4656 Excelsior Boulevard,
St. Louis Park
I have two conflicting thoughts. They war in my head like hawks bearing flamethrowers and tiny little hawk machetes. I must set them free, and so unto you I deliver: the first thought: One danger of not leaving town for a while is that a creeping kind of relativism seeps into your consciousness, and you approach a restaurant thinking, Well, this is better than three-day-old Byerly's takeout, microwaved, forgotten, then microwaved a second time and eaten while standing, right? And it's better than that place in St. Paul that poisoned me last week. Right? Right! Four stars! Then, the second thought swoops in, aflame, bearing a machete. That thought is: If a girl holds in her mind impossibly high standards—remembering, say, the mozzarella squeezed practically straight from the udder of the water buffalo and into a girl's high-living mouth—then a girl will lead a life of both endless disappointment and increasing irrelevance, as everyone reasonably decides to ignore her since she is never happy. Soon, she is shudderingly alone, isolated, abandoned, bitter, and eventually dropped into the ground in a plain casket with no one much attending.
Yes, yes, I have been eating in an upscale suburban trattoria. Of course I have. What else would bring on flamethrowing hawks of relativism, mozzarella, and lonely graves?
It's Brix, the classy Italian joint that has taken over the old Mojito space in St. Louis Park, that's done this to me. I can faithfully report that the place is good enough, in every sense of the phrase. The soaring space of Brix is taupe, beige, tiled, carpeted, wood-floored, inset with stained glass, ringed with banquettes, clustered with booths, bedecked with flat-screen televisions, garlanded with wine and liquor bottles, and generally made into as much of an expensive, inoffensive version of now as possible. Brix serves lunch during the week and dinner nightly. It opened last summer and is, as far as I know, the best restaurant in St. Louis Park. So there's something simple and nice for their press kit. You and I, though, we must muddle on with more complicated, competing, flaming hawks of thoughts.
Another one: The wine list at Brix is admirable. Almost 150 bottles long, it is a beautifully chosen array of the unusual, the delicious, and the worthy of greater attention, largely culled from small local distributors. The list starts out with a "20 bottles for $20" section, and everything I tried from it was a delight to encounter: A St. Gabriel Piesporter Michelsberg was light and lemony, the Chateau Elysees bubbly was sprightly and refreshing, and I know a few of the others in the group, such as the Manyana Tempranillo, to be some of the most food-friendly bargains around. More obscure wines, such as one made by Otella from the Lugana grape, and another made from the fruit of hundred-year-old California Mourvedre vines, will make Brix attractive to people who keep cellars of their own—it's not easy to please all of the people, the masses and the massively well-drunk, but here we have it.
(Brix is actually named after a technical winemaking term: "Degrees of Brix" are what you use to measure the total dissolved compounds, and thus the grape sugar, and thus the probable amount of alcohol, in the grape juice destined to become wine. I imagine that A.F.W. Brix, the 19th-century German who invented this scale, must be ghosting about and pumping his fist in the air. Name on a building in St. Louis Park! Achtung! They didn't see that one coming in chemistry class.)
To go with that wine, Brix offers a variety of salads, handmade pastas, Italian American classics such as chicken Parmigiana, Italian stalwarts including osso buco, and American restaurant classics like a beef tenderloin served on the bone, and a New York strip steak. Most of what I had at Brix was pretty good. A Caprese salad ($8.99) featured tender mozzarella and fresh, pretty basil leaves interwoven with slices of lackluster (of course) winter tomato—I'll let you decide whether this is a dish that should be served after first frost. Other salads, like the one topped with thinly shaved slices of duck, or another made with crumbles of fresh goat cheese and squares of roast beet, were clean, fine, cold, and likable.
The best appetizer I tried was a version of carpaccio ($10.99) in which a large platter was papered with both thin slices of raw beef and gossamer sheets of good prosciutto; mounded above the meats was a tangle of baby arugula dressed with saba, and on that salad rested a trio of figs stuffed with Gorgonzola. Saba is a syrup made from cooking down and then oak-barrel-aging the same "must" (grape juice plus grape solids) used to create balsamic vinegar, and it's famed for pairing better with wines than vinegar does, so this was a particularly thoughtful and nice touch to find at a wine bar.
Other dishes, which require cooking instead of just assembly, were less satisfactory: Seared scallops in a brown butter sauce ($12.99) arrived not so much sauced as swimming in a soup of what looked like clarified butter. They tasted greasy and salty, and the dollop of butternut squash puree that accompanied them was all but inedible from its swamping in butter sauce. Fried calamari ($9.99) were sodden and uninteresting. I didn't get the sense that there was anyone with veto authority looking at the plates as they left the kitchen.
I tried a great many pastas at Brix, trying to make up my mind about them. Some were undoubtedly good, the best being the lobster strichetti ($20.99), in which tender noodles—some squid-ink black, some pale—were glazed with a sweet and light vodka tomato cream sauce, then adorned with seared scallops, lobster chunks, and lump crab meat. It was light, it was creamy, it was comforting—it was a solid, well-executed, enjoyable plate. More typical, however, were pastas which were neither strictly good nor actually bad: House-made sausage agnolotti ($12.99) were large, egg-sized rectangles of undercooked pasta filled with a hot-pepper-laced sausage filling and served lined up in a long rectangle of a plate filled with a fiery, spicy sauce. There was about 15 times more meat than pasta in this thing. It was an ideal dish for someone who wanted to eat sausage and sauce, but calling it a pasta dish seemed like calling a garnished hamburger a lettuce dish. I tried these agnolotti twice, and both times they were distinctly undercooked, not merely al dente. Meanwhile, the kitchen sent out a tagliatelle Bolognese ($13.99) that was mushy as baby food, though the casual meat sauce tasted just right, loose and flavorful in an ideal way. Curious. Potato gnocchi ($10.99) were neither here nor there—a little grainy, a little heavy, but the Gorgonzola cream sauce was zesty and likable. I could neither recommend nor condemn them.
I'm less ambivalent about the bigger meat entrees at dinner, which need help. The house osso buco ($25.99) was salty, greasy, and metallic tasting. The too-dry pork tenderloin ($18.99) came with, said the menu, a black fig demi-glace; I'll have to take their word on it, as I thought the sauce's only recognizable qualities were salty, thick, and a little sweet. The chicken Parmigiana ($15.99) is the only thing I can wholeheartedly recommend from the meaty part of Brix's menu. When I tried it, I got two large chicken breasts given a light coating of seasoned flour and pan-fried, served beneath a little dollop of fresh-tasting tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. If you're an East Coast refugee who's lived a life of pining and sadness without a good local chicken Parmigiana, now you know: Here's one! Set a salad, a bottle of $20 wine, and a chicken Parmigiana on the table, and Brix is a great restaurant. Have a carpaccio and lobster strichetti, and you're leading the high life. Keep visiting Brix trying to assess the breadth of their offerings, and you will come to grief.
Or, worse, you will come to the tiramisu. Here, a pretty hard chocolate cylinder was filled with alternating layers of cake and creamy stuff—layers of cake and creamy stuff that tasted like a box of baking soda that's been sitting in the back of a refrigerator absorbing odors, and then a chicken died. I don't know how old this tiramisu was, but it tasted like it had been aging in place for months, and had everyone at my table grasping for coffee to drive the taste from their mouths. The cappuccino semifreddo ($6.99), a half-frozen custard dessert which should be distinguished by its light, airy traits, was toothachingly, painfully, searingly sweet—a single bite was like getting knifed in the face, with sugar. On a second visit I tried both of these offending desserts again, willing to discount the first disaster if they were any better, but the tiramisu was still gruesomely stale, the semifreddo mostly a sugar headache. "Well, at least we don't have to worry about these calories!" chirped my lunch date, pushing the plates away with remarkable verve and spirit.
Again, the flamethrowing hawks of competing thoughts swooped down. The first: I must speak truth, I must stand up and fight! I must defend the weakest among us, for their creamy centers are under attack by unpleasant refrigerator odors! If I do not give voice to the tiramisu, who among us will? And then the second thought: Oh, for heaven's sake! You call this living? How much of a pain in the neck do you really want to be to a suburban trattoria? It's the best restaurant in St. Louis Park, they've got a great wine list, cut them some slack. If you don't, I will peck you to death with my tiny little hawk machete.
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