True confessions: I was one pasta salad away from never returning to the D'Amico-run restaurant at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
For nearly eight years, the Twin Cities' most accomplished culinary empire has been operating a branch of its popular D'Amico & Sons chain inside the museum, and it was all very competent and affordable. And boring. There, I said it.
To this frequent MIA-goer, it felt as if the menu never changed, and out of fatigue I began to find myself hightailing it to nearby Eat Street rather than lunching inside the museum. Someone at the company must have read my mind (yes, it's truly all about me) because late last year, the lunch-only cafe received a much-needed overhaul.
This finicky diner approves. The familiar space overlooking the lobby was bestowed with an appropriate new name -- Mezzanine. D'Amico & Sons executive chef Jim Weides has crafted a lighter, fresher and less-Italian menu. His efforts underscore how moderate prices and an emphasis on appearance (the restaurant is housed in an environment that celebrates the visual arts, after all) are as well matched as Monet and haystacks.
It's awfully nice to encounter a salad that doesn't appear to have been prepared in a commissary kitchen halfway across town. Instead, shrimp, avocado and hearts of palm are pressed into an eye-catching timbale, their complementary flavors and textures as compelling as their pink-and-green color palette. Golden beets and pink grapefruit segments are another artful compare-contrast combination, their sweet-tart bite foiled by salty, pungent blue cheese and crunchy hazelnuts.
It's a mostly anti-formulaic format. While there isn't a Caesar in sight, the D'Amicos can't escape the unwritten rule requiring a chicken salad at a museum cafe. Fortunately, the Mezzanine version is as lovely as it is enormous, a free-form toss of tender meat, juicy strawberries, tangy chèvre and a pretty assortment of flavorful lettuces, all dressed with liberal splashes of dark, slightly sweet vincotto. (Two notes: The salad greens bear neither the look nor the taste of industrial-strength pre-washed, pre-bagged produce, a minor miracle for a counter-service establishment. Also, I never encountered a tossed salad that wasn't enthusiastically overdressed.)
The kitchen's grill gets a workout, starting with a pair of sliders. The beef version sports thick, loosely formed patties that take on a flavorful char before being topped by a slice of melting Gouda and sprightly, bright green butter lettuce. Even the toasted bun is a winner. The vegetarian version mixes black beans, rice and sweet corn into a soft, well-seasoned patty, then tops it with a feisty pico de gallo. In a town overrun with sliders, these two easily rank near the top of the heap.
Beyond the usual
Rather than pizzas, Mezzanine goes the flatbread route, finishing oval-shaped, par-baked pizza crusts on the grill, a technique that imbues them with a winningly crisp, slightly smoky flavor. When it comes to toppings, the more-is-more results are uneven. A riff on the BLT boasts generous slices of applewood smoked bacon, but the tomatoes are cottony, flavorless embarrassments.
Zucchini, cut into ribbons, was paired with ricotta and pecorino Romano, and the results were a knockout, looks-wise; unfortunately, the zucchini tasted like almost nothing -- as it always does -- and smart garlic and chile oil accents didn't quite bridge the gap. Better to stick with the can't-miss pairing of caramelized onions, grilled chicken and spinach, or roasted poblano peppers, shrimp and feta.
Sandwiches include a terrific ham panini dressed with a tangy apricot mustard, and a hearty salmon salad, each bite lightened by crunchy celery, salty capers and plenty of dill. Weides keeps it simple by offering a single formal entree: a slab of pan-roasted salmon, the skin wonderfully crisp, the flesh moist and succulent. It was originally paired with couscous and topped with a vibrant red pepper coulis, and it made for a marvelous and surprisingly elegant lunch. Now, the couscous has been subbed out by more generic (and very D'Amico-esque) roasted vegetables and a cool Greek yogurt-cucumber-dill sauce. I miss the former, but the latter is growing on me, partly because it's a spot-on example of making something special for just $12.50, a noteworthy value.
A morning treat
There's a sort-of nod to brunch. The daily menu features a pair of omelets, packed with garden-fresh herbs and the same first-class cheeses used elsewhere. They're both so airily well prepared that they've inspired me to search YouTube for the Jacques Pepin how-to videos that Weides has committed to memory. There's also a dutiful fried-egg club sandwich, but hold out until Sunday, when a waffle iron stamps out tender, golden lovelies, embellished with toppings like a tangy, deeply crimson triple-berry sauce and real maple syrup. More where this came from, please. Oh, and wine and beer would be another welcome addition.
The very basic desserts start with buttery, palm-sized cookies, mostly notably a teasingly spicy, clove-accented molasses crinkle. More ambitious options include a decadent chocolate-mascarpone layer cake and a pretty, streusel-topped cherry-almond tart. Both are just the right size and price, and expertly executed. They're also awfully familiar, so much so that they could have fallen off the back of a D'Amico catering truck. Couldn't the company take the trouble to produce a sweet or two exclusively for the museum?
The staff is affable and true to its quick-service roots, and the room remains the underrated gem it has been since the day architect Kenzo Tange designed it in the mid-1970s, all clean angles, crisp white walls and muted sunshine. The great-looking but borderline uncomfortable half-moon chairs are still there, too, a remnant from the restaurant's much more formal predecessor, the Link.
There's a comfort in that kind of continuity, so I'll admit to missing "Library of Babel," the monumental oil painting by Doug Argue. He created it in the 1990s, when he was working in Minneapolis, and it loomed -- in a good way -- over the dining room for what felt like forever. It has been replaced recently by a colorful Jennifer Bartlett abstract silkscreen, and I've decided to view the curatorial switch as a teaching moment. If the D'Amicos can rid themselves of the dreaded pasta salad, then I can easily learn to appreciate Jennifer Bartlett.