Practice can make perfect

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2009 - 9:31 AM

How does a good restaurant earn its keep? With consistency. This young chef offers bright new flavors, but needs a little more practice in service.

Server Anna Peterson describes the daily menu to a table of patrons on the sidewalk outside Tosca Trattoria.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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It feels like forever since Harvey McLain began teasing his customers with the prospect of a restaurant next door to his original Turtle Bread Co., so I checked: The Strib's archive revealed that an item on the subject first appeared in 2002.

The ensuing years were peppered with occasional talk but little action, and then suddenly this spring, boom, Trattoria Tosca appeared, seemingly overnight. Seriously, when I dropped by for a quick peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie fix at the Linden Hills bakery, the space was as dormant as ever, but then, somehow, a few weeks later, the joint had been transformed into a fully functioning restaurant.

To run his kitchen, McLain tapped an insider: Adam Vickerman, who was doing admirable work across town at the helm of McLain's Cafe Levain, making him perhaps the only 23-year-old in Minneapolis culinary history to have directed not one but two restaurants of note.

Vickerman has subsequently celebrated a birthday, and when it comes to his cooking, he's often a very mature 24. His menu, which changes frequently and pays close attention to seasonal availability, follows an approachable format, with just a few starters, four pastas sold in two sizes, four entrees, a handful of side dishes and several desserts.

Its restraint is admirable. There are no pizzas, Caesar salads, tiramisu or other yawn-inducing Italian-in-Minnesota benchmarks. Instead, a meal can start with what Vickerman accurately dubs his "flavors" plate. The varied selection could include silky and supple duck liver pâté or tangy horseradish-parsley pesto spread over toasted baguette, spicy garden-fresh arugula made even better with olive oil and sea salt, candied pistachios, crunchy pink French radishes, wedges of ripe nectarines or tangy Minnesota-made goat cheese. Whatever the combination, it's often a bang-up introduction to Vickerman's imaginative mindset.

When the pastas are right, they're right on the money. Tender gnocchi was caramelized to a deep, mouth-watering brown, the epitome of comfort food. Mushrooms, a runny egg yolk and a cool, ripe peach all came together splendidly over nicely toothy pappardelle. Pairing lemon with peas over long pasta ribbons brought out the very best in both ingredients. What I've come to think of as Vickerman's signature pasta, thick ropes of bucatini tossed with garlic and sweet tomatoes and finished with a sprinkle of toasted bread crumbs, handily proves that less can be truly more. It's a dish I could happily slurp down on a daily basis.

Except when it's choking in dried chili flakes, turning each bite into an unwelcome five-alarm blaze. Unfortunately, inconsistency is a problem here, and a frequent one. As in when a cream-based sauce holds together beautifully one day, then almost immediately coagulates into glue a few nights later. Or one ingredient -- duck liver pâté, for example -- elbows its way over everything else on the plate. Or when a flurry of components feels -- and tastes -- like a kitchen-sink solution rather than a well-considered, well-balanced formula. Oh, and should a plate of pasta with a few root vegetable pieces really cost $17?

Menu by menu

Still, there are times when it's fun to participate in Vickerman's on-the-job creative process. Over the course of several weeks I watched (and tasted) the evolution of pan-seared seafood paired with mussels, first with salmon, then with halibut, and finally, in its most entrancing form, with succulent striped bass, losing the earlier incarnations' tomato broth and opting instead for butter, bacon and sweet pea accents. It was, in a word, glorious.

He also nailed meat-and-potatoes goodness with a hefty rib-eye that sliced like a dream, each salt-crusted bite fairly bursting with an extravagantly beefy flavor. That this same chef could also turn out a joyless roast chicken with polenta so undercooked it could almost pass for raw, or serve a dry and depressingly flavorless pork shank, is a mystery. Chalk it up to youthful inexperience?

Dessert often bears a whiff of afterthought. On half my visits, the two or three items had already sold out, and the offer of a cake or pie from the bakery next door didn't cut it. But when it's available it's often terrific, particularly the flavor-popping gelatos and sorbets.

Too many mistakes

Service is a stumbling block. Sure, friendly and enthusiastic were almost a given, but such niceties didn't smooth over the molehills that eventually rolled into a Mount Buzzkill. Such as watching servers arrive with fully loaded plates, only to awkwardly discover a table cluttered with dishes from the previous course. Discovering a lipstick outline on a $10 glass of sauvignon blanc. Wondering why water glasses sat empty, or why removed flatware wasn't replaced.

And, my personal favorite, hearing the endless query "Now who had the [insert name of dish here]?" No competent server delivers a plate to a table without knowing its proper destination, just as trial attorneys already know the answer to questions they ask of witnesses in open court.

Apologies for the harangue, but the most frustrating part of constantly running up against these "Restaurants for Dummies" basics -- and the kitchen's up-and-down performance -- is that they are problems with relatively painless solutions.

I have faith in Vickerman's abilities, if only because the Apple Valley native has fed me well more often than not. Come on, the guy is only 24, remember? I'm imagining the goods Vickerman will deliver as he gains more experience. In his case, my intuition tells me that practice will indeed approach perfect.

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  • TRATTORIA TOSCA ★★1/2

    Location: 3415 W. 44th St., Minneapolis, 612-924-1900, www.trattoriatosca.com

    Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

    Atmosphere: Side-by-side storefronts (one with kitchen views) and a pleasant stretch of sidewalk tables. Restrooms not handicapped accessible.

    Service: Friendly but uneven.

    Sound level: Full house means full volume.

    Recommended dishes: Menu changes frequently, but if they're available, check out the "flavors" appetizer, plum tomato bucatini, rib-eye and gelatos and sorbets.

    Wine list: Medium-priced, around-the-world roster emphasizing Italian labels.

    Price range: Starters $7 to $12, pastas $12 to $17, entrees $18 to $32, side dishes $4 to $9, desserts $4 to $7.

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