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Review: No schtick, just good food at Pounds

Chickity China ($9) is Pounds' version of a Mandarin chicken salad. Photo by Eric Daeuber / Special to The Forum 1 / 6
Pounds 612 1st Ave. N., Fargo, features a well-stocked bar as well as a dining area. Photo by Eric Daeuber / Special to The Forum 2 / 6
A brief but complete bar list and near-perfect Poutine appetizer are some of the highlights at Pounds in downtown Fargo. Photo by Eric Daeuber / The Forum3 / 6
The 38th Parallel burger at Pounds is topped with house-made kimchi, pepper jam, cilantro and yin-yang sauce. Photo by Eric Daeuber / Special to The Forum4 / 6
Candied bacon and a chocolaty stout reduction elevate the bite-size desserts at Pounds. Photo by Eric Daeuber / Special to The Forum 5 / 6
Pounds 612 1st Ave. N., Fargo, features a well-stocked bar as well as a dining area. Photo by Eric Daeuber / Special to The Forum6 / 6

FARGO—Poutine is not high cuisine, but it's the dish that told me that there was something a bit different about Pounds.

This was the high school cafeteria fare of my youth, a pile of French fries and cheese curds covered in brown gravy, something for which I have no nostalgic affection. But it's a litmus test for Canadian bar food, and Pounds was asking for it when they put it on the menu.

What arrived at the table was a dish of speckled tan fries, soft enough for a fork and firm enough to take a gravy, hot cheese curds with no hint of the kind of grease that so often escapes at some mysterious temperature, and a clean, golden gravy that makes its way down the sculpted stake of heart-stopping ingredients like some postmodern art form.

Admittedly, the first two ingredients could have been a lucky fluke. The gravy, though, is the real thing.

The concept at Pounds, I was given to understand, is that you can buy some of the items on the menu by the pound, a theme that, mercifully, is never fully realized. Pounds doesn't need a schtick. The food is too good for that.

It's not lowbrow food done right or exceptionally good bar food or made-from-scratch takes on someone else's tavern creations. It's just nicely done interpretations of the sort of thing you would expect in a kitchen staffed by cooks who know the limit of both the diner and the dollar, putting out food with well-considered flavors and a few small forgivable inconsistencies.

The 38th Parallel burger ($10), a dish that allows poli-sci majors a bit of a snobbish advantage at dinnertime conversation, gives up a little of the crunch you might hope for in the kimchi topping in exchange for a genuinely unique flavor. It's house-made, and you know this because the only real quality your kimchi has to have is that it doesn't taste like someone else's kimchi. And it doesn't. The beef is loose and crumbly as a good burger should be, keeping juices — and flavor — trapped in the patty where it belongs and not on your plate.

On the green side of things, the Chickity China ($9), another name that makes you wonder a little, is a version of a Mandarin chicken salad that leans to the simple on a nearly endless scale of complexity that this combination of breaded chicken, oranges and sesame seeds seems to encourage. Chicken is tender, breading is crisp and rustic, and the dressing is unassuming and slightly sweet.

At $2, dessert is a no brainer, especially since it borders on being a highlight up there with the surprising poutine. Two or three bites will take you to the bottom of a small cheesecake with two ingredients that set it apart from both the shot-glass mousses of the upper crust and the franchise monster desserts made to impress the high school track team — candied bacon and a chocolaty stout reduction.

Atmosphere is a bit sparse, so you need to count on your company for something to look at. The painted cans on the wall won't inspire much conversation.

The wait staff is friendly, quick to respond and knows the menu very very well.

The bar selection ($6 to $8) is brief but creative, and the wine and beer list (around $5) is short but reasonably complete. You'll have to leave your kids at home after 5.

It's one of several culinary bar experiments in downtown Fargo, and it does its best to distinguish itself from competition that have stronger themes and a jump-start on the downtown gastropub trend. These other options, as interesting as they are, don't outpace Pounds when it comes to a carefully considered menu and a genuine fondness for good ingredients.

Pounds

ADDRESS: 612 1st Ave. N., Fargo

CUISINE: American

FOOD: 3 stars

SERVICE: 4 stars

AMBIANCE: 2 stars

Dining details

HOURS: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday

PHONE: (701) 478-1234

RESERVATIONS ACCEPTED: No

ALCOHOL: Full bar

CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED: Yes

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.

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