Modern Milanese

Silvery chairs, seductive cheese, and a South Dakotan chef

La Bodega Restaurant and Lounge
3005 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.823.2661

What a difference a chair makes; what a difference a cheese makes. The chairs in question are the ones at La Bodega Restaurant and Lounge, the new Italian restaurant at the corner of Lake and Lyndale that's attached to, but feels entirely different from, La Bodega the tapas bar. While the tapas bar is bright yellow, accented with lumpy terra cotta and filled with clumpy, ropy chairs that read early Spanish peasant, the new restaurant and lounge is positively Modern Milanese: Night sky walls, brushed aluminum bar stools, and high silvery tables ringed by high, silvery perches.

If there's a better perch to show off the line of leg and outfit than the seats at La Bodega--a good half of which are beside floor-to-ceiling windows that face the street--I don't know of it. And yet, a small bar table and sky-high seat are not really the sort of place you would tend to settle into for a $60-a-head meal--no matter how great the line of your leg gets to looking. La Bodega just feels like the bar-anteroom to the fancy restaurant. But it isn't--it's the whole restaurant.

La Bodega Restaurant and Lounge owner Andrea Zanivan, left, and waitress Irena Neffova enjoy a pear salad with goat cheese and caramelized shallots
Craig Lassig
La Bodega Restaurant and Lounge owner Andrea Zanivan, left, and waitress Irena Neffova enjoy a pear salad with goat cheese and caramelized shallots

And then the cheese comes. Any one of a number of cheeses, like the big, rich, beefy slice of taleggio that came one night on the must-order plate of mixed cheeses, sliced meats, and some little simple thing like a chopped fig and herb salad, or caponata ($9.95). Or the golden flints of the best-quality Parmigiano that rest atop the beef carpaccio ($10.95). Or my very, very favorite: the slices of majorero that decorate the red-oak lettuce and pear salad ($7.95).

Majorero is a goat's milk cheese that comes from the Canary Islands, that archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa, and the one they've been serving at La Bodega is rich and buttery and potently toasty, bringing to mind a tawny sherry. The cheese is made in a small wheel, and the rind is rubbed with paprika, olive oil, and cornmeal, resulting in an intensity of flavors in every bite: the sweetly peppery, slightly resilient rind, the rich nutty heart.

At La Bodega, this cheese sits on a salad topped with a clump of caramelized shallots, and the two things paired together are sublime. The port and red currant vinaigrette that dresses the dusky red-oak leaves is a perfect sweet union for the flavors--if the pears had been ripe, the whole thing would have been perfect. Even so, I can't think of a more inspired or original salad I've had around here recently.

A few other little touches in a similar vein piqued my interest enough to find out who the chef is. Turns out it's Sean Sherman, a 28-year-old native of Spearfish, South Dakota, who worked at W.A. Frost & Company and in the kitchen at Broders' Cucina Italiana. How did a modest kid from the Black Hills figure out all the smart little things Sherman does, like drizzle tuna carpaccio with sprightly tangerine oil? Or make quivering blocks of polenta with glossy, crisp, toasty outsides that collapse in an explosion of texture once you stick a fork in them? That's not easy to do--hell, I don't even think that's easy to plate.

Ditto for the mosaic beneath the rare-seared lamb loin ($18.95). The meat was nice enough, but beneath it was a plum and emerald composition of breathtaking design: a rosy pool of pomegranate juice reduction glittering with dozens of minute pools of grapeseed oil, set about with hundreds of wee little slices of mint. It looked great and it improved the lamb--what's not to like? Linguini with a tomato cream sauce and lobster ($17.95) was perfectly cooked: so perfectly that it still had a tiny, delicate hint of crunch. I don't think I've ever before had lobster in hot pasta that wasn't overcooked and rubbery.

Perhaps the very best thing, though, was the porcini mushroom risotto ($11.95). The risotto had an al dente resilience, the grains clinging to one another but still springy in the mouth; nothing like the oatmeal you mostly get. It was rich and earthy with the good dried porcini and fresh mushrooms. Fat, glossy flakes of that same wonderful Parmigiano lay on top.

So really, how do you go from Spearfish to salsa rossa? "A lot of reading, mostly," said Sherman when I talked to him on the phone for this review. "I've only been to Italy once. I go to the library most of the time, or sit in bookstores. I don't buy most of the books, but I read them. I sit in the used bookstores, or in the Border's in Calhoun Square, and think about the recipes."

Thank you, bookstores of Uptown. It's true a couple of dishes had reach that far exceeded their grasp. Sea scallops with grappa never came together; the scallops dusted with orange zest would have been good if they weren't seriously undercooked; and the sliced chard soaked in grappa and tossed with blood orange sections was a disaster--acrid, alcoholic, yikes! But I for one would so much rather see an ambitious, talented failure than yet another caesar salad, that I actually remember the awful dish quite fondly.

But I've got to admit I wouldn't eat there again if I suspected Sherman wasn't in the house. My single lunch visit was an almost complete disaster. What tasted like stale, store-bought pizza crust ruined a batch of perfectly good fresh tomato sauce and nice fresh, springy mozzarella ($6.95); a panini ($6.95) with an inch of high-quality prosciutto was dwarfed by godawful bread--sweet, doughy, sticky, and pale--which was utterly baffling, since good stirato filled the breadbaskets. Pasta carbonara ($6.95) was overcooked and brimmed over with scrambled eggs. There was nothing to make you think La Bodega was any more than a bar that serves food because it must.

Servers will often do a lot to enforce that impression, even at dinner when they're ringing up $200 checks. "I think I can do this, I think I can I think I can," one woman reassured my table repeatedly during one dinner, explaining that several courses would ordinarily be beyond her ability on a busy night.

Another night, another server flat out told us that appetizers, primi, and secondi would be way, way too much food. So we asked if the primi--labeled on the menu as such--could be gotten in "primi portions," a phrase I made up on the spot. She went back to the kitchen to check, full of doubt. But she returned, assuring us that yes, the primi could come in primi portions! That I never asked if the appetizers came in appetizer portions, I regret even now.

There's a lot of that at La Bodega. A question about whether they had grappa necessitated explaining what that might be to both the server and the bartender, and sparked musings on how it must be in the restaurant somewhere, since they have the appropriate license and it's right there on the menu in the sea scallops with grappa. But there are times you and a restaurant staff feel like being pitted against one another in fitful games and logic puzzles, and times you don't, so we all eventually agreed to agree that there probably wasn't any grappa after all.

So, we fruitlessly returned to the wine list, which is a bit of a puzzle to evaluate: overpriced, and a little strangely valued at that. If there are five glasses to a bottle of wine and the prosecco costs $7 a glass, but $37 a bottle, do only low achievers in math order bottles of prosecco? Yet the list of three dozen bottles is admirably and entirely Italian--and, being so Italian, is not just food-friendly but food-perfect. The list is composed almost entirely of choices any sensible person would cross the street for: The Icardi barbera ($7 a glass, $32 a bottle) is round and full of berries and acid and offers just the barest prickle of cedar, and if you order it by the bottle you even get the good wine glasses to drink it from, with the long, long glass stem and pretty line.

So there you might be, with the long stemware between your fingers, perched on your high chair in the endless expanse of window. And your thoughts might turn to the punk-rock cyber-coffeeshop La Bodega supplanted, and your eyes might turn to elegantly designed Fuji Ya across the street, or to spic-and-span hip brewpub Herkimer in the other direction, or to old favorite It's Greek to Me, with its fancy new courtyard garden. And if that happens, you might find yourself marveling at how quickly the intersection went from location? to location, location, location! What a difference half a decade makes.

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