THEY CAN BURN all the incense they want outside Temple’s front door, but 12th Street and Harmon Place will never be Asia. Most of the waitresses in red kimonos will be Caucasian. There won’t be any saffron-robed monks kneeling beside the gold Buddha—or sipping $12 martinis. But chef/owner Thom Pham isn’t trying to replicate his birthplace, Vietnam, or any other place. As with Azia, his sexy Eat Street restaurant, which fuses cranberry with curry and walleye with wasabi, Pham uses elements of East and West to stage an ambient fantasy.
On a recent Saturday night, my party stood before two unmarked doors in the Temple lobby: lounge or dining room? We chose the latter. One of the colossal gates swung open to reveal our hostess, gal-about-town Alexis McKinnis. (We recognized the doe-eyed brunette from her dishy Girl Friday blog and Vita.mn sex column.)
The entire room glowed red: the lights, the candles, the kimonos, the koi swimming in the enormous, dimly lit fish tank. A holdover from the former occupant, a Caribbean restaurant called Tiburon, the tank smartly divides the space in a way that allows the patrons’ energy from each side to transfer to the other.
In one corner, as a table of boisterous men told stories that involved lots of gesticulating, a flashy flaming cocktail added an element of danger. The table adjacent to ours was empty, anticipating its guests with two place settings and a bouquet of long-stemmed roses. Across the room, a middle-age bottle blonde with a sizable implant job shared a booth with a man wearing sunglasses who bore a resemblance to Tony Soprano. Seekers of all sorts made the pilgrimage that night: gay partiers, banal romantics, and, even, it seemed, the New Jersey mafia.
Photo by Eric Moore
While Azia has evolved into a neighborhood place, a second home for Uptown hipsters, Temple is a destination for adults who like to go downtown—without running into someone they used to baby-sit. Pham calls Temple “the grown-up version of Azia.” The menu, a seafood-heavy mix of French techniques and Asian flavors, reflects adult tastes and wallets: fresh oysters and Kobe beef carpaccio instead of sesame chicken and cream-cheese puffs.
Pham’s creative collaboration with executive chef Tuan Nguyen shines, in particular, on the appetizer list: scallop ceviche matched with crisp Asian pear; pan-roasted quail married with duck-liver ravioli; cuttlefish stuffed with curried crab and paired with lotus-stem salad. All three dishes achieve an enticing interplay of crisp and chewy textures with accentuating spices.
With entrées, however, Pham’s experimental flair was less enlightening. By my third visit, I found myself combing the menu with a gnawing sense of dread: was the chance of finding a tasty dish worth the risk of a bad one? I searched in vain for patterns: had the dishes I’d liked been fussy or simple? French or Asian? Beef or chicken? The only constant I found was mushrooms. Mushrooms equaled good.
One of my top picks was the Kobe beef, served rare on a sizzling-hot stone, which browned the edges of the meat. Like fishbowl drinks or fondue, it had an element of interactive fun. After dipping meat morsels in the mellow cognac sauce—and pairing them with bites of roasted mushrooms—I was converted to hot-stone cooking, which had smacked of gimmickry the last time I’d tried it at the late, unlamented nightclub Tonic. The savory mille-feuille, alternating stacks of puff pastry and wild mushrooms, was a tiny-but-thoughtful vegetarian option. For fish-lovers, the mahi-mahi dressed with miso was an exceptional preparation. The pungent soybean paste and the buttery, garlic-heavy black-bean sauce were the perfect foils for the mild fish. Paired with rapini (broccoli raab) and shimeji mushrooms, it was as if the principles of feng shui had been translated into flavors on a plate.
From that point on, I began losing faith. The Peking duck breast served with mandarin pancakes was inspired, but the French-style roast hen was wan. Two fish entrées were so salty that they were left unfinished. Their accompaniments lacked the yin-yang balance of the successful dishes: the edamame purée, an exciting idea, lacked a sparkling note (citrus, wine, vinegar, something, anything) to enliven the bland bean paste. A fennel confit smothered the mild flavor of a skate wing, so the fish didn’t get its due, except for the delightful garnish of potato gaufrettes, delicate waffle-shaped chips.
On one visit, we ordered the whole Maine lobster: head and claws rising monstrously from a mound of black Thai sticky rice. When our sweet and competent waiter (his signature phrase: “Is everything perfect?”) returned to inquire, “Was it everything you’d hoped and dreamed it would be?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him no. That the lobster meat was a tad fishy, that the creamy rice swirled into a soupy flavorless…nothing.
After dining in the lounge with one guest, I paid the $120 tab and realized that, while I loved the scene, the delightful sparkling sake—crisp and delicate, with a hint of vanilla—was the only thing I felt compelled to order again. “But they didn’t even cook that,” my friend remarked.
Of course, if we want to cozy up in curvy red pods and listen to live DJs, we have to help pay Pham’s decorating bills. But $6 pots of jasmine tea and $12 duck spring rolls might prompt some diners to stay home, pop a CD in the stereo, and eat Chinese takeout on the living-room couch. It’s easy to worship cool—until the credit-card bill arrives.
As Pham worked the room, dressed in a debonair gold-and-black jacket, his knack for showing guests a good time was evident. (The 32-year-old has been working in restaurants since he was 12.) But I had flashbacks to the flamboyant restaurateur David Fhima, who expanded his empire faster than he could pay the bills. We need these sorts of innovators, of course—how else would we get anything sexy in a shopping mall (Fhima’s defunct Louis XIII), or, as Pham has proposed, a hip club in a former Embers on East Lake Street? But we also need these concepts to stick around.
While the dining room works out a few kinks, the door on the left is the safer bet. Go to the lounge for a drink, appetizer, or dessert (the warm chocolate soufflé cake, ginger crème brûlée, and coconut crepe with bananas are all excellent) and you should find Temple worthy of your alms.
Temple Restaurant and Bar
1201 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis,
Open: Daily, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Brief lounge menu available at all times with full menu offered when the main dining room is open, between 5 and 11 p.m.
Reservations: Not necessary but recommended on weekend evenings.
Parking: Complementary valet
on 12th Street.
Prices: Appetizers $10–$20, entrées $21–$35
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.