The current restaurant boom is yielding all kinds of exciting and rewarding benefits, not the least of which are the opportunities being forged for a new generation of gifted chefs.
Joe Rolle, for instance. The Borough, Vincent and Butcher & the Boar vet is now at the helm of Il Foro. That’s Italian for “the Forum,” and if the name sets off chimes, it should. The restaurant is housed in the art deco showplace formerly known as the Forum Cafeteria, a downtown Minneapolis landmark that has witnessed more attempted comebacks than Cher.
One of his many specialties is a knack for improving on cherished, taken-for-granted favorites. I can’t recall reveling in a more prodigiously juicy meatball, a veal-pork beauty enriched with ricotta that’s deep-fried in olive oil and then baked in a lively tomato sauce.
Burrata, usually relegated to tomato salad status right about now, instead is treated to peaches, which make their way into a gazpacho-style format that’s finished with crunchy polenta croutons and puffed wild rice. Lovely.
More cool, ripe peaches become an ideal foil for an expertly rendered mortadella. And Rolle reinvents beef tartare — the cut is a supple eye of round — by inserting unexpected texture notes in the form of pickled cauliflower and Pop Rocks-like toasted farro. Don’t miss it.
He’s also concentrating his considerable energies on rarely seen (and seldom perfected) dishes. A dinner-only porchetta is a revelation, a boneless loin and belly of a milk-fed suckling pig that’s cured and roasted, its salted, crackling exterior giving way to what can only be described as the most succulent Sunday ham dinner imaginable.
Rolle also deftly cross-pollinates his chef’s skill set through his Iron Ranger’s Italian-American roots. A refined version of his grandfather Dario’s rabbit cacciatore — meaty legs, slowly poached in tomatoes, olives and pancetta — arrives on a bed of ultra-creamy polenta that’s dressed with an egg yolk and a punchy olive relish. Hello, signature dish.
Oddly, pastas aren’t Rolle’s most sure-handed pursuits. He would do well to relax, trust the instincts he exhibits elsewhere, and remove one or two (or, in the case of a mess of a gemelli tossed with disc-cut octopus, tangy chorizo and feisty peppers, three) ingredients. Because when Rolle exercises restraint — or at least embraces the appearance of economy — he nails it.
It’s all there in sweet corn-filled agnolotti, an exquisite celebration of late summer’s gifts from the garden. Also impressive is an understated bowl of rigatoni, the pasta simmered in red wine until it radiates a regal magenta. Even better is a quietly ingenious bowl of what Rolle calls “inside-out” tortellini Bolognese, served in a broth perfumed with Parmesan and sage.
Lunch is a treat. Rolle’s soup-making skills are almost without equal in the Twin Cities, and the museum-quality results speak for themselves.
A half-dozen sandwiches are tops in their class, starting with, yes, a second approach to porchetta (“It’s the way I make it at my cabin,” said Rolle), a well-seasoned pork shoulder braised in set-it/forget-it mode until it falls apart. From there, it’s stacked, open-faced, on focaccia, with a slaw-like pickled fennel flourish, a caliber of sandwich-making I always hope to encounter on Marquette Avenue’s food truck row. But seldom do.
Rolle’s passion for chanterelles comes through loud and clear in a beautifully rendered omelet (and a dinnertime bruschetta that stars a luscious chicken liver mousse). Even basics are afforded a scrutiny they rarely receive. A side salad becomes a gardener’s selection of sprightly lettuces and bitter greens, brimming with herbs and splashed with a sharp red wine vinaigrette that announces its arrival through the nose.
As for the incongruity of encountering a cheeseburger on an otherwise all-Italian menu, don’t judge. It’s a business-is-business concession.
Besides, it’s flat-out spectacular, a pair of crispy, butter-infused, brisket/short-rib patties that are lavaciously blanketed in a fondue-like American-style cheese. Yep, it’s worth its $15 price tag. What a shame that it’s a lunch-only item.
When it comes to the menu’s low points, they elicit more of a shoulder shrug than all-out disappointment. For example, downtown’s dining audience is hardly crying out for a few more expensive steaks and veal chops. Raw fish preparations, like their pasta counterparts, could benefit from a less-is-more mentality.
Skip dessert. The three rote selections barely make an impression, although discovering a wayward piece of plastic in my peach tart certainly did.
Looking good. No, great.
The Forum’s interior continues to gaudily, grandly intoxicate, just as it surely did on May 27, 1930, an opening-day burst of corporate optimism from the Kansas City, Mo.-based Forum Cafeteria Co.
What a reactionary response to the Great Depression’s gloom and doom! For its 18th outpost, the company dropped a considerable sum ($3.8 million in 2015 dollars) on the interior design equivalent of a popping champagne cork. I’d happily consume a steady diet of room-temperature Cream of Wheat to spend quality time inside this mint-and-mirrors funhouse.
And why not? After the Forum pulled the plug on its peridot-tinted palace in 1975, a disco named Scottie’s on Seventh moved in. A few years later, the Forum’s famed interior, still impressively intact, was dismantled, crated and meticulously reassembled in a new location about 100 feet away. Since then, a half-dozen tenants have come and gone, with plenty of fallow years in between.
Maybe the fault lies in the location. Accessing the cavernous restaurant requires considerable fortitude, either a stroll on bleak 7th Street (a wishful-thinking buffer of a sidewalk patio isn’t fooling anyone) or a skyway-accessible journey through City Center’s comatose interior.
But all is forgiven — well, forgotten, anyway — once inside. A few recent revisions are hit and miss. Cheers for finally eliminating an unnecessary raised floor in the middle of the dining room, and for relocating the bar to a more animated position near the front door.
But jeers to the enormous (and enormously irritating) TV screens. If there’s one setting that doesn’t require another sensory distraction, surely it’s this gleaming callback to Gershwin-era exuberance.
So, yes, hiccups. But hardly insurmountable ones. As always, the room speaks for itself, and if that proud porchetta is incapable of drawing crowds, nothing will.
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