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Feb 26, 2008 11:10 AM

[MSP] Another disappointing Alma meal

I know this is going to be considered sacrilege on this board, but I don't love Restaurant Alma.

There. I said it.

My first Alma experience was about three years ago. I had heard all the raves and had no reason to disbelieve. My company reserved the upstairs room for a private retirement dinner for a colleague. We had around 20 people and a three-course menu with two selections per course. I came away unimpressed. There was nothing technically wrong with what we were served. It just wasn't very interesting. I chalked it up to another place with a reputation overinflated by the echo chamber.

Still, the raves continued, and the chef was even nominated for the prestigious James Beard award. I figured that perhaps our single experience wasn't truly representative, and we needed to try it again to give it a fair shake.

Last night, we shook. Sadly, Alma didn't have a very firm grasp.

On a Monday evening at 7:30, Alma was doing a brisk business. It seemed that most tables were occupied. My wife and I scored a small two-top at the very back of the room, next to the restrooms.

The menu was promising and well-organized, although the list of local purveyors at the bottom of the menu was lengthy to the point of silliness. You get your meat from Swanson Meats? No kidding! And Classic Provisions is your wholesale importer? Wow!

A three-course option was available for $45, or one could order a la carte from the same choices. We decided to each have a starter and main course. My wife had a glass of wine, and I had an iced tea with an unpleasant floral character. (If you love tea infused with floral qualities, you may have enjoyed this. It was not my, er, cup of tea.)

We also received two kinds of bread, slices from a very nice crusty peasant boule, and a denser white bread dotted with kalamata olives and topped with asiago cheese.

Then we waited. And waited some more. And waited some more. After about 25 minutes, we received our first course. My wife had beef tartar [sic] and I had a salad of endive, braised pear, melted brie, and pumpkin seeds. Both courses were fine, not particularly exceptional. I'm not sure why two cold plated dishes took 25 minutes to get out to us.

Unfortunately, the wait for entrees stretched another half hour. By this point, our appetizers were long finished, and we were quite bored in our little corner in the back.

My wife had the roast Berkshire pork loin, which was slightly but not unsalvageably overcooked and served in what the menu described as "hot pepper and honey jus." There wasn't much flavor to this -- certainly no heat, and it didn't seem that making a jus out of pork tenderloin was particularly worthwhile, either. Overall, this was a somewhat flavorless piece of meat with a weakly sweet sauce underneath it. This dish could have been rescued with stronger, bolder flavors in the sauce. It was accompanied by a blistering hot (temperature, not pepper) corn souffle. This wasn't really edible for several minutes because of the heat.

My dish was pan seared mahi mahi. This was the most aggressively seared fish I have ever had. The outer surface was a dark, chocolate brown. I didn't mind this, though my wife thought it tasted burnt. (She's more sensitive to charcoal than I am.) This was accompanied by buttery little dime-sized circles of roast fingerling potatoes, diced pineapple, and what the menu described as "guajillo & green chili butter." This tasted to me like a very dilute enchilada sauce. Overall, this dish was ... fine. It was competently cooked. The ingredients were of decent quality. They were all served together in a plate. However, nothing really jelled in any way that suggested that these ingredients belonged on a plate together.

We had planned on having dessert, but with almost 90 minutes spent on two courses, we decided to call it a night. The total bill was just under $100, not including tip.

Overall, this was a real disappointment, especially considering the high expectations I had based on the nearly unanimous acclaim this place has received. There was nothing really wrong with anything that we had, despite the very slow pacing and temperature/cooking control problems in the kitchen. There just wasn't much that went beyond "basically competent." The menu seemed imaginative, but none of the dishes put together flavor combinations in any way so that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. We had no "wow" moments. Instead, we ended up on the ride home talking about places in town where we had spent the same amount of money and had much superior food. Like a dinner at Al Vento where we were delighted by sauteed chard packets filled with pecorino and served in truffled brown butter, or the horseradish fondue on the braised short ribs at Town Talk, or the seared scallops on saffron risotto with fennel puree at Fugaise. Dishes where the chefs surprised and delighted us with unusual combinations that worked better than expected.

So, I know I'll get flamed left and right for this, but I'm throwing in the towel on Alma. I'm not spending another hundred bucks to be feted with such average food. I just don't get all the raves.

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  1. I've dined at Alma only once, and I have to say that I'm in the same camp. Nothing was awful. Some of it was nice enough. But it didn't "wow" me, which I'm somehow expecting for the price. LBV and Fugaise, while not consistent over an entire meal, always have at least a dish or two that are exquisite. I love Alex's commitment to local and sustainable, but I need something more done with those wonderful products.

    I think I'd rather save my money and go to Brasa a couple of times instead. (although I know there are many Brasa detractors on the board!)

    1. I stopped going to Alma about two years ago after a horrendous visit. My partner and I had been there on a number of occasions and brought my parents there one night when they were in from out of town. It was on the later side when we got there, but the service was horrible. Our server was much more interested in the other tables in his section and paid no attention to us. On top of that, my dad's rabbit was rare rare rare as was my steak. I sent an e-mail the next day and never heard back from anyone. And with that, they were off our list. There are many other places in town we'd rather spend our money.

      1. I wonder how much of the disappointment can be laid at the feet of "really high expectations". I've had many meals that I've truly loved and always remember as really amazing, but usually they've happened at new places that I hadn't heard much about, or those hidden gems that don't get all the raves. The few times I've been prepared for "amazing" or "stellar, out of this world" I've always been let down. Awards, praise and even Chowhound chatter gets everyone all excited and everyone goes in looking to be completely blown away, and if its not 100% perfection you tend to feel let down.

        2 Replies
        1. re: run2eat

          Of course, I did have high expectations, considering the level of praise this restaurant usually receives. It's not as if the general consensus on Alma is "don't expect much, and you won't be disappointed." Instead, it's generally rated one of the best restaurants in town.

          That said, I don't look for perfection. I wasn't even anticipating the best meal of my life. My expectation was for a very good, creative dinner at one of Minneapolis' charming little neighborhood restaurants.

          I will say, though, that I think it's a cop-out to blame an expectation of quality for the shortcomings of a restaurant. The truly stellar restaurants make their reputation by exceeding expectations no matter how popular or highly regarded they become. (By point of comparison, I always have elevated expectations when I go to La Belle Vie, and they're always exceeded. When we went to Michael Mina in Las Vegas, we were expecting one of the best dinners in town, and we weren't let down.)

          1. re: Jordan

            I agree with you, Jordan, on the issue of expectations. I don't think they should be blamed for the disappointment you are describing. Maybe in the case of a child who is inexperienced with trying various restaurants, and has some huge pumped-up expectation of going out to somewhere fancy, there could be a big gap between the expectation and the actual outcome. But you and the majority of posters on this board are experienced eaters and are qualified to know if you like a meal or not.
            I also had a very disappointing meal at Alma several years ago, after
            initially liking the place enough to go back. I decided to try the vegetarian
            special- I was happy to see it was something more creative than the
            ubiquitous pasta primavera-type dish. It was eggplant with a miso
            sauce, and it was just unbearably miso-salty. Miso is great, but you don't
            use it practically undiluted. I sent it back, and got an apology from Alex
            as I recall, and a free dessert. The dessert was a rather ordinary yellow
            cake with sugary icing that could have been at the church picnic.
            Somehow things just didn't add up, and I haven't felt like returning.

        2. as someone who regularly lauds alma, i feel like i should respond to Jordan's post.

          i'm sorry you had what sounds like a real bummer of a meal. i hold alma to the same standards as you all do & it sounds like it wasn't pulled together that evening at all. i'm not trying to make excuses for the kitchen staff at alma, but when i read your post it jumped out at me that your experience was on a monday night-- very possibly you got the second-string team, or a newer staff member prepared part of your meal. i've had great meals at alma when alex was in the kitchen, great meals when he was not cooking, and one when he was not cooking where it was fine but on the weaker side (& alex is on the long list--20 names--of the beard award again this year for our region). you are absolutely correct to expect that alma should be great all the time, especially because of the national recognition.

          the other note i would make in terms of the "wow" factor, is that alma, along with the other new american-local foods restaurants in town, really shine during the 9 months or so where they're using primarily local produce as well as local meats & cheeses. feb is unfortunately not when the staff at alma, heartland, lucia's, craftsman, etc may be doing their most innovative preparations using the local, fresh stuff.

          Jordan, thanks for writing a counterpoint to the general raves about alma. i don't want to flame you at all for putting out a negative experience at one of my favorite places-- i'm bummed that you had a bad meal at alma & feel partially responsible for your expectations, since i'm always talking alma up on the boards. you are welcome to write off any restaurant after 2 experiences. i'd maybe consider giving it one more shot in the height of summer or autumn (i love going to alma in august), when the restaurant can present the local produce they work so well with. maybe after 2 strikes they could still pull off a home run for you.

          3 Replies
          1. re: soupkitten

            What a lovely reply, soupkitten.

            I am absolutely grateful to Jordan for posting honestly about his experience, disappointing though it was. It is so much more fun to read a positive post about a new discovery than a disappointed post about an old favorite. But, both kinds of posts are necessary and, as karykat said in another thread (paraphrasing), "Don't feel bad about being candid--we depend on each other for that."

            I agree that after 2 strikes, I might not return either (and, frankly, at that price point, I might not return after just one strike--but, I don't think that's necessarily the best approach; really, it's just me being stubborn), but soupkitten makes an excellent point about winter being their "off-season" and that if you were inclined to give it a chance to shine, that you might try going back in summer.

            I personally have never eaten at Alma (it's on my list of places I've been meaning to try and haven't yet gotten around to, I'm afraid to say), but the rave reviews from people on this board whose opinion I respect and have come to trust (and, yes, also the national recognition) make me think there must be something to all that, which, if I were in Jordan's shoes, might be what would tempt me to give it a third try. But, if I were Jordan, I'd only go back if I thought I could completely free my mind of my previous disappointments; otherwise, I think my negativity might taint my third experience and I'd be bound to be disappointed again. But, then again, life is short. If you know in your heart this is not the restaurant that curls your toes, heck, there are plenty more in the Twin Cities that you know will: go there instead.

            But, I'm still going to try Alma eventually anyway (but, now I'm going to wait until August, thanks for that tip sk)--and hope it curls my toes!

            On the topic of expectations: I think so much of one's success and happiness in life is about managing your own (and others') expectations. As long as your expectations are reasonable and informed, then you'll probably have the best chance of having them met. I don't think Jordan's expectations were unrealistic. If it were some little hole in the wall cafe somewhere, that would be one thing, but this is a pretty acclaimed restaurant. It's right to have high expectations, I think.


            1. re: soupkitten

              I appreciate the comments. At this point, I think I would only go back if someone else was paying. As I said, it wasn't a terrible experience. It was just boring. And that's not good at this price point.

              I have a lot of other places in town I need to get to, and having a toddler means that my nights out are sadly rather limited. I haven't tried Saffron, Heidi, or Blackbird yet ... or the Strip Club, or the lounge at La Belle Vie. I'm always up for another visit to Fugaise, and there's a lot of stuff on the 112 Eatery menu that I want to try. Not to mention old favorites like Erte, Al Vento, Vincent, Solera, or Ristorante Luci that I haven't been to in a while. And that's just the 'fine dining' side of the menu...

              1. re: Jordan

                more power to you, Jordan-- if it works out & someone else is picking up the tab, maybe give alma one last try, but all of the restaurants on your list are great, so you shouldn't feel like you're missing anything at this price point as you point out. dine on-- & again thanks for the candid post.

            2. Alma, oh alma.

              I don't really have anything to add. I love it, had a great meal there mid Feb & loved it.

              & now that you mention it we did wait a little longer than usual between the courses.

              However, I 100% appreciate your post and point of view!

              I have places on my "never again" list which others adore.