Flavor // Tray Chic

Cafeteria is the latest offspring of Parasole, whose dining concepts multiply like rabbits. And when you hear that title, you don’t sail in expecting a “dining experience.” As its website instructs, “It isn’t farm-to-table or deconstructed Tuscan.”

It’s so not. It’s, cheekily, food from a can (Manwich sliders); fare from steam tables (Nankin chow mein) and retro diners (hot turkey sandwich). It’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes, ready to be rediscovered by Uptown’s kitchen-challenged singles, brought up by career moms who depended on Whole Foods’ take-out and wouldn’t recognize a Jell-O salad if it slid across their plates.

It’s the restaurant equivalent of a vintage clothing shop, recycling items to a whole new generation, eager to hail as hip the stuff their parents’ tastes outgrew. Thus, for those of us who lived through Manwich the first time, it’s boring and shockingly overpriced. For those still cutting their culinary teeth, it’s a brave new world of food.

Cafeteria’s décor is as 60s-centric as its Wednesday special, beef stroganoff. Think tangerine and sky-blue vinyl chairs (rescued, I’d guess, from a beauty salon) and a revolving glass case of plastic desserts. Yet an elevator levitates to the hip-o-sphere (aka rooftop terrace), where you’re invited to “shed the surly bonds of earth and…touch the face of God, or at least your date.” And I love it.

The food, not so much. We started with walleye-and-sweet corn fritters, stronger on filler than flavor, accompanied by an appealing, fresh tartar sauce (whose advertised mango-jalapeno flavorings went as undetected as vermouth in a killer martini). Other starters ($7­–$10) volley from Swedish meatballs to crab Rangoon.

Our salad choice, adroitly composed of greens strewn with crispy bacon, creamy avocado and blue cheese in savory chunks, was presented in the quintessential cafeteria accessory, a faux-wood bowl. Bravo!

Sandwiches range from a ’60s Monte Cristo to a foot-long hot dog ($13! — justified, maybe, by its Kobe beef and Cheddar pedigree). Instead, we voted for — and loved — the pair of meatloaf sliders ($9), slathered with onions and gravy and presented between slices of brown ’n’ serve rolls — the dinnertime boon for many a frilly-aproned housewife, liberated at last from the kneading bowl. They’re served with personality-free fries, cottage cheese (straight from the original Forum) or small salad, probably the best option.

Entrees ($9–$20) lead off with more of mom’s meatloaf and a couple of chicken dishes that made choosing hard: chicken curry masala, Southern-style chicken and waffles or buttermilk fried chicken — after much dithering, our choice. Although imbedded in an armored crust, the meat within proved supremely moist.

The mountain of mashed potatoes at its side was equally swell, mined with plenty of the appealing lumps that grandma wouldn’t have countenanced. But the (too) huge Cheddar biscuit shouldering them proved mighty short on cheese — as authentically bland as the genuine cafeteria item. Never mind: We couldn’t begin to finish the generous heap of chicken, anyway. Which is why I forgive (almost) my fellow patrons for ordering every last smidge of Inga Svennson’s rice pudding; the kitchen had run out.

Martinis run to the sweet, learner-permit variety, so we stuck to wine. (You’re on your own here. As our waiter confessed, “I haven’t tried any of them.”) They’re priced for the gullible sipper, so prepare for sticker shock. However, if you score a booth aside the garage-door windows, as we did, you’ll soon be revived by the breeze of people parading to the entrance, envying you for snagging a seat in what’s definitely the hottest spot on this hot-hot corner.


Cafeteria

Calhoun Square
Lake & Hennepin
877-7263