Eat Rich

Zelo
831 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; (612) 333-7000
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. (Friday till midnight); Saturday 4:00-midnight; Sunday 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.; Bar open daily till 1:00 a.m. (Sunday till midnight).

How much did it cost to create Zelo? A million? Two? Rumors and gossip have been swirling ever since local restaurant kingpin Rick Webb started work on the spot, renovating what was once the Albrecht's fur warehouse on the ground floor of downtown Minneapolis's Medical Arts building. It's easy to speculate: Those Dr. Seuss-like beaded spiral lamps on the booth tables must have cost a pretty penny. Ditto the stunning polished cherrywood bar. And what about those vast copper-hammered hoods that whisk the cooking fumes away from the open kitchen? They even look like pretty pennies.

And every one of those pennies seems to have been spent right out where you can see it. On the heavy, shiny modern breadbaskets. The beautiful little Alessi-like individual tea pots. On plush carpets, funky light mobiles, and double-sided velvet draperies. Sitting in Zelo you feel terribly contemporary, terribly chic, and very much the absolute center of an expensive world. Is this how Puff Daddy goes through life?

Yes, I think, it must be. I particularly think this when I've ordered the affettato misto, an appetizer plate for two or more people ($16.95). It's a truly awesome thing--two kinds of Italian ham (including prosciutto), two sorts of salami, a few black olives, a few green olives, two generous chunks of cheese (taleggio and fontina on my visits), straw-thin breadsticks, a bit of composed salad, six slices of bruschetta (excellent versions of the grilled-bread snack topped with, variously, chopped tomato and basil, slices of fresh truffle with truffle oil, and a delicious artichoke, celery, and caper slaw) and--that's not all!--and a cup of vinaigrette made with a lovely almond-scented olive oil, a whole butterhead lettuce, and a good pound of sliced mixed vegetables for munching. The entire array of goodies comes on a giant oval platter that your server sets down on a fanciful modern stand so it's just below eye level, making it seem even bigger. Immediately you feel queenly and imperious. Yes.

Bring me more gargantuan plates. Yes, do. Yes.

Another theatrically dazzling moment comes when a server opens a bottle of amarone and pours the thick, full wine into a tall decanter. The liquid flows down the glass throat in a pinwheel, spinning into the saucer-shape base like a burgundy waterfall. Yes. Bring me more gorgeous wine moments. Yes.

The dessert sampler platter brings another array of superlatives: A thick, sweet blueberry flan with an incredible intensity of flavor. A lovely little bit of fresh-fruit tart, buttery almond crust topped with a fresh mascarpone-and-white-chocolate cream and crowned with perfect berries. A warm chocolate-hazelnut brownie called nocciolato. Finally, and to my mind most thrillingly, a small tower of what is easily Minneapolis's best tiramisu--light, airy sponge cake soaked with that seductive blend of coffee and Marsala, the layers separated by sweet, creamy mounds of fluffy mascarpone. Yes. Every good diner deserves four desserts. Yes. (Desserts can also be ordered on their own, in larger portions than what comes on the platter; the tiramisu alone costs $5.95, the nocciolato $5.50, the flan $4.95, and the fruit tart $5.50.)

Some of the other standouts on the menu include pizzas that get their lovely crusts from the wood-fired oven. I particularly liked the delectable Tartufata ($8.95), a smoky crust made rich with melted mozzarella, salty with taleggio, and shudderingly succulent with invaluable little slices of truffle. The caesar salad ($4.95) is just what it should be--light, suffused with bright garlic and softened with good Parmesan. Pastas I tried were perfectly competent; cavatelli with chopped broccoli rabe, bits of bacon, raisins, and three cheeses ($12.95) were thick and wintery; a traditional Genovese preparation of trofie with pesto, potatoes, and string beans ($10.95) was light and strong.

Strangely, however, the menu comes to a screeching halt when it gets to the bigger-ticket entrées. Costolette ($22.95)--thin, breaded, sautéed veal chops--come swamped with a too-sweet, too-salty, and too-thick port-Gorgonzola sauce with roasted peppers. Filettini ($14.95), pork tenderloin cutlets in a brandy, green peppercorn, and cream sauce, were again merely sweet, salty, and brown. Sesame-crusted wild Alaska salmon ($18.95) was perfectly cooked, but the sweet crust didn't wow me and the accompanying dice of broccoli rabe was coated with a sugary vinaigrette.

Nor was I impressed by rare slices of wood-grilled ahi tuna ($19.95) served with wasabi mashed potatoes. It's a dish I've had many, many times, and Zelo's version was a bit pastier and duller than I like it. There's something distinctly "greatest hits of the Nineties" about the more costly entrées, and I'd avoid them in the future, contenting myself with the spectacular showplace platters and appetizers--including the mussels ($7.95), a wood-roasted version served in a perfectly simple white-wine and saffron broth with basil.

Like those mussels, some of the best things about Zelo come from Webb's other venture, Bloomington's Ciao Bella, foremost among them the quality of service. From the efficient hosts who answer the phone to the server's assistants ever ready with water and bread, Zelo laughs in the face of all the downtown restaurateurs who insist that good service is a luxury we've lost in a world of two-percent unemployment. (To his credit, Webb has not imported the worst features of Ciao Bella, most notably the din. Even when Zelo is completely full, conversation is easy.)

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