Reviving LoTo is a canny move. The airy, light-filled space always had pizazz, and it still does, thanks to a once-over by interior designer Billy Beson, who amusingly incorporates a few memorable fixtures plucked from the remnant pile of Fhima's failed Louis XIII. Fhima's menu feels designed to grab the attention of a wide swath of diners who either live in the neighborhood or are looking for a reason to drop into Lowertown.

Residents will appreciate the convenient grab-and-go cheeses, meats, olives and house-baked breads and desserts, as well as the small wine shop. The main menu's format isn't breaking any new ground, but it covers a lot of aim-to-please bases: sandwiches, salads, a few house-made whole-wheat pastas, a half-dozen pizzas, a handful of familiar beef-chicken-fish entrees, plus starters small (olives with baguette) and large (prawns baked in puff pastry). Desserts include a selection of house-made ice creams and sorbets.

The reasonable prices are a draw. With the exception of a filet mignon (from Thousand Hills Cattle Company's grass-fed beef) that clocks in at $29, and a simple pan-seared sea bass ($22), it's tough to find anything over $15, and half the menu items are under $10. Fhima is touting naturally and organically raised ingredients, although it's hard to know how pervasive that commitment is, and the medium-priced wine list places an emphasis on sustainable vineyard practices. Full bar, too.

After being on the receiving end of roughly eight "And how is everything?" queries in a half-hour period, even this attention glutton was ready to call it a night. But the Restaurant Critic Whose Identity Was Known to the Staff wasn't the only one getting the full-court press. Everyone seemed to be getting the same eager-to-please treatment. Nice job, Mr. Fhima.

380 Jackson St. (Cray Plaza), St. Paul, 651-209-7776, www.facesmearspark.com. Deli open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Dining room open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sun.-Wed. (bar open to 1 a.m.), 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thur.-Sat. (bar open to 2 a.m.).



Looking good in Bloomington

Am I the only grammatically challenged lunkhead who thinks of that cluster of glass-skinned office towers near I-494 and Hwy. 100 as The Place Where Kincaid's Is? Because as of last week, I'm wondering how many among us will now mentally connect Normandale Lake Office Park as the home of Parma 8200.

Despite its less-than-visible address -- it took me a few minutes to determine just exactly where to enter, which is via the 8200 building's main lobby -- this stylish D'Amico property will certainly give its neighboring steak-and-chop house some much-needed competition. It has the kind of urbane good looks enjoyed by disappointingly few suburban restaurants (a roomy patio, still under construction, has the potential for drawing plenty of summertime business trade), a small army of enthusiastic staffers and an Italian-inspired menu, prepared by chef Mike Dalton, a vet of the D'Amico-run Campiello.

On opening night, the watch-them-work antipasti bar wasn't putting on a show just yet, but it was still delivering a small but artfully rendered selection of cheeses, cured meats and condiments ($6.50 to $14). The salad to order is a plate of watermelon dressed with basil and goat cheese ($9), each cool bite serving as a welcome foil to the appetizer of hot, garlicky baked prawns ($13.50).

Eight pasta choices, in small ($10.50 to $13) and large ($16.50 to $17.50) include ricotta-stuffed ravioli and a rustic pork ragu over cavatelli, and entrees range from basic burgers and meatball sandwiches to pan-seared salmon and beef slowly braised in red wine ($14 to $26). Two particularly welcome touches: a pair of lower-calorie entree options, plus a daily dinner special ($18 to $24) that ranges from Monday's liver and onions to Sunday's beef ravioli.

Desserts include a panini-style ice cream sandwich, butterscotch panna cotta and ricotta-filled, chocolate-dipped cannoli. The wine list is heavily but not exclusively Italian, and the bar shakes up all manner of detail-oriented cocktails.

5600 W. 83rd St., Bloomington, 952-896-8888, www.parma8200.com. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mon.- Fri., dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sun.-Thur., 5 to 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Bar menu 2:30 to 5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m. to midnight Fri.-Sat.


Pizza and wine. And salad.

If Smashburger operated a pizza division, it might look and feel a lot like Sauce Pizza & Wine. The nascent Arizona-based chain just kicked open the doors of its first Minnesota franchise, and it has landed a prime location, across the street from the slick ShowPlace Icon cineplex at the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park.

The look is very urban loft-inspired, with tall ceilings, whitewashed brick walls (well, real-looking fake brick, anyway) and an old-new mix of tables and chairs. Customers order at the counter, help themselves to nonalcoholic beverages -- wines are served from a dispenser, too, although it's tucked behind the counter -- and food is delivered to the table by one of the perkiest crews in the local fast-casual industry.

Like Smashburger, the prices skew a few bucks higher than the fast-food norm (although they stay south of $10.50), but that differential is reflected in the food, which is clearly more thoughtful in its selection than at its Sbarro counterparts. The pizzas ($8.75 to $10.50) are built on crisp, lightly blistered, cracker-thin crusts and have both a build-your-own option -- the 20 ingredients include the usual suspects as well as chicken sausage, smoked mozzarella and sweet corn -- and 11 standards from which to choose. Is it like Punch, the local pizza gold standard? No, but the results are a cut above other mall purveyors.

Panini are made with hefty meatballs and red sauce or thick layers of deli-cut turkey and fontina cheese swiped with a colorful but curiously bland pesto. Desserts include standard- issue cheesecake and tiramisu. More to like: There's a $20 date-night deal that features a pizza, a share-able salad and two glasses of wine. It's reason enough to make a plan for a pre- or post-movie nosh.

Where the kitchen really excels is in the salad department, turning out a pretty array of tossed-to-order choices (one nit: they're perhaps too aggressively dressed), built with obviously fresh ingredients and served in generous portions. They really should call this place Sauce Pizza, Wine & Salads.

1610 West End Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-657-5020, www.mnsauce.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun.-Thur., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.


A whole lotta fun and energy

I've been dragging my 24-year-old son with me to restaurants lately (well, it hasn't been THAT hard to get him to join me for meal he doesn't have to prepare), and we landed at Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group shortly after it opened.

Perched on bar stools overlooking the cooks, we watched the controlled chaos that makes up this, and any, restaurant kitchen, and chatted with the friendly, very young servers.

"This is the first spot we've been to that's fun," my son noted.

Ah, yes. Fun. What too many restaurants forget to include. A few glances around me and it was apparent that he wasn't the only one having a good time, what with the buzz of laughter and hum of conversation filling the room. Nor was he the only twenty-something. Most diners, in fact, looked closer to his age than mine -- which may be the root of all that energy.

There were a few of us of a certain age smiling at the '60s touches (Howard Johnson neon-orange and turquoise color scheme, carpeted walls, Naugahyde-covered chairs, a wall of colorful school-lunch trays). "Hey, isn't that the ceiling tile we had in our basement?" my son asked about the tile squares encasing some booths. Well, yes, though ours were more tastefully done, I like to think.

On a hot summer night, the room and rooftop were packed (200 seats on the main level, another 200 up on the rooftop Sky Bar). Downstairs, the windows were flung open, the chatter from the room spilling onto the sidewalk, giving the place an open-air feel more like New York than Minneapolis, reminding everyone that this was the place to be, regardless of age.

The menu offers a little of everything, but mostly it's diner food, with the emphasis on familiar comfort fare and a dollop of silliness in how the food is presented (a school lunch tray, a takeout box, a pedestal covered dish). That means fried chicken and beef goulash, Monte Cristo sandwiches and mac-and-cheese. But there's also a tasty grilled shrimp pita sandwich and light-as-air walleye-and-sweet-corn fritters, as well as a flavorful hanger steak (in two sizes, though the large clearly was not sufficient for the Hungry Man on the stool next to me).

Each night offers a daily special -- think blue plate -- which includes a Thanksgiving dinner (Sunday) and Nankin Chicken Subgum Chow Mein (Monday).

Prices are a bit upward, ranging from $8.95 for a grilled cheese sandwich to $29.95 for Saturday's large-size prime rib dinner. Entrees average $12.95.

The big corner in the back of the room -- with no windows and limited view -- may seem like Siberia come midwinter. But today in the sun-lit, breezy weather, the whole place is simply fun, and we could all use a little of that these days.

3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-877-7263, www.uptowncafeteria.com). Open 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mon.-Thur.; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fri.; Sat.-Sun. breakfast, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; open until 2 a.m. Sat., 1 a.m. Sun. Happy hour 2-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-midnight Mon.-Thur.