When Hemisphere Restaurant Partners shuttered their Via Cafe & Bar and quickly rebooted the Southdale-area restaurant into the more downscale Tavern on France, was it because consumers confused it with nearby Crave? Or because upper-middle priced restaurants aren't cutting it in this economy? Or because everyone and his brother is getting into the burger business? Or none of the above?
It doesn't matter. What counts is that Via's jewel-toned, West Elm-showroom look is out, replaced by standard-issue browns and beiges accented by oversized black-and-white vintage photographs, a generic look that I'm guessing is aiming for a corner-bar vibe.
More important, the menu has done a complete 180-degree turn, re-issued as a novella-sized list of build-your-own burgers, salads and flatbreads made with a dizzying variety of ingredients. Prices over $12 are a rarity, portions are so hefty that Vogue editor Anna Wintour's comment about Minnesotans resembling "tiny houses" makes some sense, and someone in the kitchen is paying attention to quality control. The staff is eager to please, Sunday's buffet brunch is a $14 all-you-can affair and the restaurant's swell patio survived the makover. Smart decisions all the way around.
Tavern on France, 6740 France Av. S., Edina, 952-358-6100, www.tavernonfrance.com. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.A food-wine tag team
Fans of Yum! Kitchen and Bakery will find a lot to like at Pairings Food & Wine Market. Same counter-service setup, a similarly attractive setting and a large selection of uncomplicated, affordably priced (most fall in the $11-or-less category), crowd-pleasing fare. But there are plenty of differences.
Like Tavern on France, Pairings dives head-first into design-your-own pizzas and salads, but also offers a long list of cold and hot sandwiches and pastas. Pairings also focuses on home meal replacements, including turkey meatloaf, grilled salmon and roasted yellow beets with caramelized fennel; all are also available for dining on the premises. Other A-plus touches include daily cheese and cured-meats plates (including, yes, a build-your-own option) culled from a large stockpile, as well a cache of gourmet groceries that features many fine locally made products. Breakfast (quiche, egg sandwiches, omelets) is also on the menu, and the back-to-basics desserts include a divine fudge brownie the size of a passport.
The adjacent wine market keeps its eye on value -- I started counting $20-and-under bottles and stopped when I hit 200 -- and the staff will pour any and all purchases (there's an extensive beer selection as well) without a corkage fee. I don't know about you, but I smell a chain coming on.
Pairings Food & Wine Market, 6001 Shady Oak Rd., Minnetonka, 952-426-0522, www.pairingsfoodandwine.com. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.Big Blue's No. 2 cooks anew
While the remake of Cue, the Guthrie Theater's vast ground-floor restaurant and bar, has been grabbing all the attention, its Level 5 Cafe has quietly spent the past few weeks undergoing a low-key metamorphosis. Nothing cosmetic, however; it's still essentially an overgrown, underlit corridor lined with tables and bookended by a pair of busy bars. Its focus on moderate prices (starters $5 to $10, entrees in the mid- to upper-teens), sane portions and get-em'-in-get-em'-out service also remains.
What's new? The chef. He's Matthew Holmes, formerly of restaurant Max, and he's instantly perked the place up, finding culinary inspiration in the theater's current Tony Kushner festival: Creole for "Caroline, or Change" (which takes place in Lake Charles, La.) and Italian for "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," which centers on a dysfunctional Italian-American family.
I loved an earlier and imaginative all-"Caroline" menu, with its crawfish bisque, duck-andouille sausage gumbo, succulent catfish over red beans and rice, and picture-perfect pecan pie, all prepared with a graceful touch. When "Guide" opened, Holmes revamped again, holding over a shrimp/crawfish cocktail, baked eggplant topped with a sweet corn relish and an elegant bread pudding finished with a silky bourbon sauce for "Caroline" (the bar is shakhing up a few Southern-accented cocktails, as well) and adding a swell crostini swiped with marscarpone and topped with red grapes and mint, a bland chicken breast over arugula and a lovely tiramisu for "Guide." They can be ordered a la carte ($6 to $17) or as three-course meals ($28 and $31, respectively).
He's also added a handful of less thematic but often similarly delicious options: a beautifully seared piece of halibut in a spicy tomato broth ($21), a rich roasted beet soup garnished with pungent blue cheese ($5) and angel hair pasta tossed with sprimp, spring peas and mint ($19). One complaint: wine prices. There are 16 choices by the glass, and they average just north of $9. Can't the Guthrie uncork any options in the cheap-seats range?
Level 5 Cafe, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis, 612-225-6499, www.cueatguthrie.com. Opens at 11 a.m. on matinee days and 5 p.m. on evening performance days.Tex-Mex for the better
Speaking of changes, I barely recognized Laredo's Tex-West Grill & Cantina during a recent visit, an improvement that can be credited to new chef Alex Weidt's galvanizing efforts. He's remade old dishes to good effect, and added nearly two dozen new ones, notable for their lively flavors and good looks. I loved the bibb lettuce leaves filled with barely seared tuna, avocado and hot-hot pickled jalapeño. Thin slices of beef brisket, brushed with a smoky barbecue sauce and stacked high on little buns, make for a don't-miss slider. A turkey club goes Tex-Mex with tasty results, and a chile rub does great things to mahi mahi tacos cooled by a sharp pineapple salsa. Weidt even grills up a memorable burger. Kudos to owner WKC Restaurants (which also manages the neighboring McCoy's Public House) for hiring Weidt; he's made all the difference.
Laredo's Tex-West Grill & Cantina, 4656 Excelsior Blvd., St. Louis Park, 952-698-2749, www.laredostexwest.com. Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.