Bar La Grassa: Fun and affordable

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2009 - 9:35 AM

In tough economic times, Bar La Grassa stands out above all newcomers. No wonder it's our restaurant of the year.

Decisions, decisions.

The placemat-sized menu in front of me boasted 51 dishes. Seriously, I counted. Fifty-one! Such a prodigious figure has been known to trigger my brain's decision-phobic defense mechanism -- as in, Dude, how should I know what to order? Which explains why I rarely find myself dining at those mom-and-pop Asian strip-mall restaurants with their eight-page, single-spaced, utterly exhausting menus. Instant Excedrin moment. Whatever happened to editing?

But here's the thing: At Bar La Grassa, the standing-room-only collaboration between the husband-and-wife team of Isaac Becker and Nancy St. Pierre (112 Eatery) and their buddy Josh Thoma (La Belle Vie, Solera and Barrio), I didn't so much as flinch. Maybe that's because Becker corrals his kitchen's considerable riches into three easier-to-absorb categories: antipasti/bruschetta, pasta (both dry and fresh) and meats/fish. Overwhelming? No. Adventure-in-the-making? Oh, yeah.

Here's where to start: tender scrambled eggs, luxuriously flecked with thumbnail-sized bits of succulent lobster and spooned over thickly sliced grilled bread. "It's like heaven on toast," sighed my friend, and she wasn't exaggerating. Now that I know Becker's secret -- it's a 50/50 ratio of eggs to cream cheese -- I've been spoiled for anything less. No wonder the restaurant can easily sell a hundred of them on a busy Saturday night.

Eight other bruschettas are also topped with all manner of deliciousness. (Here's what's not there: raw, flavorless, off-season tomatoes, the building block that most Gopher State restaurants reflexively turn to when they get within 50 feet of the word "bruschetta.") Shears of ruby red beef are rubbed with cloves and coriander, lightly seared, sliced thicker than most carpaccios and pounded into gloriously tender submission. A generous dollop of ultra-creamy burrata, mozzarella's pampered cousin, gets just the right gentle finish with a mellow anchovy-garlic-butter sauce. Silvery anchovies pop -- both in looks and flavor -- against cool, creamy avocado. Slow-cooked pork shoulder, a hearty caponata that subs in artichokes for eggplant, a toss of marinated mushrooms, they're all terrific.

And simple. What I admire most about the kitchen's handiwork is how Becker & Co. fully embrace the underappreciated art of restraint. Asceticism is no easy feat, since there's nothing to hide behind, no tricks to fall back upon, no cover-ups. To paraphrase Rose, the nuclear-powered stage mother in the musical "Gypsy," you've either got it or you don't, and Bar La Grassa has got it. I also appreciate how Becker isn't painstakingly locked into attempting to replicate the traditions of an Umbria, or a Sicily. His is a more personal -- and, yes, simple -- expression.

"I want to make food that I want to eat," he told me a few months ago. What a coincidence: I want him to make food that I want to eat, too. And you know what? He does.

Becker dares to fill lovely half-moon-shaped tarts, their pastry light and flaky, with smooth, sweet ricotta and nothing else; I could gleefully consume one -- OK, two -- on a daily basis. First it was halibut, then it was barramundi, and currently it's paper-thin slices of striped bass, cured in lime juice, drizzled with fiery Italian chile-infused oil and finished with cilantro, preserved lemon and pepitos, each nibble a cool-hot treat.

A thick slab of his divine molded chicken/foie gras/pork loaf, served straight up, couldn't be more appealing. Ditto the rest of the exceptional charcuterie. It's produced by chef Erik Sather, who is clearly putting his tenure behind the counter at Clancey's Meats & Fish, the peerless Linden Hills butcher shop, to extremely good use. Sather's handiwork -- a boldly flavored pork cheek terrine (doesn't that sound far more appetizing than "head cheese"?), a slice of porchetta spiraled with a frisky cumin-paprika paste and a disk of creamy, gloriously fatty (another appropriate name: "la grassa" is Italian for "the fat") mortadella -- are served on a single platter, and it constitutes some of the Twin Cities' most notable edibles.

The eight dry pasta selections -- sourced from Italy's Rustichella d'Abruzzo and generally prepared to toothy perfection -- demonstrate how factory-made pasta is no second-class citizen. Fusilli with hearty house-made pork sausage, gorgeous sushi-grade tuna kissed with a chile-garlic purée and spooned over calamari-shaped rings (Becker first composed it on the fly at the 112, cementing serendipity's place in the creative process), fork-pulled pieces of ultra-tender chicken tossed with shorter, wider rigatoni, it's all good, and with the exception of an over-the-top linguine-lobster combination, all are served in both half- and full-sized portions, which encourages maximum exploration.

My favorite just might be -- you got it -- the most basic: spaghetti cooked in Chianti until it takes on grape flavor and color undertones, then tossed with a bit of garlic, Parmesan and toasted pine nuts; what a truly fabulous way to drop five bucks.

On the fresh side, there's a heart attack-inducing fettucine Alfredo and a perfectly rendered veal ragu, appropriately paired with pappardelle, which means, "to gulp down." But the standouts are slow-braised rabbit over thumbprinted orecchiette, vibrant basil pesto coating long ribboned sheets and, saving the best for last, lovingly caramelized gnocchi cooked with slivers of cauliflower and finished with cream and blasts of orange zest. Go ahead and order the full size already, you know you want to.

A half-dozen roasted meats and fish, served family style, almost feel like afterthoughts (only natural, since they follow all those thoughtful carbs), but they don't taste that way, particularly a trio of Sather's fabulous pork sausages and a platter weighed down with cuts of salt-crusted prime beef, each chew yielding a mineral tang that segues to bold beefiness.

The restaurant is not without its issues. The house-made pastas aren't as delicate as they could be. Sometimes what should have been piping hot arrived barely lukewarm. Desserts -- a fudge-like wedge of flourless chocolate cake, caramel-sauced crêpes, a standard-issue carrot cake -- abide by the rest of the menu's uncomplicated-is-better mantra, but the results feel unsatisfactory.

The setting (a collaboration between co-owner Tim Rooney and ESG Architects of Minneapolis) subtly time-travels between the building's early 20th-century roots and today, with a brief pit stop in the warm-and-fuzzy 1970s, thanks to smoked glass globe lights and walls composed of handsome rough-hewn timbers (turns out it's reclaimed hemlock) that have been laid horizontally and stained dark brown. Even the kitchen gets sucked back to the Me Decade; its floral-trimmed dishware could have been yanked off a bridal registry during the "We've Only Just Begun" era.

The big-bucks seats (all first-come, first-serve, alas) are at the long pasta bar that separates the showy exhibition kitchen from the comfortable dining room. As perches go, it's tough to beat, from getting an envy-inducing gander at the fire-engine-red Berkel meat slicer (easily the moment's hottest kitchen tool) to soaking up the ever-changing symphony that is the kitchen and serving staffs as they throw themselves headlong into their work.

It's no secret that restaurants are highly collaborative enterprises, but few literally lay that out as clearly -- and as joyously -- as Bar La Grassa. We may not all find ourselves employed in similarly energizing environments, but at least we can dine in one.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

  • BAR LA GRASSA ★★★★ OUT OF 4

    Location: 800 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-333-3837, www.barlagrassa.com

    Hours: Kitchen open 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday; bar open to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, to 10 p.m. Sunday.

    Atmosphere: Spirited warehouse chic, with sightlines that rival the Ordway's.

    Service: With Nancy St. Pierre at the helm, it's no accident that the restaurant boasts one of the most hospitable crews in town.

    Sound level: Animated but not overbearing when full.

    Recommended dishes: Striped bass, cold pork plate, polpettone, eggs-lobster bruschetta, burrata bruschetta, anchovy bruschetta, red wine spaghetti, raw tuna calamarata, orecciette with braised rabbit, gnocchi, grilled sausages, bistecca.

    Wine list: Well-researched and relatively affordable, with an emphasis on Italian and California labels. Don't miss bar manager Tom Fornier's intense limoncello. Full bar.

    Average prices: Antipasti and bruschettas $9, half pastas $8, full pastas $18, meats and fish $20, desserts $7.

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