If he were a director of Broadway musicals, Tim McKee would be developing a reputation as a show doctor, a skilled professional who is called in to turn troubled productions into long-running hits.
McKee, the state's first James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of La Belle Vie and Solera in Minneapolis, worked his magic last summer, transforming the Guthrie Theater's chief restaurant into the popular Sea Change. Now he's turned his talents to revamping Il Gatto (3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., www.ilgattominneapolis .com), the Italian restaurant which Parasole Restaurant Holdings launched late last fall to replace its 25-year-old Figlio.
"We got up to 30,000 feet and looked down on what we're doing in the neighborhood," said Parasole's Phil Roberts, referring to Il Gatto and the company's neighboring Chino Latino and Uptown Cafeteria & Support Group. "We saw the opportunity to make a culinary spike in Uptown, and give the neighborhood another dimension."
Returning to Calhoun Square is a homecoming for McKee; his first real cooking job was in the Figlio kitchen. But it's not just nostalgia that's fueling his return to the restaurant after two decades. "Since D'Amico Cucina [where McKee was executive chef in the mid-1990s], it has always been on my list to open an Italian restaurant," he said. "It's the cuisine that is closest to my heart."
McKee has recruited longtime La Belle Vie colleague Jim Christiansen to run the Il Gatto kitchen. They've been slowly instituting upgrades over the past two weeks, remaking the menu's small plates, pizzas and salads; they'll continue until the entire menu has been rebooted (pastas and entrees are next up), probably within the month. "We're adding a sense of adventure to the menu," said McKee.
That means succulent chunks of cured swordfish, like the dreamiest canned tuna imaginable, served with wedges of colorful heirloom tomatoes. Or thick slices of house-made pancetta, hot off the kitchen's wood-burning grill and dressed with juicy Mission figs. Or a meaty octopus tentacle, charred by the grill's intense heat and resting on tender white beans and stewed peppers. Or smartly topped plate-sized pizzas. My favorite? A variety of brightly crunchy radishes, dressed in a light anchovy-citrus vinaigrette. It's rustic McKee food at Figlio -- sorry, Il Gatto -- prices.
Figlio regulars will be pleased to learn that a small selection of the restaurant's classic dishes will be returning, including calamari and a tortellini that McKee drolly recalled making hundreds of times during his tenure on the Figlio line. "They're blasts from the past, but they stand the test of time," he said.
Will the McKee-Parasole partnership continue to other properties? Time will tell. "We're seeing where our relationship takes us," said McKee.
"Tim has his other world, so we're taking it easy," said Roberts. "Right now, Il Gatto is our main concern."