Unchained

California Cafe; takes new liberties.

Holiday shopping took me to the Mall of America, and hungry for lunch, I decided on California Café (952-854-2233, 8100 24th Ave. S., Bloomington), where I hadn’t dined for years. I remembered it being noisy, crowded, and middling in its ambitions, but I couldn’t think of any better option.

The interior was spiffed up, and one look at the menu told me that things had changed in the kitchen as well: New Zealand lamb chops broiled with tangy Mongolian barbecue sauce and served with mint slaw; sesame-seared yellowfin ahi tuna served with a peppercorn vinaigrette, Japanese mustard, and a cucumber salad.

General Manager Sal Rosa shed light on the transformation. Turns out that this restaurant, 17 identically named places around the country, plus sibling chains including Napa Valley Grille went into bankruptcy in 2003. Tavistock Restaurants, a California investment group, bought them soon thereafter. Rosa says Tavistock gives managers and chefs unheard-of latitude in running their operations: no mandated menus, no required purveyors, and performance is measured by the bottom line as a whole rather than target percentages for food, labor, beverages, et cetera.

Independence empowers Vietnamese-born and Wolfgang Puck–trained Executive Chef Tuan Van Nguyen to be fussy with vendors and to experiment with concepts and ingredients that “chain” restaurants of this kind usually don’t risk. The restaurant has a seasonal, pan-Asian menu that is sophisticated and artfully presented, and one of the most creative drink menus around. For corporate groups, a new glass-enclosed private dining room equipped with display screen and broadband hook-up accommodates meetings.