The King's New Clothes

D'Amico Cucina
100 N. Sixth St., Minneapolis; (612) 338-2401
Hours: Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11:00 p.m.; Sunday 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.; open at 5:00 for special Target Center events.
www.damico.com

 

Who here would really choose to be king? Not me. The pressure must be enormous. You're held to a higher standard, your every sneeze and sniffle a subject of gossip and news, and no one treats you normally, so star-struck are they by your big power, your big piles of cash. Or at least, that's what I'm guessing. What do I really know? I've never even met a prince. On the other hand, I've shelled out a couple of kings' ransoms for dinners at D'Amico Cucina lately, so I've got a few things to say on the topic.

And frankly, that and some spare change will get me on the crosstown bus. D'Amico Cucina has been king of Minneapolis restaurants for so long, ever since it opened in 1987, that it's hard to imagine that anything I say will make any difference whatsoever. Browse the D'Amico website and you'll soon see that they need a full-time librarian to catalog all of the awards local publications rain upon them. Which, on the occasion of their recent renovation and newish chef, Seth Bixby Daugherty, who took over the kitchen in October, puts me, I think, in a singularly awkward position: If I say the restaurant isn't very good, then I'm just trying to be a brat, an enfant terrible, out to make trouble or make a name. Alternately, I could ignore them, veil the truth, or--easiest--just lie. But then I'd be...lying.

So to hell with that. I'll just try to be more transparent than usual, and let you draw your own conclusions. For this review I visited D'Amico three times over four months, twice on Fridays, once on a Sunday, spending in total more than $1,000. Usually, I don't let a review stretch out so long, but as long as I'm being so warts-and-all, the honest truth is that after my first visit I totally chickened out, figuring hate mail would be my highest reward. Obviously, I changed my mind. Here's why: When I was in New York a few weeks ago, people kept asking and asking and asking me about Cucina. "It's really the best restaurant in town, right?" Back here, it began to seem like every time I talked to a local chef they demanded to know why D'Amico was above scrutiny. Also, the place is so damn expensive that my budget needs months to recover from any sustained encounter.

Eventually, these excuses didn't seem good enough. Kings need to lead or get out of the way, and there are a lot of restaurants, chefs, and people who care passionately about food around here. And if they all have to stand in Cucina's shadow, the least I can do is articulate why that might be a problem.

So, let's dispense with that first visit pretty quickly. It was then I first saw the pattern that came to define D'Amico Cucina for me: impeccable hospitality showcasing lackluster food. Call for reservations, you get real people. The valets are swell. So are the hosts. Wonder about wine most nights and you get general manager Bill Summerville at your elbow to guide you through the impressive list, which offers both Italian treasures and a number of food-friendly, wallet-friendly choices. Servers are all you could ask for: attentive without hovering. I found them uniformly to be well versed in the menu, and thought they did what they did in the best possible way--nearly invisibly, unless you requested more of them.

That first visit saw one good dish: A cold salad of lobster and artichokes in a lemon vinaigrette was made with a perfectly light touch--fresh, sunny and brisk. Nothing else was nearly as good. Beef carpaccio ($11.50) tasted old and dull, while the accompanying tapénade and Parmesan made the whole plate too salty and blunt; a pasta course of smoked-chicken ravioli ($11.50) in a chicken consommé was so salty it was nearly inedible--returned to the kitchen, another plate arrived and it was merely bland. The tastiest of a suite of entrées, the pomegranate-glazed pork tenderloin ($23.50), was at best inoffensive. There was no detectable pomegranate flavor, and the roasted winter vegetables were nothing special.

The next time I went, they figured out I was coming and identified me at the door. I was quite the precious celebrity that night. Still, I was happy to see the place at the top of its game, and it was by far the best meal I had there. I got the five-course tasting menu ($65) with a cheese supplement ($10), and added a course of lobster gnocchi ($21, split for two). I liked everything. Fennel-pollen-crusted soft-shell crab was a nice showcase for the nutty, herbal, lemony fennel pollen and sweet crab. A single sea scallop was done perfectly--tender, plump, and seared brown--and if the orange-vanilla emulsion was perfumey, it was easily avoided.

Lobster gnocchi were both delectable and problematic: In this irresistible dish, giant chunks of whole claw and tail meat lie like royalty on tender little pillows so recently handmade you can see the pinch marks. But the whole thing comes in what is essentially a bowl of butter--well, technically, beurre blanc, made traditionally with wine, vinegar, shallots, and lots of cold butter. All I have to say about that is, sure, in the heat of the moment I'll eat the occasional bowl of butter, but I won't respect either of us in the morning.

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