One of the many reasons why I admire Acqua Restaurant and Wine Bar is that the White Bear Lake newcomer underscores a pet theory of mine -- because, yes, it is all about me -- that good restaurants beget other good restaurants.
Here's the story: Daron Close and Chris Whalen were both practicing their crafts at Campiello when that first-rate Uptowner closed. While the two moved on to work at other D'Amico properties, they also began to nurture the prospect of launching their own dinner-only place. After mulling over sites in Chaska and Coon Rapids, they stumbled upon a vacant White Bear Lake property on Craigslist, signed on the dotted line, hired just six employees and opened the door this past June.
With Whalen's reassuring, uncomplicated cooking and Close's polished hospitality and savvy wine service, their Acqua is proof, as if we needed it, that there are few local talent incubators as fertile as the D'Amico empire. But log a few hours at Close and Whalen's table and it's clear that while the two have borrowed elements of their former employer, they've avoided a downright copy. "It's nice to get a little piece of Campi out here," Close told me, and he's right. It is. But just the nucleus, not the whole darned cell. For the most part, Acqua stands as a creation all its own.
The menu, which changes roughly every eight weeks, features a half-dozen or so starters and a similar number of entrees, at prices obviously designed to encourage frequent visits. Another welcome touch: a mix-and-match three-course, $30 option that encourages settling in for a pleasant evening while saving a few bucks.
All in the flavor
Whalen isn't breaking any new culinary ground, but that's not the point. Instead of skipping from one trend to another, he's obviously keeping a firm grasp on his ability to unlock the flavors lurking deep inside ingredients, whether it's a succulent, slow-braised pork shank, or oven-roasted cauliflower, each deeply caramelized bite yielding a rich, sweet flavor.
A cider brine brought out the very best in a meaty, crisp-skinned chicken, a juicy hanger steak was finished with a glossy Cabernet demi-glace and salmon had that alluringly plushness that seems easy to attain but really isn't. The real topper is a fabulous ragu alla Bolognese, all hearty pork and veal and bits of fortifying pancetta wrapped up in a milky, tomato-ey sauce and spooned over tender tagliatelle. It's so comforting that it's the equivalent of getting all wrapped up in an oversized afghan and curling up with a good book.
Whalen manages to balance the unexpected with the standard. Bruschetta wasn't the fallback flavorless-tomato variety, thank goodness; instead, chewy crostini was covered with a seasonally tantalizing blend of roasted eggplant, garlic and goat cheese. Delicately breaded and fried calamari was nicely complemented by an aioli popping with lemon and thyme. Yes, there's a Caesar salad on the menu, but it's hardly tame, and while I was expecting to yawn through spinach tossed in a warm bacon vinaigrette -- so Ruby Tuesday, circa 1997, right? -- I happily lapped up every morsel.
I also appreciate Whalen's restraint: No tiresome slider flight, for example, to lure in a bar crowd. While it is possible to enjoy the menu in small doses -- a glass of wine, a starter or two and you're out -- Acqua sticks pretty close to a straight-up dinner format. That said, there are problems. The thin-crust pizzas felt a little perfunctory, several dishes I sampled hit the salt-o-meter jackpot and the vegetarian options, including a too-sweet butternut squash ravioli and well-meaning but dull breaded and fried eggplant, didn't particularly impress.
The special tonight
To keep his regulars from growing restless, Whalen also cranks out a nightly special. One evening he went all surf-and-turf, with golden-seared scallops and charred-on-the-outside, meltingly-rare-on-the-inside lamb chops that were finished with a bright cranberry reduction and served with a dollop of piping hot, super-creamy mashed potatoes; for once, the word "special" was right on the money. Desserts are basic -- molten chocolate cake, crème brûlée, peach cobbler -- but they're made with obvious integrity, and while Whalen isn't producing his own ice creams and sorbets, he's wise enough to buy them from Izzy's in St. Paul.
"Why can't this be in Uptown?" whined a friend I'd dragged, not quite kicking and screaming, but almost, from his 55408 comfort zone. "I'd eat here once a week if it was." True, but you know what? South Minneapolis is filled with culinary high points, and, let's face it, the northern suburbs are not. I say good for Close and Whalen for hauling water to the desert.
The main dining room, all tans and browns and crisp white linens, is a bit of a blank slate, with just one overriding feature: its intimacy (OK, the water views are also pretty swell). With just 20 seats -- and an additional eight at the bar -- it ranks among the Twin Cities' coziest eating and drinking venues.
I wish I'd had been smart enough to visit when the weather would have permitted a meal on the equally small-scaled deck, or, better yet, the restaurant's super-cool dockside patio (why is such a setup a rarity in this land of ten ka-jillion lakes?). Oh, well. Memorial Day is just 200 days away, and counting.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757