Saying that Vivo Kitchen is the best restaurant in Apple Valley is a bit like decreeing that “Encino Man” holds the top title in the Pauly Shore filmography. What lands in second place? Raising Cane’s? Perkins? Red Robin? The dropoff is steep.
Besides, it’s an unfair comparison, because the restaurant, which is operated by Break Bread Hospitality, the same crew behind Bacio in Minnetonka and Zelo in downtown Minneapolis, is a far cry from the endlessly unoriginal chains populating the neighborhood.
Not that Vivo is an electrifying burst of innovation, although in its defense, it’s not trying to be. While the restaurant’s name is Italian for lively, the menu leans more toward safe. Or what’s Italian for market research-driven?
On the other hand, it is solidly competent. Chef Kelly Kohler, taking his cues from corporate chef Jason Gibbons, is acquainted with the seasons and makes a stab at local sourcing, and his cooking skills are clearly above the standard for third-ring-suburb dining.
His lengthy, vaguely Italian menu is dotted with well-prepared crowd-pleasers.
I love the pretty salads, each peppered with its own clever attributes (a hint of lavender, a pop of brown butter) and prepared with obviously fresh ingredients.
Kohler has a flair for seafood, drawing out scallops’ natural sweetness, adding interest to walleye with a gently cheesy crust or channeling the essence of bouillabaisse into a lovely linguine dish.
Some of his best work seems tailor-made for noshing in the restaurant’s enormous bar.
I could snack on the tender, daintily fried calamari all day. There’s a lovely bruschetta, with toasts swiped with creamy ricotta blended with butternut squash and topped with prosciutto. While crispy crackers loaded with tender, slow-cooked pork and tangy pickled onions had a slight cater-waiter vibe, the results were delicious.
He has a deft touch with basics, too, whether it’s a homey lasagna, a beaut of a burger (actually, two, because the turkey version is equally appealing) or an excellent porchetta sandwich at lunch.
If only Kohler would take more chances. Pizzas (and, to a lesser extent, flatbreads) start with terrific crusts, but get bogged down in conventional toppings. With pasta, the furthest he extends himself is with a hearty slow-braised lamb tossed with linguine.
More is always more here, whether it comes to oversize portions, an aggressive hand with the salt shaker or a doesn’t-know-when-to-quit mentality with garnishes.
One of Kohler’s biggest success stories, tender ravioli filled with a meaty blend of mushrooms, arrives drizzled with enough fruity olive oil to make a vinaigrette. Don’t get me started on a side dish of roasted Brussels sprouts, sickeningly swimming in honey. Oh, and those pizzas? They’d definitely benefit from a lighter touch with the cheese.
There were times when a little more attention to detail would make all the difference. Nothing wrong with a flavorful and wonderfully tender hanger steak, but the fries were limp, greasy disasters. Similarly, full marks for the juicy roast chicken, but the plate’s pan juices, which should have been the epitome of concentrated chicken flavor, tasted like nothing; how is this possible?
When it comes to the restrained, skillfully prepared desserts, pastry chef Anissa Kefi is clearly learning from her talented boss, Paul Connors.
Those bored senseless by a molten chocolate cake should avail themselves of Kefi’s scrupulous (and teasingly bitter) version, which will renew their faith in this classic but overexposed dessert.
Her excellent fruit crisps are models of discipline — I’m still daydreaming about a raspberry variation, the brightly colored berries popping with flavor, and the crumbly topping a just-right, not-too-sweet finish — and the house-made gelati are first-rate.
A visual turnaround
Enjoy!, the address’ original tenant, enjoyed (ahem) a decadelong run before changing hands a little over a year ago. Previously, the property’s most memorable takeaway wasn’t its skin-deep pseudo-Tuscan decor, but its suburban-sprawl size, a 300-plus-seater that seemingly stretches on forever, and that’s before factoring in the similarly endless patios and terraces.
Break Bread’s usual design collaborators — Trellage-Ferrill, and its glass and metal studios — didn’t exactly wipe the slate clean, looks-wise. But the Minneapolis design firm injected its playful, Matisse-like aesthetic into nearly every corner of the building, adding much-needed color and personality. The alterations are a definite improvement.
Ditto the recently rebooted Sunday brunch, which heralds a return to the abundance of the well-stocked buffet era.
For $24 a pop ($8 for ages 12 and under), diners can graze, all-you-can-eat-style, on items hot and cold. At first glance, the overall effect is a tad underwhelming — the inevitable phalanx of serve-yourself chafing dishes rarely inspires thoughts of culinary confidence — but then its appeal reveals itself.
The kitchen is more than capable of turning out dishes that not only survive — and occasionally even thrive — in what is usually an inspiration-free zone: crispy-skinned roast chicken with creamy mashed potatoes and a hearty gravy, a rich and satisfying French toast-style bread pudding and a surprisingly lively — for Minnesota, anyway — chicken étouffée with rice. Still, others withered; has anyone ever been able to produce scrambled eggs, or pasta, that can withstand extended periods under the warming tray?
A variety of cold items included poached shrimp with a feisty wasabi-laced cocktail sauce, a handful of so-so salads and a clumsy fruit platter that was crying out for someone with more advanced knife skills. Best were a few eye-catching canapés — proof that mass-produced brunch doesn’t have to limit itself to heaping servings of cafeteria steam-table fare — including a cucumber slice topped with velvety smoked salmon and a dabble of cream cheese, and a crispy lavash heaped with ruby raw tuna, avocado and a splash of soy, a happy holdover from the lunch and dinner menus.
Another definitely highlight was the pair of succulent, skillfully roasted roasts — beef and pork — carved to order. The bacon is superb, as is the skillfully seasoned house-made breakfast sausage.
Oh, and the buffet is wisely bolstered by a few table-service add-ons. Several imaginative takes on eggs Benedict definitely outperformed a handful of made-to-order risottos that, in reality, were little more than watery rice casseroles.
Once again, Kefi’s unassuming sweets made a favorable impression, including a homey butter- and cinnamon-laced coffee cake, blueberry-packed muffins and a few small, smile-inducing sundaes made with that fine gelato. Another welcome touch: a fairly well-stocked, assemble-it-yourself bloody Mary bar ($8).
It may be cloaked in the aura of a special-occasion restaurant, but Vivo is not without its value-oriented moments. A two-course weekday lunch — soup or salad, then a half-dozen small entrees — is $10.95.
Happy hour yields a scaled-down version of the kitchen’s well-constructed burger for $6, and a Margherita pizza for $7. All of the dinner menu’s pastas — and most of the salads — are conveniently sold in smaller (and moderately priced) versions.
Lots of great ideas, right? Now if only more skilled restaurateurs would follow Break Bread’s lead and get out into the suburbs.
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