Restaurant review: Asher Miller is a turnaround specialist

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2011 - 3:40 PM

The former 20.21 chef is now cooking at the Mall of America's Tucci Benucch. Improvements abound, naturally.

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Here's the thing: I'm not a Mall of America person, for reasons too numerous to tally here. (MOA fans, please: Let's just agree to disagree, OK?) But since Nordstrom is the new Dayton's, I grudgingly find myself occasionally navigating those Death Star-size parking ramps, a nail-biting exertion that invariably triggers a larger question. You know: Where to eat?

"Elsewhere" is my not-so-inner snark's usual reply. But lately I've been rethinking that response, because Asher Miller is cooking at the megamall.

Yes, Asher Miller, the skilled chef who ran the Walker Art Center's 20.21 for the past three years, until the museum pulled the plug in March. Although he's traded, employer-wise, one dining conglomerate -- Los Angeles-based Wolfgang Puck -- for another -- Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises -- I'm wondering if, after a few months at his new post, Miller is still adjusting to the culture shock.

Think about it. One day you're toiling in rarefied proximity to Rothkos, Oldenbergs and Motherwells, in surroundings designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm, and the next you find yourself in a workplace sandwiched between H&M and Urban Outfitters, with the sounds of Toddler Tuesdays in the background. Still, Tucci Benucch diners should be thrilled by the news. I know I am.

Miller announced his arrival not by press release but with a brief "daily specials" menu. Our server proudly handed it to us and my first thought was, "Chef-crafted options?" A miracle, truly.

There was a risotto, cooked to perfection and filled with flavor-popping peas, feisty baby arugula leaves, snappy shrimp and strips of La Quercia prosciutto, surely Iowa's greatest export, a product so good that I feel guilty when I see it at my natural foods co-op and don't toss it in my cart.

Even better was a succulent piece of pan-seared halibut, dressed with shaved fennel, with a honey-lemon reduction playing nicely against salty capers and pungent olives. It was so lovingly arranged that it reminded me about how we eat first with our eyes, an important tenet often overlooked in the world of formulaic chain restaurants.

On to the main menu. Its three bruschettas are easily the best dishes currently available at the Mall of America, underscoring the intrinsic appeal of concepts like restraint, imagination and quality.

All were built using thin slices of grilled bread topped with a pleasing and thoughtful array of ingredients. One featured that can't-miss combination of tomatoes, mozzarella and olive oil, but even better were the two that started with swipes of tangy Minnesota-made goat cheese, spicy baby arugula dressed in a pert lemon vinaigrette and a hint of salt. The first added ribbons of that spectacular prosciutto, the second boasted crunchy spears of grilled asparagus. They couldn't have been more delicious.

The oval-shaped pizzas are impressive, too, with crusts that flirt with cracker-like thinness while the oven's heat coaxes a few bubbles off their surface. There are six choices, each demonstrating a commitment to fresh, like-minded ingredients and ingenuity.

My favorite mimics that asparagus bruschetta, but adds a wow factor in the form of pickled ramps. Dribbles of garlic-infused oil add a welcome surprise to the classic Margherita formula. Another don't-miss is the burst of color that comes from skinny slices of red and yellow peppers that are scattered, Jackson Pollock-like, over roasted onions and fennel and a spicy house-made chicken sausage, the bursts of green courtesy of a post-oven scattering of chopped parsley.

My guess is that Miller is taking what I've privately dubbed Project Transformation one careful step at a time, because the rest of the menu remains riddled with dullards and land mines.

The pastas taste as if they were ripped from the pages of a corporate training manual, with one glowing exception: a small-plate serving of tender ravioli filled with an asparagas/English-pea purée, finished with crispy fried mint and a splash of white truffle-infused oil, each bite the essence of spring.

There is disappointingly little seafood, and what's there -- lightly fried calamari, mussels in tomatoes and peppers -- has "rote" written all over it. I can't muster up kind words for the routine eggplant Parmesan, the lasagna, the baked spaghetti and their Italian-American brethren.

More surprises

Still, there are some diamonds in the rough. Two thumbs way up on the melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon, a triumph of beefy flavor and texture. I also recommend the bone-in roast chicken, the meat juicy and the skin cracklingly browned; too bad the dish's sautéed spinach was drowning in salt, a frequent occurrence and another indication that Miller has his work cut ut for him.

Baby steps, right? Even the dessert tray appears to be on a self-improvement kick. After several previously dreary encounters with oversized sweets that appeared plucked from a wax museum, I sensed a faint whiff of change in the air. Sanity seemed to take hold in what had previously been the XXL department, and the calendar was actually acknowledged via a pretty free-form strawberry-rhubarb tart.

Even more impressive was a daily special: a golden, airy olive oil cake garnished with farm-fresh strawberries, a hefty dollop of lemon-scented whipped cream and a few sprigs of mint. It was beyond lovely, and, I'm hoping, a sign of more goodness to come.

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  • The La Quercia prosciutto, Donnay Farms goat cheese bruschetta, as prepared at Tucci Benucch

  • Chef Asher Miller offers an impressive menu at Tucci Benucch.

  • TUCCI BENUCCH ★★

    Location: Mall of America, Bloomington, 952-853-0200, www.tucci-benucch.com

    Hours: 11:15 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11:15 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.

    Atmosphere: Pottery Barn's Tuscan Farmhouse collection, and a welcome respite from the mall's hullabaloo. Sidewalk-style bar.

    Service: Briskly efficient and accommodating, but frequently rough around the edges.

    Sound level: Turn down the stereo, already; it's a restaurant, not Abercrombie & Fitch.

    Recommended dishes: Bruschettas, pizzas, risotto, pea- asparagus ravioli, filet mignon.

    Wine list: Familiar names, reasonable prices. Cocktail selection demonstrates a laudable effort to go beyond the basics. Decent happy hour food/drink deals.

    Price range: Starters $3.50-$9, pizzas $11-$13, entrees $14-$26.

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