The '90s restaurant keeps packing them in. There are plenty of reasons for its impressive staying power.
Where does the time go? When a friend of mine asked me when I had last dined at Palomino, it took a moment for me to conjure up a response. "Sometime during the late 1990s," was the answer. Yikes.
Not that I couldn't remember a time when the LaSalle Plaza restaurant, which opened with a major bang in 1991, was the city's ultimate reservation. Artichoke dip, sun-dried tomatoes and tiramisu? Please, I was so there.
But in the intervening years, Palomino, which is owned and operated by the same company behind Kincaid's, has been surpassed by countless hot spots. In the last-laugh department, few of them have endured, while Palomino keeps packing them in at 9th and Hennepin.
There are plenty of reasons for its impressive staying power. First off, the location, within steps of the State and Orpheum theaters, can't be beat, and this is one dining establishment that knows how to get ticketholders into their seats by curtain time.
Then there's the sort-of Italian menu, which feels designed to overlap as many dining-out demographics as possible and hasn't changed all that much over the years. This is both a blessing and a curse. Frequent diners know exactly what they're getting into, but infrequent diners like myself might wonder why the kitchen hasn't evolved along with the rest of the world.
There's a little preserved-in-amber quality to Palomino, and it's not just the over-the-top decor (more on that later). Whether you find this dated or reassuring is entirely up to you.
A good beginning
Here's where all visits should start: pizzas. The browned, slightly blistered and parchment-thin crusts are terrific, and when they're judiciously topped -- the cheeses can get a little heavy handed -- the results are marvelous; I could happily eat the colorful combination of tender pulled chicken, tangy onions and sweet red peppers on a near-daily basis.
Those same crusts are fashioned into delicate crisps that are tailor-made for scooping up a creamy white bean hummus, a baked brie finished with pistachios and honey or mellow, slowly roasted garlic cloves (when it comes to garlic, the kitchen isn't shy, a decidedly un-Minnesotan and entirely welcome trait).
The kitchen expertly grills up several decent Kansas-raised black angus cuts, including a beautifully briny bone-in rib-eye that stands up to any neighboring beef palace. There's a decent spit-roasted pork loin, and scampi-style prawns have a sizzling bite.
Lunch features a soup-salad combination that's good enough -- and a good enough value -- to make me a noon-hour regular, and I can't imagine stopping into the restaurant and not ordering the kitchen's best idea, a cool and refreshing toss of shrimp, scallops and calamari dressed with herbs and preserved lemon.
Rethink these options
Some dishes were flat-out bad. I've rarely encountered mussels so stringy and off-tasting. Scallops were seared into rubbery oblivion. Ravioli, the size of a Netflix envelope, were tough, and if they were filled with lobster, my taste buds couldn't detect it. Chicken Parmesan had all the pizazz of a heat-and-serve meal; the chicken picatta had a similar phoned-in quality.
Others just needed a dash of tender loving care. There's plenty to admire in the appealingly basic roast chicken, but it was swimming in oddly flavorless pan juices and paired with an aggressively overdressed salad. Speaking of salads, there are some notable ones on the menu -- the Caesar, for example, has a feisty garlic-anchovy kick, and the restaurant's famous "Chop Chop" remains a justifiable crowd-pleaser. Still, I'm not sure why a gorgeous piece of grilled salmon was sharing a platter (portions here are uniformly enormous) with a mound of minuscule, flavorless shrimp. Crab cakes were more filler than crab. Most of the pastas could use a good editor; even the simple tomato-garlic-basil-Parmesan combination, tossed with skinny capellini, managed to feel overwrought.
The plus-sized desserts impress more for their generous portions -- the boozy, blowsy chocolate tiramisu is ample enough to serve four -- than for their originality or execution. Happy hour features some genuine snack-and-drink deals.
A hint of '90s
Then there is the decor. "I feel like we should all be wearing Nolan Miller," said my friend, a reference to the restaurant's ripped-from-"Dynasty" setting, a gaudy tornado of marble, mahogany and fake Matisses, Légers and Chihulys.
Palomino may be the place where the color mauve has gone to live out its final days, but because the restaurant is also fastidiously maintained (OK, the fake olive trees could use a major dusting) it possesses a certain crazy dignity.
It also helps that underneath all that interior design overkill lies enviably high ceilings, enormous scene-setting windows, a roomy lounge and a see-and-be-seen dining room that's framed by what might be one of the city's first exhibition kitchens.
The service staff is on it, whether they're tossing out a heartfelt welcome at the door, scrupulously keeping water glasses filled, offering a few twists from pepper mills so large they could be burped, appearing from out of nowhere armed with a hunk of Parmesan and a cheese grater or inquiring about parking validation in the downstairs ramp.
Palomino's buzziest days may be behind it, but that hasn't stopped its employees from hustling as if they're working in the hottest shop in town. I love that.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757