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.

My very favorite course of the evening was a simple morel risotto served with a few half-sprigs of fresh, grassy spring asparagus. It had a certain nutty, straightforward, ingredients-first quality that stood out. A rare duck breast with rhubarb and blood orange followed, then Brindamour, a Corsican sheep's-milk cheese served here young, firm, and pale as ice cream, drizzled with honey. A pleasure.

For dessert that night I tried both the warm chocolate truffle cake and the toffee-date pudding with Armagnac sauce ($8), which was sort of an updated, lighter plum pudding--a nice spicy thing. The molten-center chocolate cake didn't do much for me, for I wanted less of the taste of sugar and more the taste of chocolate.

The thing I took away from that meal, unfortunately, was the sense that even knowing it would show up in print, the kitchen simply couldn't send out anything sublime, transporting, or breathtaking. All I got was high competence, not marvels. Of course, the only reason I expected so much was because D'Amico is king, and the food was costing nearly $100 a head without drinks. For good or for ill, once you get to those heights, expectations start to ratchet up exponentially.

For my third visit I busted out a wig, spent an hour coming up with different makeup, arrived in a different car with new escorts, and got for my troubles the worst meal yet. Appetizers were the best effort: A large slab of rare, seared foie gras ($16) arrived on a bed of wee poached rhubarb stems in a tart sauce that perfectly cut the rich duck liver. The lobster salad ($18) was again everything I remembered, but the lovefest crashed into a wall with the awful piedina ($9.50). I actually remember this signature D'Amico dish from years ago, then a tender cloud of dark-bubbled, wafer-thin, griddle-seared bread drizzled with potent honey and served with a few perfect slices of prosciutto and a few buttons of gorgonzola. Now the bread is fried and arrives looking like a cream-cheese wonton. It's served next to a melted lagoon of salty gorgonzola, beside some good prosciutto garnished with the barest drizzle of honey. Combine it all and your eyes nearly cross from the overwhelming salt and oil. Once this dish was like a slow succession of chimes, each note distinct. Now it's like cymbals falling off a bench.

The polenta-mascarpone ravioli ($11.50) were served in a butter sauce, and were so rich they quickly became sickening. They were topped with fresh-shelled peas that were mealy and tasted old. Agnolotti (a ravioli-like pasta, $12.50) had a subtle lamb filling, but there was such a lot of fresh marjoram in the charred tomato sauce that it tasted soapy. A beef filet ($32) tasted red-winey but otherwise undeveloped, though the bed of barley it came on, topped with smoked shallots, was quite good.

After that, I'm not sure whether the tuna or the chicken was worse: It was sort of a fight to the death. Tuna ($28) was an ahi steak cooked until there was just a stripe of pink through the middle, served on a bed of sliced olives and baby artichokes that had somehow gotten on to tasting like button mushrooms. The plate was sauced with squirts of red bell pepper pesto, but I couldn't say why. (I had an oil-marinated tuna in a style like this at Lupa in New York a few months ago. It was delicious, but all the flavors were applied directly to the tuna, not scattered here and there dry on the plate in this odd fashion.) Sautéed chicken ($23.50) was overcooked and dry. It arrived in a plate sauced with a bitter, salty brown liquid described as roast chicken jus. The jus had islands of wrinkled, overcooked asparagus in it, and the bird was perched on a bland and unctuously buttery purée of sunchokes. The worst thing, though--the worst thing was that someone had clipped off the wing on this chicken breast halfway down, and the stump of bone had gotten charred black, and it just looked like someone had stubbed out a cigarette in the middle of my $23.50 chicken quarter.

Desserts were good, but not spectacular. My favorite was probably the roasted pear ($8), a pretty brown thing made with sweetened balsamic vinegar. It was light and fine, and the mascarpone sorbet with it was pure-tasting and bright. Twice I tried the vanilla custard with passion-fruit sauce, caramelized bananas, and semolina beignets, and I thought it never came together. Once the beignets were giant, lumpen, and tasted of old oil. The next time the bananas weren't caramelized, and buried the delicate tablespoon-sized custards. I felt very "Is that all there is?" about the $15 platter of chocolate pastries, designed to serve two to four. The first time, I thought the various items were nearly indistinguishable, basically offering the same flavors and ingredients in different shapes. The second time there were two good new additions: powerful little Sambuca truffles and a very nice little gianduja (hazelnut and chocolate) crème brûlée.

Which brings us, as always at D'Amico Cucina, inexorably to the check, where a grim calculation of value begins. For most meals at D'Amico Cucina I ended up paying around $70 per person for food alone, and every single time I wished I had dined somewhere else. Anywhere meritocracy tops aristocracy.

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