At Sunday’s fifth annual Charlie Awards celebration — which honors excellence in the Twin Cities culinary community — there wasn’t an Outstanding Hire category.
But had there been one, Monello chef Mike DeCamp — and his employers, Brent Frederick and Jacob Toledo of Jester Concepts — would have been shoo-ins.
When the company behind Borough, Parlour, Coup d’état and Maple Tavern decided to take on the challenge that is the former Porter & Frye space inside the Hotel Ivy, it didn’t go halfhearted.
DeCamp is synonymous with La Belle Vie (now and forever to be preceded, sadly, by the epitaph “late, great,” since the doors closed last month), having labored in that starry establishment with mentor Tim McKee for most of the restaurant’s 17 years.
That’s quite a pedigree, and DeCamp’s volcanic talent immediately labeled Monello a restaurant to watch.
“I still kind of pinch myself that he’s our chef,” said Frederick.
That DeCamp breaks the tired mold of “hotel restaurant” is only one of Monello’s many appealing traits. Another? Crudo.
DeCamp is one of a handful of local chefs who have embraced raw seafood in all its glorious iterations.
“People eat a lot of sushi,” he said. “This is just sushi without the rice.”
That’s his modesty talking, because the erudite DeCamp is the one who’s doing crudo best, offering a half-dozen presentations that fully exploit the pristine freshness of the seafood while quietly but brilliantly introducing a well-edited parade of compare/contrast flavors and textures.
He also has an allergy to the ordinary. Why not sea urchin? And why not pair its gentle, oceanic sweetness with another delicacy, pink-fleshed, sweet-tart Mountain Rose apples? And infuse a luscious custard with smoky bone marrow? And finish the plate with a streak of finely crumbled breadcrumbs, blackened with squid ink?
It’s a knockout, and it succinctly telegraphs everything a diner needs to know about DeCamp’s restless, thrill-seeking curiosity.
Right now he’s also into razor clams, accentuating their inherent sweetness by tossing them with charred sweet corn. Even when it comes to the familiar — scallops, for instance — DeCamp is constantly thinking of ways to unlock their mysteries, finishing with a cold sauce based on bouillabaise-style broth, then teasing it with raw and pickled fennel.
It gets better
His second major skill set? Pasta. Another dish that has suddenly materialized on menus all over town is bucatini all’amatriciana, and DeCamp’s version is the one to beat, with an onion-blasted tomato sauce clinging to long, fluted and perfectly toothy pasta ropes. The sauce is redolent of chiles and cured pork cheek, and wisps of crispy fried parsley act as a low-key brightener.
Truly, I could eat it every day and never tire of it. Like all eight of the menu’s pastas, it’s thoughtfully sold in two sizes; the $9 smaller portion is one of downtown’s great bargains.
I love how DeCamp fixates on non-mainstream pasta shapes, then goes all out to make them sing.
Torchio, which not surprisingly resembles a torch, is treated to slow-braised rabbit that’s finished with all kinds of gloriously tongue-coating butter and herbed crème fraîche.
Bell-shaped campanelle was the basis for a rich lamb ragout accented with eggplant, an eternally delicious combination; DeCamp has recently switched it up to rigatoni, giving the lamb a North African-by-way-of-Sicily flavor profile, and I can’t wait to try it.
While dishes come on and off the menu on a fairly regular basis, a few are destined to remain. That bucatini, for one.
And DeCamp will have a riot on his hands if he yanks the spectacular grilled octopus. It’s poached for 18 hours until it reaches the dense but fork-tender texture of a well-aged ribeye. Then it’s charred on the grill and accented by the seasonless appeal of cool cucumbers and sweet piquillo peppers.
Also admirable is a welcome sense of fun. Early on DeCamp was offering a whole stuffed rabbit for four; now it’s a whole roasted branzino for two. Date night, right?
Sure, not everything works. Dry-aged New York strip, a $35 investment, arrived at a temp so cool that room temperature would have been an improvement. The filled pastas aren’t nearly as compelling as their extruded or ribbon-cut counterparts. I encountered a few minor service snafus that shouldn’t occur in a restaurant of this caliber.
While pastry chef Amanda Parker excels at making gelato and sorbet, tapping into one appealing flavor after another, her deconstructed desserts — marvels of intellectual tenacity and technical rigor — are ultimately so pulled apart and put back together that they stroll into not-terribly-satisfying territory.
At breakfast, the menu’s eight or so options fulfill expectations in the upscale-hotel universe.
The Italian accent goes by the wayside, yet DeCamp’s attention-to-detail self is wide awake, delivering decadent brioche French toast, slightly tangy sourdough pancakes, right-on-the-money eggs Benedict, well-composed frittatas and other familiar fare with sure-handed panache.
Still, nothing bests what is shaping up to be a winning breakfast trend: house-made bagels.
DeCamp’s formula nudges rye and caraway into each sturdy bite, and he takes a lavish approach to toppings, piling on a generous schmear of herb-packed cream cheese, zingy pickled capers, sharp pops of red onion and an overload of luxuriously supple smoked salmon. It’s easily my favorite downtown breakfast of the moment.
Over the noon hour, DeCamp offers a best-of selection of crudo and pasta, supplemented by a few well-composed sandwiches. Don’t miss his take on porchetta, a pile of fennel- and garlic-rubbed pork shoulder that gets a sumptuous slow-roast treatment; it plays beautifully against bitter rapini and sharp pecorino cheese.
Vegetable seekers owe it to themselves to indulge in the delicate tart filled with an assortment of autumn root vegetables — each representing a different notch on the color and texture spectrum — and arranged to appear as if plucked out of a Manet still life. It’s a $14 ticket — what a steal — into DeCamp’s world of delicacy and nuance.
Frederick and Toledo made another wise decision when they tapped ESG, the Minneapolis architectural firm, to remake the dreary Porter & Frye. The soothing, eye-catching (and conversation-friendly) results are refined without being stuffy, and they’re a tailor-made reflection of DeCamp’s aesthetic.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib