Star Underperformer

Chef Isaac Becker’s new Bar La Grassa delivers lots of comfort, but few thrills

Before taping a local television show a few weeks ago, I was in the green room with Melissa Gilbert, former television Little House on the Prairie star and recent musical Little House on the Prairie star. I was busy wishing I had worn different sunglasses and eyeing her mink-y iPhone case and wondering if such a thing was useful when the conversation turned to restaurants. “Have you been to Bar La Grassa yet?” she asked. “No,” I lied.

I often lie about visiting restaurants when I’m in the middle of reviewing them. You never know who’s going to talk to whom—or about what! Or when.… “You have to go!” she cried out, theatrically. (Incidentally, most people in green rooms are doing one of three things: crying out theatrically, muttering furtively into cell phones, or wishing they had worn different sunglasses.) I asked why.

“It’s simply wonderful!” she said.

“What did you have that was wonderful?” I demanded, trying not to betray that I had, in fact, been there. “The burrata with chile oil!” she cried out. “Really?”—I hoped I wasn’t making a face—“What else?” “The lobster with soft eggs.” I had to give her that, but pressed: “What else?” At which point, she was called away, and I was left to consider the central dilemma of my professional life: What was delicious at Bar La Grassa? Besides the soft eggs and the gnocchi? Really, what?

Bar La Grassa is the hotly anticipated second venture of Isaac Becker, the chef behind 112 Eatery, the restaurant conceived as a chef’s hangout that opened in 2005 and remains the toughest reservation in town. It’s still so tough to get in there that people regularly wait three hours for walk-in tables, and Saturday prime-time reservations must be booked weeks in advance. This new restaurant was supposed to offer Italian food (Becker once led D’Amico Cucina) at an affordable price.

And it is both those things–affordable and Italian. The menu kicks off with a lot of little plates to share, like the fabulous lobster bruschetta, in which just-set, incredibly creamy eggs cosset sweet chunks of Atlantic lobster. With each bite you imagine angels flooding in on sunbeams. I don’t have another appetizer to recommend, though. Most of what I tried tasted unfinished. Ice-cold burrata was hardly enhanced by a drizzle of chile oil. The dish lacked the vibrancy, sweetness, and the fragrance that oh-so-fresh cheese should have, and merely came across as stale butter. The ricotta in the ricotta-and-roasted-tomato appetizer wasn’t flavorful enough to support the dish.

Other appetizers lacked seasoning. The bruschetta of white anchovy and avocado was briny and creamy, but tasted unfinished, as if someone forgot the critical seasonings that would make it more than that. I had that exact same sense about the halibut crudo, in which slices of bland halibut lay on a plate, lacking any richness or depth of flavor. Expensive appetizers, like the grilled prawns or the seared sea scallops, were competently done but never wonderful. The prawns looked pretty: Head-on beauties that curled on the plate like so many pink parentheses. Bite into one, though, and it might as well have been blackened tofu for all the ocean-flavor it had. Where was the sweetness? The ocean’s trill? For ingredient-first cooking to succeed you need better ingredients than this. I thought the same thing about the scallops: Technically, they were seared perfectly, but they offered no good flavor, only a funny tinniness.

Photo by Todd Buchanan

The pastas and gnocchi are by far the restaurant’s strongest suit, and my sincere advice is that when you go to Bar La Grassa, you first get the lobster and soft eggs and a half-order of gnocchi for every single member of your party, and then proceed to a pasta course. Why does everyone need a half-order, instead of sharing a few full bowls? Because otherwise there will be war. These little nubbins of potatoey positivity are so tender, so flavorful and precious, with their counterintuively delicious cloak of orange-scented brown butter and slightly browned cauliflower, that you will use one arm to guard the bowl and your free hand to shuttle the little darlings to your mouth as quickly as possible.

Every other pasta I tried was good but not great. Pappardelle with veal ragu was tender and comforting. Paccheri with milk-braised chicken was tender, buttery, and comforting. Orecchiete with braised rabbit was—sorry, nothing else to say—tender and comforting. I tried just about everything else on the menu but discovered neither highs nor lows, only competence. Exactly the same thing is to be said of every secondi, the more traditional entrées: A flattened grilled chicken was lemony, salty, and plain; grilled sausages were exactly as good as any you get from an upscale supermarket; grilled pork ribs were dull and tender. Everything I tried was fine—except the porchetta, a pork roast so limpid and uninteresting it might have been baby food, and offering none of the herb flavor you get from a porchetta (or porketta, or porcetta!) from a plain old Minnesota butcher shop, or any of the crackle or potent meaty flavor you find in roasts from the world’s new porchetta masters, like Sara Jenkins of New York City’s Porchetta.

Is it fair to compare Isaac Becker to Sara Jenkins’s little porchetta stand? After all, Bar La Grassa is a big, big restaurant with lots of moving parts, a very good wine list, and carrot cake. Yes, carrot cake. I tried all the desserts on offer at La Grassa, from a good, dense chocolate slab to adequate crêpes to the carrot cake. “Carrot cake?” I asked our server. “Oh, it’s just wonderful,” she gushed. So I ordered it, wondering if it would be some Italian olive-oil-roast-walnut-flour-amaretto reinterpretation of the… no. Cream-cheese icing and everything. Ever been to a wedding? It’s that carrot cake. Everyone’s favorite! Nothing wrong with it. And yet, why is it in the Italian restaurant of one of the Twin Cities’ most esteemed chefs?

Which brings us back to my professional dilemma: If Bar La Grassa was the product of any new young chef, I think I’d be doing cartwheels and trumpeting its greatness. The lobster and soft eggs! The gnocchi! But total competence with flairs of brilliance is not what I expect from Isaac Becker. I expect total brilliance punctuated by lulls of competence. Is this fair? Possibly not. I feel like that jerky eighth-grade teacher who gives the star of the math class a paper with an A- and gravely intones, “I expect so much more of you.” But if I told you, dear reader, that I was in love with Bar La Grassa and think you should rush right out to try it I’d be lying. If I used the critic’s great blame-avoiding cover line­­—they just opened, they may get better!—I think that would be dishonest, too. What I honestly think is that theatrically crying out about how spectacular this restaurant is, before it has earned such praise, damages not just Isaac Becker’s future, but Minneapolis as a whole.

Let me explain further. The James Beard restaurant committee was in town a few weeks ago, before Bar La Grassa opened, checking out local restaurants and conducting other business. A few visiting critics had dinner at one prominent restaurant, one that I’ve said for years lacks the finesse and polish it had at its opening. The consensus of the group, as reported back to me: “It’s just plain food. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing better than I’d cook on a weeknight.” Ouch. That night that chef cheated himself out of tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars he might have earned over his lifetime, as well as who knows how many opportunities to travel the world, meet amazing people, and so on. And while that chef was ultimately responsible for this silent, career-impeding moment, I believe all the critics and customers who theatrically cried out that his food was astonishing and great (when it wasn’t, but could so easily have been) are a little responsible, too. 

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.