Photos by Craig Bares
Caribe Café conch fritters
Conch fritters with kicky Pickapeppa sauce at Caribe Café.
The mantra for success in business is “location, location, location,” but it may not be the only predictor. This month I hit a great joint in a mediocre location, and a not-quite-there-yet place in a stellar neighborhood.
Anyone who harbors fond memories of afternoons at Caribbean beach shacks, knocking down Red Stripes, should express themselves directly to Caribe. This relatively compact, no-frills spot owned by Puerto Rican–born chef Tony Panelli and his wife, Heidi, pulses with island tunes, glows with vivid paints, and delivers the rich essence of Caribbean cuisine. The appetizer choices comprise well-executed takes on half a dozen classics. Not to be missed are the seasoned ground beef–filled empanadillas—fried pastry turnovers that are as good as I’ve had in these parts; crisp, twice-fried plantain slices topped with fresh avocado and served with a superb Puerto Rican mojito and cilantro concoction; and the latke-shaped conch fritters that, although light on shellfish flavor, go down easily with sides of banana ketchup and Pickapeppa remoulade.
Standouts on the entrée side include a crisp-skinned, near-perfect grilled jerk chicken breast and a sweet and saucy arrangement of black pepper and rum-glazed jumbo shrimp atop a bed of curried citrus rice. About the only disappointment was a plantain-crusted grouper that lacked any compelling flavor or texture. Desserts are limited, but if one of the daily specials is the tres leches cake, it’s a must. Hands down it was the best version I’ve ever had—luscious, creamy, and fulfilling to the max. Traffic was pretty light on the weeknight we visited, so our capable server had little trouble keeping us happy. Indeed, no problems, mon. 791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul, 651-641-1446, caribemn.com
Raku occupies about as primo a strip of real estate as there is on Edina’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive. The restaurant bills itself as serving “upscale Japanese fusion cuisine,” and boasts a stylish interior, an extensive menu of traditional and outside-the-bento-box creations, and a well-credentialed chef named Megu Lin, who genuinely seems to care about customer feedback. The service needs some serious work, and the wow factor seems to be hit or miss, but aside from that, it’s hard to explain why this newcomer isn’t receiving more media attention. What’s not to admire about a dish billed as “sashimi new style,” offering an artful arrangement of fresh-tasting sliced Japanese sea bass and wakame livened with yuzu truffle soy sauce? Or toothsome duck spring rolls filled with shredded duck, cucumber, and scallions with a pleasant hoisin sauce?
Raku has several signature items, including a Playboy roll with shrimp tempura, asparagus, and spicy tuna that’s delivered to your table wrapped in flaming aluminum foil. Another showpiece is filet mignon toban yaki, sliced steak presented with mushrooms on a sizzling platter. We suggested that the chef consider replacing the wan “toban” sauce with a rendition of Benihana’s infamous “shrimp sauce.” He seemed to think that an inspired idea. We also provided some critical feedback about the mushy consistency of the spicy tuna tartare. He suggested a coarser chop; all we had to do was ask. And that’s precisely the disconnect that needs to be addressed for Raku to achieve its potential. The waitstaff needs to see themselves as kitchen-connectors rather than simply order-takers. When that happens, Raku could truly rock. 3939 W. 50th St., Edina, 952-358-2588, rakumn.com