Twin Cities Taste®

WITH ITS RECENT RUSH of residential redevelopment, St. Paul’s Lowertown needs a place like LoTo to coax neighbors out of their condos for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, a takeout pizza or a low-key dine-in dinner. Restaurateur David Fhima’s latest concept—one part restaurant, two parts self-serve bakery/deli/coffeehouse/bar—is an interesting idea, but eight months after opening, its execution is still hit-or-miss.

LoTo is laid out behind a row of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Mears Park: bakery and coffee shop flanking the restaurant, bar nested among the tables in the dining room. On a recent visit, my group was seated in (banished to?) the overflow area—an odd atrium whose escalators and planters gave it all the ambiance of a dead-end skyway—even though the restaurant was barely half full. When our request to move to the main seating area was granted, we found the décor there just as incongruous: trendy plastic scoop chairs, bamboo flooring, a television tuned to a football game, and techno music playing in the background. It felt like a sports bar in a tropical resort hotel.

Oddly, we were most satisfied with what basically amounted to bar food: a very cheesy but well-seasoned thin-crust pizza and cute mini-hamburgers that were overdone but tasty with their fresh-baked buns and tiny pickle/lettuce/tomato garnishes. We also enjoyed a toothsome three-cheese gnocchi and a potato-crusted walleye. The attractively plated fillet—Fhima’s nod to two favorite ingredients among Minnesotans—was wrapped in shredded potatoes and pan-seared until its exterior was crispy and hash brown–like. It was paired with grilled vegetables and a caper-studded tartar sauce that rounded out the flavor mix.

The other seafood dishes we tried were unpalatable, particularly the stir-fry seafood linguine—a dry mess of noodles, skimpy on the vegetables, that contained, among other flavorless sea creatures, a large, unidentified seafood lump (its fishy-sour tang discouraged further analysis). What I remember of the lobster bisque was a mild metallic aftertaste, but its premature removal—along with a half bowl of salad that was still being actively forked—made it difficult to form an opinion.

Regarding service, LoTo may have inherited the same problems that plagued the early days of Fhima’s Southdale restaurant, Louis XIII. The staff seems enthusiastic but sloppy—at best, just good enough. Our server mis-delivered dishes, left us to swipe clean plates off a neighboring table, strongly recommended a dessert without first checking the bakery case to see if it was available (it wasn’t), and inquired if we’d like more drinks so many times it felt like the upsell it probably was. Yet later, he seemed baffled by a request for herbal tea to accompany a couple of suitable but not-fine-enough-to-finish slices of a cappuccino butter-cream cake and a pear-marzipan tart.

This type of service isn’t especially egregious for a casual meal, but if Fhima wants to tempt urban nesters to leave their hip spaces for his, LoTo’s kitchen and wait staff need to aim a lot higher.