Food&drink // Go East, young man

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May 7, 2012 // UPDATED 11:28 am - May 7, 2012
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar

No NIMBY problem here. The nicest thing (among many) about the new Eli’s East, on an underserved stretch of East Hennepin, is that it feels like it’s been around forever. Locals have been quick to adopt it as their hangout, and with good reasons. The former Decoy’s has been given a spit and a polish, with comfy booths and well-spaced tables circling the bar that supports the libation half of its “Food & Cocktails” tagline. Far enough from the neon-traced path of trendsters, the place sported its share of booster chairs at prime time on a Saturday night.

Eli’s menu reflects this easygoing demographic — short on truffle oil but long on comfort fare, yet — credit due — the bar-and-grill staples rise above the lockstep with enticing little flourishes. Take the chicken wings: Along with the menu’s honey-soy and Cajun versions is a weekly special: tonight, an aromatic five-spice rub.

Two more winners on the appetizer list ($10 or under): a crab cake that makes me eat my words of a few weeks ago. Never have I encountered a sweeter, juicier version, which appears to be 100-percent crabmeat, held together by magic and good intentions rather than the customary filler. It rests on a lush nest of spinach, moistened by a mustard sauce with enough sass to kick up the seafood’s sweetness. 

Oh, and the pork belly sliders! A pair of mini-buns showcased hunks of uber-rich confit, accented by the sharp ping of pickled carrot threads and a sriracha aioli that tames the fat and really means business. 

Looking over the sandwich list ($8–$12), it would be easy to just say yes. After debating between the housemade pastrami and the walleye po’ boy, we settled, instead, on the house-smoked salmon option. Another winner. Slender rye toasts contain (just barely) the succulent and not overly-smoky fish, layered with creamy goat cheese over cukes for crunch and bright shout-outs of capers and red onions, all atop sprigs of baby greens. Wonderful.

So were the roasted Brussels sprouts we couldn’t resist among the sides ($4). Calling me back: creamed spinach, chickpea fritters, mashed Yukons, potato pancakes — oh, stop it!

Next, we wandered over to the chalkboard specials, choosing the pasta creation ($9–$17) composed of terrific little spirals of chewy trofie noodles, caught, alas, in a sludge of pesto powered by asparagus, green beans and ramps, along with over-salty and over-fried pancetta and shakes of Parma that got overpowered. (Where’s a dash of olive oil when you need it?)

We were tempted, too, by the special half-rack of ribs ($18) — another culinary mishap. The meat, fork-tender to be sure (and in this case, that’s not a good thing), appeared to have been steamed before grilling, so, while nicely smoky, lacked the kind of texture and flavor you dream of when you dream of ribs. The Yukon jo-jos, the sweet, generic baked beans, the soggy Texas toast added zero. The slaw, however — vinegar-spiked cabbage, or sweeter, juicier jicama, was fine, and the red wine-based barbecue sauce terrific. (But we had to ask for it; the meat came naked.)

Dessert choices (housemade, $5–$6) include cheesecake (yawn), chocolate cake (another) or banana cream pie — not bad, but not Grandma’s either. Our accommodating server knew the menu inside-out and helped make our dinner worth the drive.