Primebar in Uptown
“I thought people wanted something that would spike, culinarily. Turns out they didn’t want guanciale,” observed Parasole’s Phil Roberts on the passing of Il Gatto. We take it he believes that the Calhoun Square space is better suited to a more familiar concept (because in an absolute sense, who doesn’t want guanciale?).
Primebar is the new occupant and it certainly seems familiar. The Restaurants-America group has brought their urban alehouse format to Minneapolis following launches in Chicago, Dallas, and Tampa. The reworked room has a color palette and furnishings straight out of Restaurant: Impossible. It looks a bit cold and impersonal in a hotel restaurant kind of way. They’ve done well to ditch the dividing wall: Now a 360-degree bar anchors the uncluttered, breezy space.
They’re shooting for dressed-up bar food – lots of flatbreads, tacos, and sandwiches. No venturing out on limbs, just as Roberts ordered. But the tradeoff for serving familiar fare is that it places a premium on technique and execution. And on that front, Primebar is inconsistent. As a general guideline, we found that the closer an item fit the category of bar food, the better chance it had of success.
And while the menu doesn’t have guanciale, it has plenty of buzz ingredients: house-made chorizo, gnudi, pork belly, kimchi (that leaves us just a macaron short of a trend-spotting bingo!). This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Unfortunately, we often found these foods mistreated so that any distinctiveness they may have brought was thoroughly rendered away.
Happily, Primebar pulls off no-frills bar food as competently as you might hope. We tried the happy hour renditions of both their carnitas tacos and pulled pork sliders (both $4 for two), and you’d be happy with either. The maple barbecue sauce on the sliders was a touch sweet, but you can chalk that up to a personal preference.
The entree portions of tacos come four to an order, and the duck confit version ($12) is right on the money. The contrast of creamy goat cheese to the sweet and spicy ancho was positively charming. And the deviled eggs ($6 for six, pictured above) were perhaps the most successful snack we tasted. The yolk mix was vibrant, with a good amount of heat and spice. But while the description touts house-made choriz, the sad, tiny specks dotting the eggs may as well have been commercial bacon bits.
We’d recommend any of the above to complement their fantastic draught beer selection – over 60 taps, with a good group of regional favorites. And there may be no better way for an out-of-state restaurant group to endear itself to locals than offering $2 Grain Belt during happy hour. That said, it peeves us not to have prices listed on the cocktail menu (they’re all $10, apparently).
Primebar features a selection of flatbreads, and we were pretty nonplussed by the Pigs On A Blanket ($12). We were hoping for super thin slices of roasted pork belly. Instead, we got tiny little cubes of it that could have been grocery store bacon, for all we know. With the very slight tang of kimchi and overwhelming tomato flavor, we’d call it flatbread all’amatriciana. And the crust was perplexing – somehow both wafer thin and chewy with a cornmeal bottom.
As for their animal fries ($9), we’re unsure how a plate full of what should be rich and flavorful ingredients could come across so weak. The fries had a strange and seriously pronounced “neighborhood Chinese food” taste to them (quizzically, they’re tossed in mustard?). The small shreds of dry pork were tasteless, though the melty cheese curds were a worthy addition. How is it possible for a plate full of cheese and gravy to need more salt?
The Basic Burger ($11) was the core example of Primebar’s technique problems. It had a great char on the delicious bun, though the meat was under seasoned. We ordered it medium rare; it came out far past well done. Good flavor, poor execution. It’s the same problem that plagued the inside-out ravioli ($14). Here, we get a peek at a dish that was almost entirely well composed – tasty roasted carrots, peppers, and onions, an unobtrusive tomato base, and a nice brown butter. But the gnudi came off gummy and gritty. What are supposed to be delicate pillows of ricotta were as dense as the gnocchi they’re meant to improve on.
All of the components on the ahi tuna sandwich ($14) were delicious individually. And that’s how you’ll have to take them, because they’re impossible to eat as a sandwich –with the unwieldy tuna steak slipping between tomato and avocado. Two real plusses: delicious garlic mayo and a pillowy soft wheat kaiser roll.
One of our tasters described the atomized appearance of the cornbread chicken salad ($13) as looking as though the chef had lined up a head of lettuce, a chicken, and loaf of cornbread and blasted them with a shotgun. And sadly, it was essentially flavorless. It pined so dearly for any acid – hell, a simple squeeze of lemon would have made it threefold better. Instead, the mix was bland and dry.
We found the same lack of technique in a cup of French onion soup ($4). The characterless bread on top was not toasted and the flavorless cheese barely melted. The onions were cooked nowhere near long enough, and thus developed a distinctly slimy texture. The result was an unpleasant mess.
In general, the menu overpromises and under delivers. It tempts you with a great mix of ingredients, but they often come across underwhelming or misused. But let’s be fair: We weren’t expecting some kind of culinary revelation to swoop in to that space and the neighborhood is none the worse for it. The Hennepin side of Uptown already has Lucia’s, Barbette, and now Birdhouse as three top-notch destinations for serious dining.
In fact, Primebar steps in perfectly for Il Gatto and the shuttered Independent upstairs on its two obvious strengths: a great redesigned space and lots of good beer. If you just want to grab some pints, watch a game, and maybe nibble on some tacos or hummus ($3 on happy hour, delicious), the place will suit you admirably. But unlike Figlio, you probably won’t be seeing a beloved iteration of Primebar moving out to the suburbs in 20 years.
Upscale bar food in the heart of Uptown
3001 Hennepin Ave, Ste 1200
Minneapolis, MN 55408
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Very limited
PRICE RANGES: Small plates and flatbreads $6-14, salads $8-14, sandwiches $9-14, tacos $10-12, specialties $14-32