Il Gatto replaces Figlio in Uptown

It's a slick operation, but too many dishes disappoint

Chef Matthew Kempf, who has cooked at Goodfellow's, A Rebours, and Red, moved from his most recent position leading Parasole's Salut to head Il Gatto's kitchen. A handful of Figlio favorites remain, including the three-cheese ravioli, but most of the menu is new, with a focus on sharable small plates and seafood dishes. There are dishes as familiar as steaks and burgers, plus those with octopus and sea urchin for the more adventurous, and some that split the difference, like the pizza topped with house-cured salmon with black mustard.

It might take me some time to give Il Gatto a second (actually fourth) chance, but if I do, I'd definitely order either the baby field greens with gorgonzola, dried cherries, and pecans, or the insalata rucola, which is arugula, prosciutto, cherry tomatoes, and grana padano cheese, with a couple of dainty breadsticks. Both were perfectly composed and properly dressed: fresh and grassy, balanced by savory musk, vinegar tang, and hints of sweetness, juiciness, or crunch. And priced at six bucks, they're a steal.

A few other things were not as special as the salads but also worked. I actually liked the Il Gatto burger better than any of the ones I had at Parasole's Burger Jones. For about the same price, this one comes on griddled bread, piled with arugula, red peppers, grilled red onion, and smear of goat cheese, and is accompanied by a large pile of skin-on fries with grated pecorino. The Il Gatto pizza is also tasty: plump crust, roasted shrimp, fresh mozzarella, roasted tomato, and big hunks of green olives.

When, inevitably, you're supposed to join a group of your friend's cousin's friends at Il Gatto, you'd also do well with the tender gnocchi and lamb ragu or the pork stew with spicy house-made pork sausage, tomatoes, and chickpeas. Both were good, though not remarkable enough to crave.

But each time I dined at Il Gatto, more and more dishes kept creeping onto my "Do Not Recommend" list. A bowl of fresh, delicate tagliatelle was swamped by a creamy sauce with hints of nutmeg and orange zest that didn't seem to fit with a medley of peppers and pistachios. A flatiron steak with pesto had little flavor beyond an oily, bitter char. And goat-cheese truffles were basically just an overwhelming mouthful of cheese, which eclipsed their toasts and spices.

Il Gatto's menu places a strong emphasis on seafood, and those dishes ranged from decent to dreadful. Frito misto—in this case, a mix of squid, shrimp, scallops, zucchini, green onion, and fried lemon slices—was a fun, sharable appetizer, but the salmon crudo, served on a lovely pink salt block, was more enjoyable for its presentation than its flavor. Breaded marlin served with fried capers was a perfectly safe choice, but it just wasn't very inspiring.

The deeper into the oceanic dishes I dove, the more things went wrong. Head-on shrimp in a Tunisian-inspired dish became less appealing when paired with a smoky chickpea puree and a puff-pastry pinwheel, as both were seasoned with a blend of pulverized, dehydrated produce that ended up tasting a bit burnt and dusty. Two dishes featured crabmeat that tasted mealy and blah instead of briny and sweet. The cannelloni di mare wrapped the crab with lobster and mascarpone in some rubbery pasta sheets and topped it with a lobster cream sauce that was a little like a seafood version of hollandaise. The pasta stratocasta paired the same lackluster crab with taut black linguini (cut by a tool that resembles a guitar to give it a rougher surface) and a buttery sea-urchin sauce that added more sour, algae-like flavors than bright, oceanic complexity. My friend shoved the dish away and proclaimed it like licking the bottom of an aquarium.

Sea urchin, even at its best and freshest, is far from a crowd-pleaser. (It's probably one notch above the cui, or guinea pig, served at Parasole's Chino Latino, kitty-corner from Il Gatto.) Several of the desserts struck me similarly: Would the flavors please a mainstream audience?

Il Gatto's dessert list was produced in collaboration with Adrienne Odom, who has turned out thrilling creations at Minneapolis's Aquavit and La Belle Vie. Odom recently returned to Minnesota after working in New York, and I was curious to see what her nuanced, elegant style would bring to a company better known for brownies the size of a car battery and cheesecakes that might double as Paul Bunyan's doorstop.

I loved the moist, warm chocolate budino with salted caramel ice cream, but none of the other desserts were nearly as pleasing. Bombolini, little Italian fried dough baubles, were drier and less satisfying than squishy American mini-donuts or Mexican churros. The limoncello tiramisu seemed clunky, the chocolate and pistachio layers in the spumoni lacked the oomph of the cherry, and an almond panna cotta dissolved on the tongue to be more watery than creamy. The panna cotta was paired with a sauce that tasted like a cross between mulling spices and Christmas potpourri—not exactly a classic to the American palate. Were Kemp's and Odom's transitions from the fine-dining world to the more crowd-pleasing Parasole fraught with the same difficulties of trying to turn a novelist into a blogger?

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