D'Amico Kitchen follows up legendary era with chic Italian
For quite a long stretch, in the restaurant world, at least, where time is measured in a ratio like that of dog years, D'Amico Cucina was the pinnacle of fine dining in the Twin Cities. From the late '80s to perhaps the mid-'90s, Cucina's luxurious Italian fare, elegant dining room, and top-notch service made it one of the best spots for deal-making and celebrating among the moneyed class.
But as time passed, attitudes about what constituted a great restaurant shifted toward something more relaxed. Dishes made with chicken livers and cold-smoked salmon replaced foie gras and lobster. Just after the millennium arrived, City Pages pronounced the culinary emperor's nakedness: Cucina's food could be good, certainly, but rarely did it meet the expectations of a $100 meal.
Earlier this summer, after more than two decades in business, Cucina closed its doors. Then, within days, the D'Amico family, which owns a mini-empire of eateries in Minnesota and Florida, announced that they'd be replacing Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant in the Chambers Hotel with a casual Italian concept called D'Amico Kitchen.
There are several ways to interpret Chambers Kitchen's closure and what it says about the Twin Cities dining scene. Were we all a bunch of rubes who didn't appreciate international cuisine? Or were we simply protesting the idea that we needed an outsider to show us what to do? Perhaps some of the fusion food—raw tuna pizza—went too far, and the basement digs were too dank. Or maybe we were all just creeped out by the bull's head in the formaldehyde tank.
Whatever the case, the new D'Amico Kitchen presents Italian fare in a way that's hard to find in the Twin Cities—with an approach as urban and contemporary as the hotel's chic setting. The idea, says Cucina's former chef, John Occhiato, who now leads the Kitchen's staff, was to work with ingredients a bit more modest than those used at Cucina, but to apply cooking techniques that are just as exacting. Much of the rich, French influence found in Cucina dishes has been stripped away. "There's not one-tenth the amount of butter here as there was there," Occhiato jokes.
The Chambers' sleek, white dining room has been softened with warm color accents, and its formerly museum-like walls have been brightened with Venetian plaster in coral and periwinkle. Striped orange light fixtures and an ornate mirror also help to add a little more history to the space. (It seems that the contemporary, aloof-feeling designs found in the restaurants in the Chambers, Guthrie, and Walker, which all opened during Minneapolis's post-millennial architectural boom, never caught on with diners. The Guthrie's restaurant has already been redecorated, and the Walker's 20.21 is starting to look dated.)
A wine refrigerator now lines the narrow walkway along the central stairway, as does a salvaged Cucina chandelier and a waiters' service station. Instead of reinforcing the restaurant's casual feel, though, the stacks of plates, bins of silverware, and horn-shaped graters arranged on the service table seemed sloppy. Giant rounds of Parmesan stacked like tires looked a bit, well, cheesy. The restaurant is surely constrained by its basement kitchen, but the setup seemed as out of place as might a buxom broad, drunk on cheap red wine, who had stumbled over from Buca. One of my friends noticed the table and asked, "Do they serve a buffet?"
They don't, actually, but the hotel restaurant has pretty much everything else. It offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night dining in addition to room service and catering. The chic, sunny, street-level dining room has views that lend it more urban energy than most downtown eateries. And it's still a perfect spot for a classy power breakfast or business lunch. During daytime meals, D'Amico Kitchen doesn't usually get too crowded, so the staff attends to every detail. Ask for lemon in your water and a wedge is cut along the peel and positioned on the rim in an artistic vertical. Leave your seat for a moment and a passing waiter refolds your napkin.
D'Amico Kitchen makes standard American-style plates of bacon and eggs, but also an Italian's morning meal of bruschetta topped with honey butter, house-made ricotta, pine nuts, currants, and prosciutto. D'Amico's lemon ricotta pancakes aren't as light as those at Hell's Kitchen, but you're also not dining in a dungeon mobbed by convention visitors.
The brief lunch menu offers antipasti, pastas, sandwiches, and salads, as well as a few entrées that overlap with those on the dinner list. The dinner menu's roasted suckling pig is, at lunch, tucked into a soft ciabatta roll with tomato and vinegar-kissed onions. Even better, they serve my new favorite salad: chicory and frisée, whose bitter bite is offset by a sweet-salty interplay of prosciutto, fresh figs, syrupy balsamic vinegar, and soft, funky buffalo mozzarella, which is light-years better than the milder, rubbery cow's-milk version.
But the best way to experience D'Amico Kitchen is by snacking your way through a series of small plates, treating the place as an Italian version of 112 Eatery. The dinner menu's extensive antipasti list has several selections of meat, seafood, salads, crudo, vegetable, and fried dishes. Nearly everything sounded good: I haven't been so excited about small plates since Solera opened six years ago.
The antipasti aren't necessarily complicated. Roasted beets are sprinkled with pistachio nuts and Gorgonzola hunks. Raw hamachi is drizzled with tangerine oil and sprinkled with pollen—the stuff doesn't add much flavor, but I'm hoping to credit it with my improved digestion, lowered blood pressure, and increased life span.
The lamb meatballs are what you wish you'd find in a gyro: rich, spicy, currant-sweetened morsels served in an oniony yogurt sauce. At four for $10, they're on the spendy side, but they were so delicious I wolfed them down faster than I could have bought a stack of Powerball tickets. There are worse ways to blow a Hamilton. I also could have eaten several orders of the fried baby artichokes. The spiky little thistles pair a meaty core with wispy, crackling edges, their flavor accented with a pinch of heat and a few strands of grated cheese.
The more labor-intensive snacks were just as satisfying. Saffron risotto balls filled with braised veal and roasted tomato were a fun take on osso buco, with their crisp, shattering panko breadcrumb crust, sunny saffron flavor, and umami-rich center. Again, they'll lighten the wallet, but they'll leave the stomach happy.
Among the dessert plates, I'd recommend both the crepes stuffed with almond frangipane and mascarpone, and the baba au rhum, which are delicate, raisin-studded, beignet-like puffs served with a side of vanilla custard and a candied kumquat. If you're feeling adventurous, the rosemary shortcake with lemon gelato and sweet tomato jam is a must-order. The flaky, buttery, biscuit-like cake had a faint woodsiness that paired well with the sharp acidity of the tomato.
Unfortunately, when I ventured into the menu's selection of pizzas and pastas, my disappointments mounted. The pizza I tried consisted of a whisper-thin cracker topped with little globs of pureed squash, goat cheese, and mushrooms spaced nearly as far apart as North Dakota gas stations. All three of the pastas I sampled left me similarly underwhelmed. The garganelli carbonara's penne-like tubes were slightly overcooked, and nubbins of pancetta, red onions, and fava beans didn't add much flavor. Beautiful, hand-made farfalle was topped with rather bland bits of braised rabbit and shell peas. Even the most expensive item on the menu, the lobster gnocchi, which costs $20 for a small portion and $40 for a large, should have made a better impression for a dish that has been a Cucina classic since the late 1990s. Instead of reveling in its luxurious, buttery magic, I found myself stifling a yawn.
The secondi proved better, though. Grilled swordfish tasted a little too much like its char marks, but paired with cherry tomatoes and olives it was, overall, a compelling dish. I also liked the braised beef short ribs with biting rapini and giant white beans, but my favorite of the bunch was a dish that won't be on the menu much longer: whole trout served with a side of chewy faro and thin strips of salty speck, tossed with fresh sweet corn and tomato. It made me very, very sorry to see this year's produce season come to an end.
One thing that seems to have slipped between D'Amico's transition from Cucina to Kitchen is the consistency of service. The wait staff is made up of some former Chambers Kitchen and Cucina employees, plus a few from other D'Amico restaurants and catering, and some new hires. Perhaps part of the challenge comes from having to serve the main dining room, the garden-themed courtyard (it's now called Eden and features lots of leafy plants), and the basement lounge. The clubby, subterranean space had a jazz group playing the night I dined there—or rather, almost didn't dine there, because after picking up a champagne cocktail at the bar and grabbing a table, my friend and I were ignored by several servers for more than half an hour. Finally, I got up and flagged one of them down to take our dinner order.
Another night, upstairs, I had a server who seemed as frazzled as the overzealous, thumping music. He offered to take our appetizer order—after he'd already taken it. He offered to take our entrée order—after he'd already taken that, too. Not a big deal, except that he also brought the wrong pasta, forgot to bring the coffee, and told us that fregola sarda was a type of green when it's actually a jumbo couscous. Everybody has a bad night now and then, but still: It didn't feel like what $20 worth of service is supposed to feel like.
Compared to other breakfast or lunch options downtown, D'Amico Kitchen is a strong pick, but right now it doesn't fare as well during the more competitive dinner hour. Still, I think that by building a first-rate service staff and enhancing the strengths of the Kitchen's menu, the D'Amico team is capable of demonstrating that homegrown talent can provide a dining experience just as engaging as one designed by a global cheflebrity.
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