Bistro Burden

CAMPIELLO

1320 West Lake St., Mpls.; 825-2222

IT'S GETTING HARDER to tell expensive restaurants from expensive furniture stores. The newly opened Campiello does its utmost to blur the distinction; your check comes folded in a small catalog that describes and prices various elements of the decor with a cheerful note to "please contact the manager if you are interested in purchasing any of these artful service wares." Perhaps by the end of your meal you might be interested in obtaining a "cheese me," a cheese grater that we learn has been "named by combining the English words 'cheese' and 'kiss me,'" yours for $20. It goes so well with the Alessi oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper set "as displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art, $160."

I don't know--it just seems wrong to so shamelessly display the labels from your underthings, much less sell them. To gripe further, I think it's silly that the vast parking lot behind the restaurant is valet parking only, at $3 a pop. But then again I've always been a bit of a hick; none of the elegantly dressed people sipping designer mineral waters seemed to find the least bit of effrontery in such details.

D'Amico & Partners, operators of several upscale cafes and bistros, have left little to chance at their latest creation, which seems most cautiously conceived and carefully implemented. Not a trace lingers from the space's previous incarnation as a boisterous and cheap Mexican cafeteria littered with picnic tables. The whole building has been gutted and outfitted with an elegant bar, mosaic plaques, blown-glass chandeliers, and an open kitchen featuring a rotisserie oven. From your table you can observe neatly dressed chefs tossing pizza dough, carving meat, and constructing various pasta dishes--a sight line obviously engineered to impress. The bar area is equally distinctive, featuring over 22 types of specialty martinis ($5-$7.50) that should impress the drollest of drinkers. The Metropolitan we shared, made with Absolut Kurant, lime juice, cranberry juice, and pierced with an iced lime, was magnificent, shaken and shimmering with delicate shivers of ice and served in the kind of glass that makes you feel elegant just to touch it.

The breads served with the meal, a crusty Tuscan type and a semolina bread with a sesame-studded crust, were quite tasty, perfect for soaking the excess sauces incurred over the evening. The selection of appetizers range from a zippy lamb and lentil soup ($5.50) perfumed with fresh lemon and full of tomato, celery, and spiced lamb, to the delicate beef carpaccio served with a tangy and original salsa verde ($7.50). If you don't mind the heavy, thick feeling that fried foods dipped in sauce impart, then the calamari ($7.50) should be up your tree, set in a spicy breading, deep fried, and served with a lemon parsley aïoli dip. The grilled tomato bread was nice, if meager, for $6.50, laden as it was with marinated tomatoes, green onions, and capers.

The bulk of the menu consists of various wood-oven pizzas, pasta entrées, a handful of spit-roasted and grilled meats, and several side dishes. They're a mixed lot. We all wanted to enjoy the side of gorgonzola potatoes we split ($6), a plentiful portion of baby new potatoes quartered and choked in a heavy, buttery gorgonzola sauce, but found it too violently rich to withstand. My friend relished the penne ($8.95), well dressed with chicken, artichokes, and garlic, and topped with a crust of bread crumbs. The spit-roasted chicken ($12.95) was likewise superb; the tender meat, swimming in its own flavorful and smoky juices, literally fell off the bone. Unfortunately it was served with a roasted mushroom and spinach risotto clogged with so much oily cheese it became overpowering. A separate visit yielded the excellent Margherita ($7.95), thin Roma-style crust pizza piled high with roma tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella, and a tender, delicate sea bass roasted in a shellfish brodetto ($16.95). The latter was chock full of plump mussels, clams, shrimp, tomatoes, and green pepper; its only drawback was a surprising amount of onion.

The dessert was--what else?--heavy. The best of all we tried was a warm chocolate truffle cake ($4.95), the kind so charged with chocolate you can feel it after a bite or two. The roasted apple tart with balsamic caramel sauce ($4.95) sounded promising, but tasted cold and dour with its thick, doughy crust.

When the end of our meal saw us all left with full bellies and dull expressions, I wondered what is was that had been lacking. The service was flawless (while sitting at the bar, we observed the bartender inspecting each and every glass he set out for spots), the decor frightfully suave, the food (most of it anyway) good. Maybe I'm just a sucker for character; the upper-crust veneer on show here seems pretty thin.

TABLEHOPPING

I HATE EATING MEAT BECAUSE... The Vegetarian Resource Group is sponsoring an essay contest for students 18 and under. The first prize in each category is a $50 savings bond. Entrants should write a two- to three-page essay on any aspect of vegetarianism (vegetarianism being defined as "not eating meat, fish, and birds"), and should base it on interviews, research, and/or personal opinion. And here's the kicker: you don't have to be a vegetarian to enter. Don't say anything you'll regret, though, as all essays become property of The Vegetarian Resource Group. Age categories are: 8 and under, 9-13, and 14-18. Submissions should be postmarked by May 1, 1996. Send entries to The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203 (you can receive more information about the essay contest and a lesson plan on vegetarianism by sending an SASE to the same address). Include your name, age, address, telephone number, grade, school, your teacher's name and your entry.

BIG FAT LOVE LIFE: If you are new to this Valentine's Day business, you should know that going out to dinner is as tried and true as flowers on a winning pony. This year, as usual, plenty of restaurants are offering special menus to mark the solemn occasion. If you like old-fashioned wine goblets and want your lover's ribs to shimmer with the sheen of a square meat-and-potatoes meal, you are cordially invited to celebrate Valentine's Week (February 11-18) at Murray's (24 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis; 339-0909), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Bring your sweetie in for lunch or dinner and enter a drawing for a 5-pound box of chocolates (drawn daily) and a chance to win the grand prize, an entire basket of chocolates (a $150 value). If your aesthetic swings toward less meat-based cuisine, Cafe Brenda (300 First Ave. N., Mpls.) has concocted a menu to celebrate the day. You'd do well to see your loved one's face leering at you over a big plate of free-range pheasant and winter vegetable shepherd's pie as you moon back at her/him over your own broiled fresh mahi mahi topped with a raspberry-ginger sauce and served with julienne vegetables and basmati rice almond pilaf. And that's not to mention the selection of amorous desserts and champagne. Call 342-9230 for reservations...

Café Un Deux Trois (114 S. Ninth St., Mpls.) is not to be undone; they offer a "Valentine's Day Love Fest." The lunch menu begins with Aphrodiza--seared Coos Bay oysters with lemon basil and shallots. Entrées include black tiger prawns and roasted chicken curry salad with tangerine vinaigrette; Ahi Tuna au Poivre with wilted greens; and fettuccine with lobster essence. Franchine Roche, a familiar sight on the Twin Cities cabaret scene, will fill the cafe with the sonorous sounds of her sweet voice, doing up renditions of chansons d'amour made famous by Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand. Call 673-0686 for reservations... If you're willing to travel a bit, you might want to make more than an evening out of it and visit Schumacher's Historic European Hotel. Owners John and Kathleen Schumacher invite former guests to creatively and tastefully share a romantic tale from a visit to their enchanting establishment. The individual who submits the entry judged "most romantic" will win a--what else?--Romantic Weeknight Stay package; two runners-up will receive dinners for two. Entries no longer than 100 words should be submitted to: Romantic Weeknight, Schumacher's Historic European Hotel and Restaurant, 212 West Main Street, New Prague, MN 56071, and must be postmarked by Valentine's Day. Even if you lose, you can still sup on special items like chilled cherry soup, lobster and crab stuffed scampi with golden chanterelle mushrooms, and white chocolate almond cake drizzled with caramel sauce...

If you think you might be finding yourself alone this Valentine's Day, Tobie's Tavern and Grill (23 N. Sixth St., Minneapolis; 376-9614) invites you to join them for an "Un-Valentine's Day" celebration featuring specials on Dear John Cabernet and Chardonnay, and Broken Heart Cake for Two. Maybe you'll even meet someone who's good to go, especially after they've slurped down a dozen fresh oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and knocked back some Valentine martinis made with Campari and vodka. If not, then take your place among those supping on dinner for one, which starts off with a choice of tomato soup or jello salad, moves on to Mom's Meatloaf, and finishes big with a hot fudge sundae. And forget about those cheesy strolling serenaders: here, counselors and matchmakers will be milling about throughout the evening to lend an ear or offer words of advice if you just can't keep from crying in your soup.

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