Makeover at MOA

RICK NELSON | Updated 11/1/2012

New chef breathes life into Napa Valley Grille, a mall stalwart.

It was probably the best meal I'd ever had at the Mall of America. Granted, that bar isn't exactly stratospheric, although the Bloomington behemoth has recently been making encouraging baby steps in the food-and-drink realm.

First up was a flyover country variation on the crab cake, where poached walleye was fortified with wild rice and pops of lemon and deftly pan-fried until its delicately crispy exterior yielded to a tender interior.

From there it was on to mouth-melting shears of pork tenderloin, laid out over oven-browned roasted potatoes, mustard greens sautéed with a nudge of hot peppers and a vinegar-kissed reduction that subtly reiterated the meat's barnyard roots.

Dessert was a declaration of fall's arrival in the form of delicate profiteroles, split and filled with vanilla ice cream, lavished with a thick caramel sauce and finished with hints of apple and cinnamon. Terrific, right? Somewhere, a switch had obviously flipped, because my last visit to the Napa Valley Grille, in late 2011, could only charitably be described as a disappointment. In the interim, chef Keven Kvalsten has stepped into the kitchen.

If his name rings a bell, it's because of the favorable impressions that he has been making for the past decade at such diverse venues as Corner Table in Minneapolis, the former Green Room in Waconia and the Twisted Fork Grille in St. Paul.

Three cheers to his corporate bosses at San Francisco-based Tavistock Restaurants USA for making the hire. His most appealing dishes are models of restraint, a trait not frequently associated with 4.2 million square feet of consumerism.

The word cornucopia comes to mind when Kvalsten fills half an acorn squash with fork-tender cubes of short ribs, slowly braised in red wine, veal stock and bacon to unlock the beef's full flavor potential. For those on the lookout for a cool-weather dish, this is it.

Leg of lamb -- such a finicky cut -- becomes supple and wonderfully flavorful under nothing more than an expertly executed high-heat sear on the stove. Scallops, seared to an alluring dark copper, are brought to their best advantage with bits of smoky bacon and a rich brown butter sauce.

Another don't-miss dish: the artfully composed Caesar, where smoked trout mellows the anchovy's bite. Other salads stand out for their calendar-appropriate ingredients and carefully crafted embellishments. Kvalsten has a knack for turning out big, full-bodied soups.

There's also a short list of grilled basics (a slab of crispy skinned salmon, a juicy, boldly flavored New York strip steak) where little is done beyond nurturing them to full flower on the kitchen's well-seasoned grill.

Lunch is anchored by a half-dozen smartly executed sandwiches. Then there's the top-notch burger, grilled to perfection and crowned with sharp, barely melted aged Cheddar. If getting a crack at it mandated a knock-down, drag-out for the mall's last parking spot, I would do it. In a heartbeat.

There are misfires. Sometimes the problem is technical, as in an indifferently executed risotto. Dishes along the lines of heavily breaded deep-fried calamari or a gloppy spinach-artichoke dip don't fit within the restaurant's nominal Northern California light-and-rustic framework.

But Kvalsten's greatest challenge is finding a way to effectively cater to the mall's disparate demographics. One strategy that appears to have some merit: He has been judiciously paring the unwieldy and occasionally generic menu, and so far, so good. Sometimes less is truly more.

The restaurant is pushing 20, and the dated dining room, a dark-wood-and-marble holdover from a short-lived steakhouse, is clearly showing its age.

The good news is that the attentive and well-schooled service staff often rises above the warmed-over surroundings in which they work.