There'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. Where else but this mirrored time capsule can diners get a visceral sense of how 1930 looked and felt?
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 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, and there's a deliriously good burger that gets its oomph from house-ground steak, pepper-tipped bacon and a formidable onion bun. Salads taste as good as they look. Chili aficionados should weigh in on Ticarro's take on Cincinnati's trademark dish; I loved it for its cinnamon-allspice tones and hot pepper sauce. Portions are more than generous.
Still, after several iterations of his menus, I'm not gleaning a strong sense of who Ticarro is as a chef. Aside from the many labor-intensive cocktails, where is the sense of fun? Forum's irrepressible Jazz Age setting screams "Let's have a good time." Right now, Ticarro is delivering a "Let's have a Minnesota Nice" time.
It doesn't help that Forum is borrowing the monthly "destination" menu format from Ringo, the recently opened St. Louis Park restaurant, also by Forum co-owners Jim and Stefanie Ringo. At Forum, the focus is on a different American regional cuisine, and Ticarro started with a tribute to New Orleans. This menu did feature respectable versions of crawfish étouffée and chicken-andouille sausage gumbo; best was a creamy, cayenne-fueled shrimp-peppers concoction 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. Skipping the distractions of the "destination" routine and focusing resources on a single menu might do a world of good.
Another complaint: the not-so-proletariat prices, particularly at lunch. 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). With the exception of a so-so crème brûlée, the less said about the unremarkable and overpriced desserts, the better.
Service is problematic. For every smooth operator, I also encountered staffers who would benefit from a training refresher course. And 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.
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 the total package. The priceless setting deserves nothing less.