The New Restaurant Scene
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Let’s review. September 2008—the month the investment bank Lehman Brothers tanked and the Dow plummeted 500 points in a day, thus ushering in the Great Recession—that month meant a lot of things to a lot of people. To this restaurant critic, it marked the day the music died. Sure, fine dining in Minneapolis–St. Paul had sputtered from the gung-ho days of just a few years ago, when it seemed like a new destination restaurant opened every week. Back then, you couldn’t possibly cover every single new restaurant. There simply weren’t enough pages, enough ink, enough time!
And then, in September 2008, everyone seemed to go from feeling rich to feeling poor, and the new pastime became not ordering tiny cups of saffron soup, but instead staring wide-eyed at newspapers and reading details of locals who lost their life’s savings to Bernard Madoff or Tom Petters. Suddenly, there seemed to be only restaurant closings: D’Amico Cucina, Bellanotte, Morton’s, Stone’s, the Times Bar & Cafe, and so many more. Overnight, $3 was the new $20, as proven by the hottest restaurant of last winter, Barrio Tequila Bar, which took one of our best white-tablecloth cooks, longtime La Belle Vie sous-chef Bill Fairbanks, and unleashed him on tacos. Wonderful tacos, but still: If $3 is the new $20, tacos are on the menu.
By the time spring came, there was such a famine of new restaurants to review that the local press (myself included) devoted a preposterous amount of attention to fast-food-chain debuts, like Smashburger. There’s one in St. Anthony. And now there’s one in Golden Valley! The parking lots have bright lines painted on the ground so you know just where to put your car! Marvelous. Capital was hard to come by all over, but nowhere so much as in the restaurant business. Only the strong survived.
But here’s the big news: The strong did survive! Some were reborn. Some even thrived, snagging hot chefs idled by the economy, and with them fresh cachet. Some even expanded. To wit: Alex Roberts and the Restaurant Alma crew have opened another Brasa, the nose-to-tail fast-casual spot, this time in St. Paul, and 112 Eatery is in the final throes of opening a Minneapolis North Loop pasta bar. Is your head spinning with all this news? I thought so. ¶ That’s why I present you with the issue I’ve been calling your Bunker Buster—as in, your key to bust out of your bunker and discover the glory of a Twin Cities restaurant scene that’s been remade in the last year. If you’ve been hunkered in your bunker hiding from bad news, it’s time to come out and notice that in your absence the world has been made anew. And it’s a delicious world indeed.
What do the Cities’ newest restaurants have in common? Nothing. D’Amico Kitchen does Italian in the style of a modern Medici, Om is Indian with a nightclub’s flair, and the Kitchen is as local as wild rice. Here’s your guide to their delights, as well as those at Ginger Hop, Sea Change, the Loring Kitchen & Bar, and Northeast Social Club.
The new main-floor dining room at the
Chambers, stocked with tens of millions
of dollars in contemporary art, gives
Minneapolis something it’s never had before
—a place fit for visiting royalty.
If you ever took an art-history class you should have learned all about the Medicis, the wealthy Florentine family that just about single-handedly paid for the Italian Renaissance. We have them to thank for many of the great works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Their various collections and commissions still form not only the basis of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, but much of Western art and culture. To be perfectly clear about my own biases, this is the kind of conspicuous consumption I can get behind. You want to spend your gold on a private jet and some wristwatches? I don’t much care. You want to pay for the intellectual and aesthetic ball to be carried forward in your time, and possibly for hundreds of years into the future? Now I care.
Ralph Burnet, the local real-estate mogul with the astonishing contemporary-art collection, laid claim to being our local Medici in 2006, when he opened the Chambers and attached a gallery to showcase his collection. However, when globe-trotting great chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was in charge and the hotel’s main restaurant was in the cavernous, strangely echoing and thumping basement, one didn’t really get much contact with that art. Now that Jean-Georges is out and the D’Amico team is in, you do.
D’Amico’s new restaurant is about half the size of the old D’Amico Cucina space, its 30 or so indoor tables laid out in such a way that a good portion are beside one or another semi-priceless pieces of art. For instance, you can have dinner next to Will Cotton’s Candy Stick Forest, which depicts a semi-nude girl in a grove of hyper-real-looking candy trees. Is this pop art a knowing critique of the male gaze? An exploration of the intellect-obliterating appeal of gluttony of all sorts? Or mere porn?
Whatever the true reading of the painting—or rather, the true reading of the painting for you—just having a couple of hours with it to come to your own conclusion is an activity typically reserved for the Medicis of the world. Here, however, you can zip in any lunchtime, get the best meatball hoagie in town for a mere $10, and gaze at the candy painting or one of the many, many others until you feel at peace with it.
That meatball hoagie was the most surprising thing I found at D’Amico Kitchen. It’s in the “Panini” section of the lunch menu, which refers not to pressed panini sandwiches, but all kinds of sandwiches. Order this veal-meatball version and you get a standard Italian-American composition: a long, soft-but-crusty roll filled with a row of terrifically tender, pale meatballs robed in a zesty sauce and mellowed with a blanket of tangy provolone cheese. As soon as you take a bite, the various bold, comforting, sweet-and-spicy parts unite in perfect harmony. “My God,” I found myself murmuring to my lunch date. “It’s everything I like about watching a Jets game on television in New Jersey, plus fine art! Who saw this coming?”
The lunchtime chicken cacciatore, at $12, is another Italian-American triumph. Long-braised, tender chicken is paired with a mushroom-rich tomato sauce and a polenta as creamy as custard. It’s a simple bit of comfort food cooked as perfectly as possible.
Suckling pig with pickled onions
at D’Amico Kitchen.
At D’Amico Cucina, chef John Occhiato made his name by livening up the haute Italian menu with fresh local ingredients, and my one worry for the new restaurant is that in trying to broaden its appeal, the staff has made the menu too long.
I counted some 40 different options at dinner, and the level of excellence of the various dishes was not uniform. An appetizer of thinly sliced pork loin, for instance, was terrifically dry, though I could have eaten the accompanying tuna-caper sauce by the quart.
The best appetizer I tried was a delicate hamachi crudo made with tangerine oil and floral and dusky fennel pollen; each bite was flowery, sweet, and complex. Another good option was the spicy fried calamari, a fritto misto of big bunches of parsley, sweet segments of lemon, and squid made a touch fiery with chili flakes. It’s the perfect thing to pair with a glass of bubbly Prosecco or the bar’s excellent Negroni.
Some of the pastas are lovely, especially the tender ravioli filled with real buffalo-milk ricotta and garnished with curls of salty Speck ham. Overall, though, they aren’t as uniformly good as they were at D’Amico Cucina. For instance, the garganelli carbonara I tried one night had a carbonara sauce that was oily instead of rich and custard-like, as if it had broken after sitting for a long time. And black-squid-ink spaghetti with clams and sausage arrived at the table tasting strangely under-seasoned, as if it had gotten only half the sauce it needed.
Entrées like chicken under a brick and roast suckling pig are done simply but well, in a nice understated and competent way. That these dishes are whisked in and out by the legendarily attentive and decorous (and gratifyingly adult) Cucina wait staff, many of whom made the journey to the Kitchen, makes dining here particularly pleasant, as does the wine list, which is long on older vintages at reasonable prices. (When is a new restaurant not a new restaurant? When it opens with a seasoned staff and a back catalog of Brunello.)
Desserts by Leah Henderson are conservative but well-executed. A steamed chocolate spice cake is so lightly spiced and paired with an olive-oil gelato so tame that it would be easy to mistake the dish for a simple flourless chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. The one sweet that seems to relax and dare to be frivolous is the splendid gelato sandwich trio, made with tender, brightly colored Italian macaroons. I couldn’t tell you which I prefer more—the fresh and nutty-tasting bright- green pistachio one or the salty hazelnut-caramel one—but I feel sure that after six or 20 more visits I might narrow it down. Till then I say those macaroons and a cup of so-good-it-must-be-a-luxury-hotel coffee make the best date in town—especially if you need to impress a visiting Italian duke. D’Amico Kitchen, Chambers Hotel, 901 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-767-6960, chambersminneapolis.com