Restaurant review: Cardamom ⋆⋆ out of four stars
At the Walker Art Center — as is typical for busier contemporary art museums these days — there's something for all 700,000 of us who visit each year. If Edward Hopper's reflective "Office at Night" doesn't get to you, then maybe the swath of blues on Yves Klein's "Mondo Cane Shroud" will.
Restaurants apply, too. At the recently shuttered Untitled, at the Whitney Museum in New York, restaurateur Danny Meyer peddled his brand of New American elevated comfort food to museumgoers who were equally enticed by cobia ceviche and rotisserie chicken. You'll find caviar with bone marrow and lamb belly en croute at Tim Hollingsworth's Otium at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles alongside whole branzino, little gem salad and pork chops with lemon.
So claiming to serve food "influenced by the cuisine of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas" is brave, considering that what's offered at Cardamom, Walker Art Center's newest restaurant, reads like a themed menu from Disney World's Epcot Center.
Only it's much, much better. While there's a kids' section filled with safety nets like chicken tenders, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers and a slightly off-brand — and curiously bland — cacio e pepe, you'll find that the rest of the menu mostly stays true to Cardamom's word, and does justice by most of its dishes. Harissa, ras el hanout, sumac and feta are featured heavily, and bright, zippy, floral notes abound. Meats and vegetables are generally cooked with precision.
It's the least to expect from prolific restaurateur Daniel del Prado, who diversified his portfolio with Tex-Oaxacan (Colita), modern Argentinian (Martina), Sicilian-ish pizza (Rosalia), Roman-Italian (Josefina) and Japanese-Italian (Sanjusan). Cardamom, which opened in July, is del Prado's sixth restaurant and his second in collaboration with pastry chef Shawn McKenzie, after the duo opened Café Ceres.
As pioneering as del Prado is, there's a bit of Ceres in Cardamom's corner with a pastry counter filled with McKenzie's greatest hits, like those airy danishes and the mildly savory tahini cookies that gleam like black glitter. They're fine options for those who come for (serious) coffee and stay for a pastry or two. In other words: Don't leave the restaurant without them.
The pastry counter hides in the corner of an otherwise sparse and minimalist space framed by large windows, blank walls and a meditative stretch of blond woods that keeps in line with the Walker aesthetic. Outside is a large dining terrace that frames an elevated view of the Minneapolis skyline — few other dining venues can compare.
Except, of course, Cardamom's dressier (and all-around terrific) predecessor, Esker Grove, which served contemporary and seasonally inspired New American food in that very space for five years, before its chef, Denny Leaf-Smith, and general manager Kim Tong left to open All Saints. Before Esker came along, equally high-profile chefs held court — notably Wolfgang Puck, who established 20.21 in 2005, and D'Amico and Partners, which replaced it several years after that.
These are big shoes to fill, but change is welcome. Especially if hummus is served the way it is at Cardamom: with textbook, whippy richness, warming flourishes of paprika and crevices pooled with an intensely fruity olive oil that clings to every mouthful. Swipes of that with those warm, puffy pitas make for an ideal shareable starter.
A play on cauliflower cheese, a British dish, comes in the form of nutty cauliflower slicked with harissa-inflected mayo and burrata. It's excellent, too.
And a play on lamb gyros is presented majestically on a wood platter with a tahini dip stained bright red with chile oil, pickled cauliflower and a fistful of torn mint. While only select bites of the lamb are lush and fatty, it's enough to recommend as another main, for sharing.
With a little more calibration, the Mediterranean corn could stand on its own. The bright pops of late summer corn tend to get smothered with ingredients that detract rather than complement: too much serrano; lime labneh that doesn't quite belong. Taken together, it's reminiscent of elote, if a slightly rogue kitchen-sink version of it.
And with more restraint, the Moroccan couscous salad could be another contender. Tiny slivers of carrots, plump jewels of golden raisins and little pops of pecan add the kind of sweetness that's appealing at first but soon turns cloy.
These gentle riffs on global cuisine are most pleasing when they hew to Mediterranean-Aegean canon. When they don't — and when risks are taken — things become problematic.
Like a doughy onion tart tatin, which grew soggy in a sauce that's been reduced to bitter abandon, preventing the sweetness of the onion from coming through. Or the (recently) lost and best forgotten macerated watermelon salad, paired with a wildly complex vinaigrette split with tapenade and dotted with an overabundance of serrano chiles.
Regrettably, the best dishes across both visits happened to be safer crowd-pleasers. Think less about the banality of seared salmon and the origin of pork schnitzel and more about how terrific they both could be, because they really are.
Seared salmon, served simply with fingerling potatoes and a glossy, sumac-inflected beurre blanc, was cooked just so, until the flakes became translucent and quivering (caveat: On a second night, that salmon was slightly less moist). And the pork? It's a statement piece, certainly — hulking like the size of a free-form Frisbee, and textbook like the shatteringly crisp batter. It's served with two kinds of zhug, a type of Yemeni hot sauce. "Green" has notes of parsley and cilantro, while "red" has spicy red peppers. Both hum with cumin and garlic.
Don't miss the fried potatoes, either: They're light and crisp and served with an assertive harissa ketchup. Scallops, when not rubbery — as they were on all three visits — revisit a tried-and-true formula (cauliflower purée), but they are delicious. As are the cocktails, courtesy of Megan Luedtke, who imbues her dazzling ingenuity with the likes of the Calista, which pairs sherry and gin with lacto-fermented cherry tomato, pearl onions and peppercorn.
The only two options for desserts are also not be missed: baklava, in the fussy, deconstructed form of custard tart with candied orange and a sticky glaze, and an unfussy yet indulgent Turkish pot au crème, which has a deeply flavorful expression of coffee.
Yes, there is variety. But over time, and when ordering for a larger party, the retreads start to become obvious: the spices start to play recursive notes; the mint and parsley flourishes that adorn nearly every dish — with varying proportions and degrees of effectiveness — start to feel monotonous; and the growling use of chiles can feel vulgar.
No matter. Del Prado and McKenzie never meant for Cardamom to be transportive, and it never should, anyway. Like the art upstairs, there's always something (good) for everyone.
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Info: 723 Vineland Place, Mpls., 612-375-7542, cardamommpls.com
Hours: 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Thu.-Sun.
Service: Hybrid of sit-down and counter service — it can be as casual as you'd like it to be. Ordering via mobile QR-code is available, but makes the experience feel a bit sterile.
Price ranges: Small plates $8-$15, large plates $17-$25, snacks $11-13, desserts $8.
Recommended dishes: Hummus, roasted lamb, seared salmon, pork schnitzel, baklava.
Beverage program: Creative spin of European cocktail classics that make creative use of savory ingredients and spices (including one with gin, feta and rose vermouth), plus a solid variety of zero-proof cocktails.
Sound level: Comfortable; outdoor patio a plus.
Special menus: Vegetarians and vegans are not without options.
Tip or no tip: A 5% health and wellness surcharge — not a gratuity — is added to every bill.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.