When people talk about Il Foro (formerly the Forum Cafeteria) and the Lexington in St. Paul, they say things like: "My grandma used to take me there." Well, after a first look, we are pleased to announce that people are probably going to continue to say such things, for generations to come.
When restaurateurs Josh Thoma, Jack Riebel, and Lorin Zinter made the decision to snatch up these classic, grande dame properties, there is no doubt they were thinking long term. These historic properties have survived the decades in their own right, and what they needed now was a Midas touch culled through decades of their own industry wisdom to give them new life — life that would last the coming decades.
All three men can be classified as "grown-ups," having withstood the test of time themselves in this hard-knocks industry, having taken lots of them, given some too, sometimes making mistakes along the way. This huge second act for all of them (Thoma is of La Belle Vie and Solera fame, now Smack Shack; you know Zinter from insta-hit Heyday, and Riebel most recently Butcher and the Boar but prior to that the Dakota and now Half Time Rec), and toss in the accomplished yet playful cooking of Joe Rolle (formerly of Borough), and this place almost can't help but become a masterpiece.
We've been having our fun with poking fun at the Italian/crudo takeover of the city, with five new and upcoming places devoting their menu efforts to these. But here, the cooking takes on the kind of passion that has you swiveling around wondering if you've somehow teleported to Italy. It easily stands up to the finest Italian cooking we've seen locally. Keep this in mind: They've only been open six days.
Three crudos make up the tight list, and they are nothing short of delicate art. The yellowtail with fresh passion fruit, Vadouvan (a spice blend reminiscent of curry but with the addition of shallot and garlic), olive oil, cilantro, and jalapeño is an exacting inspiration— a memorable thrill ride for the tongue, zooming from lush protein to blazing spice to tropical to crunch to potent funk and back again. It disappeared from the plate with similarly impressive speed.
The half dozen handmade pastas are no less exacting — Rolle tells me it takes half a day to prepare one tray of the orrechiette alone — they're mixed rolled like gnocchi, but then sliced, and each dime-sized noodle gets pinched and rolled individually. They're handled like the little gems they are, with the brilliant brainstorm to not bombard them with sauce, but instead the brightness of carrot juice, and then lamb ragu, fresh peas, sheep's milk ricotta, and mint.
Fat bucatini were treated to similar skill, with a splash of lemon juice and preserved lemon at the bottom of the bowl, keeping the pancetta and pecorino from one-note richness, and then made springy with favas and aruglua.
There is a focused list of just four entrees, the rabbit cacciatore is Rolle's grandpa Dario's recipe, a lovely braise again lightened with the herbaceous tang of green gremolata, a restrained spoonful of polenta smooth as cream, and a tomato sugo worthy of the best Italian American institutions. An egg yolk gilded it all like a crown.
He doesn't have a pastry chef yet, so Rolle gets extra applause for an opulent vanilla bean panna cotta with strawberry granita intersected with a handmade pizzelle.
Trish Gavin, formerly of Brasserie Zentral and one of our town's most masterful barkeeps — she's a consummate host and a savant with inebriants — is in charge of the cocktail program, and it was refreshing indeed to see a cast of all women behind the bar.
The remodel is light, with new, period-appropriate floor tiles and some stately circular booths. A tower of liquor bottles separates the bar from the dining room so you can choose your own adventure — want a casual half pasta and a beer in your jeans and Adidas? Post up at the bar in front. Celebrating your 50th anniversary? Call ahead for that perfect cozy table in the corner. Servers are dressed in smart but casual denim, ostensibly to offset the ostentatiousness of the interior which, admittedly, can intimidate. But this is a place for all occasions, and if the culinary talent continues on the level they're cranking on day six, it will also be a place for all time.
Il Foro, 40 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, 612-238-2300
Now open for lunch and dinner.