Monday, January 25, 2010

Neighborhoods – West End

By a strange coincidence or cunning act of city planning, I find that the suburban development west of highway 100 and south of I-394, which lies 10 minutes from our house, has come to serve a variety of practical needs. The Health Partners office where I get my yearly physical has always been there, wedged between the highway and a long brick Novartis warehouse, and also the Taste of India restaurant. A Costco lies a hundred yards to the west, and a few years ago we began to pick up bulk items such as coffee, olive oil, organic lettuce, frozen spanikopita, Manchego cheese, and almonds there—not to mention the occasional deck chair, boxed DVD collection, ink jet cartridge, office chair or set of automobile tires. New strip malls have sprung up along the peripheral service roads boasting convenient haircut franchises, a Kinkos, and two Caribou Coffee outlets; and last year, in an effort to stave off the effects of all that spanikopita, I joined the health club at the end of the block. It was sort of like a neighborhood—but with absolutely no neighbors.

Two years ago, just before the economy went south, they tore down the Novartis warehouse and a shopping-entertainment complex rose from the rubble--it even had a pretentious name: The West End.

At night the entire area, with its faux streets and light foot-traffic (due to underground parking garages) looks like an abandoned set from Bladerunner. And I would not normally be likely to visit a restaurant with a name like Crave, one of the restaurants in the new complex. The name itself is a deterrent, conjuring images of affluent pseudo-barbarity. From the outside it could easily be mistaken for one of those pricy women’s clothing stores that masquerade as pre-Columbian art galleries, or perhaps a spa where you can unwind after a grueling day at the law office with a mud bath and a lecture about stopping to smell the roses. (In fact, there’s an Anthropologie store right across the street.)

We had planned to go to Cooper, another new restaurant in the complex run by Kieran Folliard, which looks like an enormous ersatz Victorian pub, and were naïve enough to imagine that because the place had been open only a week, it would be largely empty. We arrived at 6 PM to find there was a 90-minute wait. We wandered across the street to Crave and were lucky enough to get the last free table before the place filled up.

It was obvious from the get-go that Crave was a better place to be than Cooper, which is staggeringly noisy and very dark, but with a harsh white streetlight glare coming in through the window. Crave is well-lit and elegantly appointed, and though the tall blonde greeter gave my jeans a quick and unapproving glance, the rest of the evening was spent in the midst of relaxed cordiality.

In a recent interview in the Star Tribune, Kam Talebi, who runs the restaurant with his brother, Keyvan, remarked, "We feel very comfortable that the Crave concept has gotten traction in this local market. It is the value proposition that we're giving our customers -- they really walk away with that sort of high-end restaurant look and feel and experience, but they're not paying the dollars."

This reminds me of the infamous advertising slogan used the promote the Ford Edsel back in the 1950s: Want an expensive-looking car that’s really cheap?
But to tell you the truth, I found the atmosphere in Crave appealing. The noise level was moderate, the lighting was soft but not overly-subdued, and the people were certainly fun to watch. I had forgotten my reading glasses and ran into trouble when I walked over to examine the menu in a shaft of bright light shining down onto the bar, only to discover that the light was actually glowing from within the bar. Our waitress agreeably brought me a collection of ten sets of glasses that had been left since the restaurant opened, and I soon found one that worked fairly well.

The wines were uniformly overpriced but the martini I ordered as an end-around was good, albeit with little ice crystals floating in it. We were treating an old friend to dinner that night and ordered a sushi appetizer platter at his request which was ample and tasty. Hilary’s Chipolte barbeque chicken pizza was very fine, Norton’s Thai chicken pizza was perhaps slightly less impressive. I ordered a steak salade Nicoise which suffered a little from the fact that the “spring mix” lettuce had lost its “spring” almost entirely. The salad also lacked anchovies, though when I mentioned this to our waitress she promptly brought me a large bowl of them. Near the end of the meal she reappeared with some little cups of dessert for $2 a piece (a great idea!) and we sampled several.

Though it wasn’t what I would call cheap, all of this added up to a pleasant and memorable evening, and I almost have a hankering to go back for more. Maybe the baked truffle macaroni?

Next up: La Grassi and the North Loop

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