Bar La Grassa: Trendiest table in town

Isaac Becker brings new pasta bar to North Loop

I had my first local sighting of "jeggings" the other night at Bar La Grassa. They are a confident fashion choice that recently arrived from the coasts: skin-tight denim leggings, often worn with a top that doesn't cover the tush and a pair of retro, round-toed pumps. They hug every curve, and then some. And they make their precursor, skinny jeans, seem as baggy as elephant skin.

The jeggings-clad women arrived at La Grassa on the arms of slick guys in crisp dress shirts who entered the restaurant as they would a club or party: tiptoed and scanning. My friend pointed to a guy with frosted hair. "Where do these people go during the day?" she mused. I couldn't fathom an answer, even for the one person I did recognize, Norm Coleman, who was standing out on the curb, handing his car keys to the valet.

Besides its throngs of fashion-conscious diners, the other thing Bar La Grassa has in common with New York City is its Yankees-esque, dream-team roster of Twin Cities restaurateurs. The executive chef is Isaac Becker, owner of the highly lauded 112 Eatery and recent James Beard Award nominee. Becker's wife, Nancy St. Pierre, runs the front of the house with the same warmth and professionalism she has brought for years to the Eatery. To open La Grassa, Becker and St. Pierre partnered with the team behind Barrio—Josh Thoma, Ryan Burnet, and Tim Rooney—who seem to launch restaurants with diners already lined up outside.

La Grassa's menu is like a rustic Italian version of tapas
Jana Freiband
La Grassa's menu is like a rustic Italian version of tapas

The team took over the former home of Babalu, on the far western edge of the Warehouse District, just before Washington Avenue rounds the corner and heads north. In recent years this North Loop neighborhood has become an increasingly appealing nightlife destination that avoids the parking hassles and drunken clubbers of downtown proper.

The big, open, brick-and-beam warehouse space has been broken up into smaller sections so it feels more intimate than the previous Latin music venue. The decor exudes an artsy vibe that mixes vintage and contemporary: On one wall, Johnny Cash grins broadly, on another, beekeepers sit down to a plated bee dinner. Decorative light fixtures, which look like birthday cakes, according to Becker and St. Pierre's young son, were salvaged from an old movie theater. Racks of copper pots and wine glasses dangle above seats at the pasta bar. Between the marble tabletops and the reclaimed wood on the walls and floors, the space possesses the relaxed luxury of a wealthy person's cabin.

When full, La Grassa feels lively and clamorous. And when nearly empty, it retains the same electricity as the moment the final guest leaves a party, having stretched the last conversation into the doorway.

La Grassa, which means "the fat" in Italian, might attract those living high on the hog, or at least trying to act like it, but the eats aren't necessarily fancy or spendy. The food might be the least trendy aspect of the place, in fact. True, some of the cocktails possess a sophisticated air—one's made with acai berry, another hits the lips with an espresso crema and finishes with a flourish of bitter orange—but most of the menu feels rather rustic. The bowls of noodles and marinated pork shoulder on toast wouldn't have looked out of place a hundred years ago.

Becker says he always wanted to open a pasta bar, but the 112's tiny kitchen and six-burner stove had no space for the requisite pots of simmering water. His approach to La Grassa's menu suggests an Italian version of a Spanish tapas bar: lots of small, sharable options.

Meals begin with a gratis appetizer that's a humble mix of giant lima beans ("I like to try to get people to eat things they normally wouldn't," Becker says), cubes of Manchego cheese, and pickled vegetables served in kitschy floral-print dishes. It's a rich comfort spiked with the zing of vinegar and heat. Imagine Grandma roaring up in a Maserati and you'll get what I mean.

For starters, Becker offers nearly a dozen bruschetta, which at first struck me as very early-'90s until I read down the list and found nothing close to the mealy tomato-topped versions popularized at Buca and the Olive Garden. Case in point: the burrata, a compact, stark-white knot that looks nearly like a mound of whipped cream sprinkled with chili oil. In fact, it's Italy's famed buffalo-milk mozzarella, pulled till it's silky, then shaped into a ball and filled with cream. The result is a silky-soft cheese that tastes as fresh as milk sipped straight from the farmer's pail. It's expensive, highly perishable, and, since it's air-freighted from Italy, must be ordered in bulk, making it a challenge for most food retailers and restaurants. But after you've indulged in burrata, even the freshest cheese curds seem like a waste of time.

I liked the marinated mushroom bruschetta, too, and several other antipasti, including the Taleggio bigne, which are little puffy buns filled with runny cheese and served with braised apple and honey. The crispy insalata, with peppery greens, pine nuts, Parmesan crackers, and a fine balsamic vinaigrette, is also a good pick. As are the raw halibut slices sprinkled with cilantro, pumpkin seeds, olive oil, and tiny peppers.

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