Chef Erik Anderson is the first to admit that Italian cooking is not embedded in his skill set. Which explains why Scena Tavern, the vast three-month-old Uptown restaurant where Anderson serves as consulting chef, doesn’t adhere to a strict culinary orthodoxy.
“I know what tastes good,” he said. “But I don’t know rules.”
The menu — uncomplicated, approachable and unapologetically sort-of Italian — is divided into five basic categories. At the top is crudo (Italian for raw), and Anderson makes it memorable not only for its glistening freshness (three of four times a week, he’s on the phone with his former employers, Coastal Seafoods, talking them into sending him the best of the best) but for its admirable restraint.
“I’m usually the first one to gild the lily,” Anderson said with a laugh. But not here. Instead, he adheres to a simple formula, constantly reiterated: skillfully carved fish, a splash of fruity olive oil, some salt, a bit of acid — usually citrus — and a dash of crunch, often by utilizing a familiar, associated-with-Italy ingredient.
Color-wise, enticing rosy steelhead trout peppered with dill might be my favorite right now, although it’s closely chased by coral-colored tuna topped with pops of cool orange and sneaky hints of serrano chile.
Anderson and shellfish were made for each other. Creamy scallops are seasoned and tightened by a brief, clarifying brine, then dressed with a rich Syrian chile for a pop of heat and both raw and fried shallots for variations in texture. Lovely. And he’s similarly inspired by big, meaty prawns.
A pizza place
Unlike raw seafood, a genre he’s been embracing for years, Anderson is a pizza novice, but you’d never know it, whether he’s devoting time and energy to making ricotta and fennel-packed sausage, or he’s roasting Hen of the Woods mushrooms, marinating them in a sherry vinaigrette and pairing them with that American-made Taleggio. He even makes a total basic — tomato, mozzarella, oregano and that supple ham, blanketed with a flurry of peppery arugula — into a don’t-miss experience.
They rank as some of my favorite shareable dishes. Ditto the luscious chicken liver terrine, the meat’s funky edges smoothed over with shallots and cream and capped with a mellow apple cider gelée. Oh, and the fortifying winter vegetable of the moment — broccolini — charred into tasty smokiness and radiating a we-don’t-shy-away-from-heat spiciness.
At a gulp-inducing $99, it’s easily the menu’s only price shocker. Factor in its shareability — not to mention its hefty leftovers quotient — and the cost becomes much more palatable.
Still, the biggest value among many might be the meatballs. They’re made with finely ground, tightly packed chuck that’s given the 40-day dry-age treatment, with blanched pig skin inserting an opulent finishing flourish to this universally humble dish (see “gilding the lily,” above). They’re $16, and terrific.
Like everything in this kitchen, pastas are prepared on the premises. Because the restaurant’s opening was delayed, and delayed, and delayed, Anderson toyed around with Scena’s pasta extruder in his home kitchen for more than a year.
He was having so much fun with it that he grew reluctant to let it go, but fortunately for diners it’s essential Scena equipment. The results (favorite variety: hook-shaped, ruffle-edged creste di gallo) are reasonably priced, and finished with just enough unfamiliar combinations (best is the pappardelle tossed with a milky veal tongue Bolognese) to set the place apart from every other quasi-Italian restaurant in town.
When Scena’s excellent Sunday brunch rolls around (the beautiful Benedict is reason enough to book a table, as are the airy, well-stuffed omelets), Silvera is on his game, turning out a handful of pastries of distinction that satisfy a bruncher’s carb-seeking tendencies, and then some: crumbly scones glazed with a bitter orange bite, or an elegant riff on monkey bread that’s lavishly crowned with nuts. They outshine dinner’s underdeveloped dessert menu, which comes off as a bit of an afterthought.
A mismatched setting
There’s a puzzling disconnect between the kitchen’s energetic cooking and the snoozer of an environment in which it is served. Its address may be at the center of one of the Twin Cities’ most densely urban neighborhoods, yet Scena’s vast, generic surroundings practically scream “third-ring suburb.”
The two-level layout is a passing reference to the restaurant’s name — Italian for stage, or scene — a plan halfheartedly manifested in the circular, front-and-center bar and, to a lesser degree, the demonstration kitchen, and its modest crudo counter. But showy dinner theater, it’s not.
You know what else doesn’t match the food? The service, which landed across a bizarrely wide spectrum, from lethargic and semi-clueless to warmly welcoming and sharply plugged in. Sometimes, bewilderingly, all in a single visit.
Still, name another Twin Cities restaurant where not one but two Food & Wine magazine Best New Chefs — that would be Anderson and his fiancée, Jamie Malone, both Sea Change veterans — are working the stoves. By this high-profile measure, Scena stands alone.
For now, anyway. Best to take advantage of this rare opportunity. Both are drawing a Scena paycheck before Brut, their North Loop restaurant, gets off the ground later this year. And yes, there’s a balance-sheet connection: Scena honcho Paul Dzubnar, he of the Green Mill, Crooked Pint Ale House and Town Hall Brewery, is a Brut investor.
Still, what happens to Scena when Anderson and Malone inevitably depart? Here’s hoping Anderson, in his role as consultant, recruits replacements who can maintain the kitchen’s forward momentum.