Table Talk
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There’s a new culinary director at Seven, the behemoth at 7th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis, and it’s not a name that diners might immediately associate with a steak-and-sushi outfit.

It’s Sameh Wadi, he of World Street Kitchen, Milkjam Creamery and the former Saffron. A chef famed for his contemporary Middle Eastern and North African cooking, nurturing rib eyes on the grill?

“It’s kind of an interesting story,” said Wadi with a laugh. “Right after I announced that I would be closing Saffron [last fall], Ken Sherman, who was in the process of purchasing Seven with Ro Sharoli, heard the news and called me. He said, ‘I’m really sad to hear about Saffron and I’m planning to buy Seven and I want your help.’”

Wadi was on it. Here’s why: Back in 2006, Sherman and his then-business partner, Ken Abdul, were Saffron’s original landlords.

“They gambled on a 23-year-old kid,” said Wadi. “They were the guys who gave me a chance. Not too many people would say, “Here, kid, sign this 10-year lease. Ken believed in me, and I’m grateful to him for that.”

Wadi, a six-time James Beard award semifinalist, is certainly facing a challenge. With more than a hundred employees and a weekend guest count that can run into the thousands, Seven sprawls across an enormous footprint. Its dining rooms, bars, private dining rooms and rooftop hotspot consume nearly 30,000 square feet on four levels.

“It’s a monster,” said Wadi. “The rooftop alone is almost three times the size of what Saffron was. The place is in dire need of help, but it clearly has a following. It’s been around for, what, nine years? It’s outlasted a lot of other restaurants in that part of town, so they were obviously doing something right.”

This much is certain: change will come incrementally, as Sherman and Sharoli invest in the building.

“The natural inclination is to start fresh, but that didn’t make a lot of sense to us,” he said. “So we’re taking it one element, one challenge, at a time. You can’t just jump into something like this, head first. I’m slowly getting to know the people – there are so many dedicated members of the staff -- and the intricacies of the operation.”

His first move was to devise a new menu for the rooftop (a move to match its newly updated decor), a short roster of snacks: a Thai-style tuna poke, avocado-lobster toast, bruschetta with tomatoes and burrata, and more. For now, the rest of the menus remain as they were, and the kitchens are focusing on best practices.

“We’re trying to cook simple food, and execute it well,” he said. “We’re going back to the basics, and having a little fun with it.”

Long term, the plan is to move towards the classic American steakhouse.

“I love steakhouses, that idea has always excited me,” he said. To that end, the restaurant’s first-floor dining room will be receiving a makeover (“We’ll give it a new outlook on life,” he said), and Wadi will be focusing on sourcing high-quality beef. That’s just the first of many, many steps, he added.

“It wasn’t a food-centric restaurant,” he said. “It was a see-and-be-seen place, and food was not taken seriously. Now? They wouldn’t be talking to me if they weren’t taking the food seriously.”