The design of the newly opened Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group in Calhoun Square is as eclectic as its menu. It's a tripartite establishment: the "Cafeteria" is the restaurant proper, "Support Group" refers to the bar and the rooftop patio is called the "Sky Bar." Its decor includes retro carpeted wall panels, off-salmon-colored tabletops, Modernist plastic lounge furniture and clean, corporate lighting.
With its "cafeteria" theme, the Parasole Restaurant Holdings empire absolves its newest hot spot of the obligation of coherency, letting that burden fall on the shoulders of patrons. Consequently, its extensive menu traverses time and space in a quest to satisfy the vagaries of the Everyman's gut instinct. Kansas City bao buns share menu space with seared ahi tuna, sliders, Chinese shrimp fried rice and hot Italian beef sandwiches. Tables are overloaded with "just in case" condiments, including Mrs. Butterworth, Sriracha hot sauce, green chili salsa and La Choy soy sauce.
We ordered cocktails and items from the happy hour menu, which seems to be available for approximately 55 hours a week. The happy hour food items consist of a well seasoned mini bacon burger; a tepid, overly garlic-salted fried egg sandwich; and Disco Fries (all $3). As it turns out, "disco" isn't just a genre of dance music -- it's also a mixture of gravy and melted cream cheese! The fries were both addictive and a source of shame for the members of our dining party, who couldn't help but sneak reluctant bites until the plate was taken away. As one of us commented, "It's like 1975 in my mouth." Regarding the other two items, a neighboring diner put it best: "Well, it's cheap."
We surrendered to the restaurant's vision and ordered a diverse spread, starting with the bao buns ($7) and the walleye and sweet corn fritters ($9). The fritters were bland and mushy in the middle, though the presentation was devastatingly cute. (Or maybe I just have a soft spot for tiny metal buckets.) On the other end, the meat in the buns, Kansas City-style pulled barbecue beef, was really well-sauced. If the Cafeteria tweaks the dough to make it sweeter and less clunky, the dish could be a great one. The accompanying garnish, a light napa cabbage slaw, was so good that we wished it had more prominence in the dish.
The Big Hippie Salad ($13) was lightly dressed with a hemp seed vinaigrette and featured romaine lettuce, blanched asparagus, roasted beets, quinoa, red and green peppers, a heap of alfalfa sprouts, red onion, cucumber and avocado. It's a great infusion of vegetation in a mostly meat-and-potatoes menu, but its missteps included undercooked quinoa, nearly raw beets and an undersized serving bowl, which made eating the salad rather complicated.
Our server worked gallantly, weathering our hail of questions and requests well. The awesomely friendly bussers are also a bright spot.
What can one make of this restaurant, this Cafeteria that's not actually a cafeteria? Its design is defiantly postmodern, and it operates without a definite center. Many menu items seem to be poor photocopies of foods that lurk at the corners of the average 20- or 30-something Minnesotan's frame of reference: "ethnic" takeout, Kobe beef, sugary cereal, Nordic classics. Reading the cocktail menu is like wading through a thick pop culture miasma.
Though the Cafeteria's philosophy of simply serving everything "delicious" seems straightforward, it seems as though the restaurant was experiencing a lot of difficulty with that one criterion. Without good food to back it up, the Uptown Cafeteria is just Applebee's with a crasser sense of humor.
The Heavy Table team writes about food and drink in the Upper Midwest five days a week at www.heavytable.com.