831 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.; (612) 333-7000
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. (Friday till midnight); Saturday 4:00-midnight; Sunday 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.; Bar open daily till 1:00 a.m. (Sunday till midnight).
How much did it cost to create Zelo? A million? Two? Rumors and gossip have been swirling ever since local restaurant kingpin Rick Webb started work on the spot, renovating what was once the Albrecht's fur warehouse on the ground floor of downtown Minneapolis's Medical Arts building. It's easy to speculate: Those Dr. Seuss-like beaded spiral lamps on the booth tables must have cost a pretty penny. Ditto the stunning polished cherrywood bar. And what about those vast copper-hammered hoods that whisk the cooking fumes away from the open kitchen? They even look like pretty pennies.
And every one of those pennies seems to have been spent right out where you can see it. On the heavy, shiny modern breadbaskets. The beautiful little Alessi-like individual tea pots. On plush carpets, funky light mobiles, and double-sided velvet draperies. Sitting in Zelo you feel terribly contemporary, terribly chic, and very much the absolute center of an expensive world. Is this how Puff Daddy goes through life?
Yes, I think, it must be. I particularly think this when I've ordered the affettato misto, an appetizer plate for two or more people ($16.95). It's a truly awesome thing--two kinds of Italian ham (including prosciutto), two sorts of salami, a few black olives, a few green olives, two generous chunks of cheese (taleggio and fontina on my visits), straw-thin breadsticks, a bit of composed salad, six slices of bruschetta (excellent versions of the grilled-bread snack topped with, variously, chopped tomato and basil, slices of fresh truffle with truffle oil, and a delicious artichoke, celery, and caper slaw) and--that's not all!--and a cup of vinaigrette made with a lovely almond-scented olive oil, a whole butterhead lettuce, and a good pound of sliced mixed vegetables for munching. The entire array of goodies comes on a giant oval platter that your server sets down on a fanciful modern stand so it's just below eye level, making it seem even bigger. Immediately you feel queenly and imperious. Yes.
Bring me more gargantuan plates. Yes, do. Yes.
Another theatrically dazzling moment comes when a server opens a bottle of amarone and pours the thick, full wine into a tall decanter. The liquid flows down the glass throat in a pinwheel, spinning into the saucer-shape base like a burgundy waterfall. Yes. Bring me more gorgeous wine moments. Yes.
The dessert sampler platter brings another array of superlatives: A thick, sweet blueberry flan with an incredible intensity of flavor. A lovely little bit of fresh-fruit tart, buttery almond crust topped with a fresh mascarpone-and-white-chocolate cream and crowned with perfect berries. A warm chocolate-hazelnut brownie called nocciolato. Finally, and to my mind most thrillingly, a small tower of what is easily Minneapolis's best tiramisu--light, airy sponge cake soaked with that seductive blend of coffee and Marsala, the layers separated by sweet, creamy mounds of fluffy mascarpone. Yes. Every good diner deserves four desserts. Yes. (Desserts can also be ordered on their own, in larger portions than what comes on the platter; the tiramisu alone costs $5.95, the nocciolato $5.50, the flan $4.95, and the fruit tart $5.50.)
Some of the other standouts on the menu include pizzas that get their lovely crusts from the wood-fired oven. I particularly liked the delectable Tartufata ($8.95), a smoky crust made rich with melted mozzarella, salty with taleggio, and shudderingly succulent with invaluable little slices of truffle. The caesar salad ($4.95) is just what it should be--light, suffused with bright garlic and softened with good Parmesan. Pastas I tried were perfectly competent; cavatelli with chopped broccoli rabe, bits of bacon, raisins, and three cheeses ($12.95) were thick and wintery; a traditional Genovese preparation of trofie with pesto, potatoes, and string beans ($10.95) was light and strong.
Strangely, however, the menu comes to a screeching halt when it gets to the bigger-ticket entrées. Costolette ($22.95)--thin, breaded, sautéed veal chops--come swamped with a too-sweet, too-salty, and too-thick port-Gorgonzola sauce with roasted peppers. Filettini ($14.95), pork tenderloin cutlets in a brandy, green peppercorn, and cream sauce, were again merely sweet, salty, and brown. Sesame-crusted wild Alaska salmon ($18.95) was perfectly cooked, but the sweet crust didn't wow me and the accompanying dice of broccoli rabe was coated with a sugary vinaigrette.
Nor was I impressed by rare slices of wood-grilled ahi tuna ($19.95) served with wasabi mashed potatoes. It's a dish I've had many, many times, and Zelo's version was a bit pastier and duller than I like it. There's something distinctly "greatest hits of the Nineties" about the more costly entrées, and I'd avoid them in the future, contenting myself with the spectacular showplace platters and appetizers--including the mussels ($7.95), a wood-roasted version served in a perfectly simple white-wine and saffron broth with basil.
Like those mussels, some of the best things about Zelo come from Webb's other venture, Bloomington's Ciao Bella, foremost among them the quality of service. From the efficient hosts who answer the phone to the server's assistants ever ready with water and bread, Zelo laughs in the face of all the downtown restaurateurs who insist that good service is a luxury we've lost in a world of two-percent unemployment. (To his credit, Webb has not imported the worst features of Ciao Bella, most notably the din. Even when Zelo is completely full, conversation is easy.)
The only real criticism one could make of Zelo would be to note what it is not: a chef-driven restaurant. There's nothing on the menu that articulates a specific vision or taste, and the defining notes tend to be salty, sugary, and splashy. If you're the sort that likes to play fantasy baseball with our local handful of star chefs, there's not much for you at Zelo.
(What's fantasy baseball with chefs? Okay. Don't laugh. First you have to eat out a lot. Then, when you're stuck somewhere like on an airplane, close your eyes and imagine you've got five bonito. Five racks of lamb. Five pounds of Fuji plums. Whatever. You parcel them out to, say, Doug Flicka at Auriga, Philip Dorwart at Table of Contents, Lucia Watson at Lucia's, Tim McKee at La Belle Vie, Steven Brown at the Local. What do you get? That's fantasy baseball with chefs, and if you think I'm nuts, well, get in line.)
Not that I consider the lack of a chef's vision necessarily a bad thing--at least not any more than I think that Mac's Fish & Chips ought to add some sorbets to its menu. Just the way it is, Zelo does a perfect job satisfying a much-neglected need in downtown Minneapolis--I think of it as filling the Fancy, Efficient Date need.
Say you've got the sitter on the clock, two hours, and something between fifty and a hundred bucks to spend. Zelo will sweep you in, make you feel like Puffy Combs and Jennifer Lopez; like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; like someone contemporary and fabulous about whom the National Enquirer and People care deeply. It will make you feel like the center of the universe, feed you tasty treats and fancy drinks, generally not irk you, and release you in time to get the sitter back before curfew.
Then again, does that make any sense? Does the overclass of supercelebrities even deal with sitters? Inquiring minds have no idea.
GOURMET HEADACHES: Here at Tablehopping headquarters, we've all got headaches from perusing the September issue of Gourmet with detailed attention. What does it mean when Ruth Reichl, the most important restaurant critic in the nation, launches her tenure as editor of the most important food magazine in the nation with a look at Minneapolis restaurants--and then essentially doesn't review any Minneapolis restaurants? What does it mean, what does it mean, what does it mean?
See, we know from the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Reichl did indeed eat in Minneapolis; she went on a whirlwind tour with PiPress critic Kathie Jenkins to La Belle Vie, café un deux trois, the New French Cafe, Shuang Cheng, the Birchwood, Big Bowl, Lucia's, and Aquavit. Of those eight restaurants, only the last three made it into her review. And of those three, Aquavit is essentially a New York restaurant with a New York chef; Big Bowl is a Chicago-based chain (would you go to Cleveland and review the Starbucks there?); and while Reichl did spend a few hundred words on Lucia's, she hardly mentioned the Minnesota-grown cuisine on which the restaurant bases its reputation, instead dwelling on a peach-and-rhubarb pie.
Out of all our debates, two theories have emerged. The first we call "Gourmet to Minneapolis: Don't Quit Your Day Job." She came, she ate, and all she could find to recommend was food from other lands--New York's Aquavit, Chicago's Big Bowl, and peaches. The second we call "A Good Woman Struggles With a Bad Idea." Under this scenario, Reichl tried to do the impossible in examining as many as four restaurants a day during a whirlwind visit. Since her latest reviewing job was at the New York Times, where she was painstakingly scrupulous--with an annual expense account rumored to be about the same dollar amount as a Kenwood house and an average of five visits per restaurant--Reichl realized she couldn't fairly write about any of the places she rushed through and thus wisely fell back on prior knowledge, specifically her past experience with the New York Aquavit and her knowledge of friend Bruce Cost's cooking (Cost is the mind behind Big Bowl).
Yet neither of these adequately explains why all our local up-and-comers like Auriga, Table of Contents, and the Local didn't even merit an hour of the whirlwind visit. Why? What does it mean? Tablehopping gives up. But you don't have to. Just keep repeating: Why, why, why? You'll know it's working when you bolt for the Tylenol. I guess this is how the ancient Greeks felt trying to figure out why Zeus was throwing lightning bolts with no rhyme or reason. Someone sacrifice a lamb and let's get this over with.
And oh, message to New York: Enough with the Minnesota nice already.
That's our in-joke and you'll never get it, so quit taking it literally. See, Reichl opens by telling the world that "Nobody ever honks his horn at slow drivers in the Twin Cities...." (Why would we? It's so much more effective to pull them over and punch them in the face.) Then she adds that we all say "you betcha," just like in Fargo, and offers that we have friendly neighborhood names like Frogtown and Dinkytown.
All right, that's enough. We've taken all we can take. The reason Frogtown is called Frogtown isn't because we're all so nice and cutesy-minded (Bunny City? Puppyville? Kittendale? ...I've got it, Frogtown!), it's because a lot of people didn't like a certain group of immigrants from points north. Remember when Jesse Jackson called New York City Hymietown? Now, imagine if it stuck. Isn't that nice?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.