Parma 8200 revives Bloomington's staid dining scene
FOR DECADES, KINCAID'S has cornered the market on special-occasion dining in the southwest metro. Tucked into a shiny Bloomington office tower, the classic chophouse provides a nice-but-nondescript backdrop for celebrating life's milestones—anniversaries and promotions, rehearsal dinners and retirement parties—with Maine lobster and herb-crusted prime rib. Certainly Kincaid's wouldn't still be around if it didn't do what it does well. And yet, when the last bite of crème brulée is polished off, one can't help but wonder: Is that all there is?
Considering Bloomington's population—it's the state's fifth-largest city—its dining scene has lagged behind that of neighboring towns. While Richfield and Edina have added sushi, Persian, dim sum, and cupcakes, as well as lured the restaurateurs behind Chino Latino and Barrio, the biggest thing to happen in Bloomington dining was the arrival of Ikea's 99-cent breakfasts.
But things may be changing now that Parma 8200 is here, courtesy of the D'Amico partners, who operate more than a dozen restaurants in the Twin Cities and Naples, Florida. The D'Amicos noticed west Bloomington's attractiveness as a restaurant site, with its proximity to several office parks, high-income residential neighborhoods, and hotels serving business travelers. Shortly after opening, Parma is already drawing crowds from all those demographics.
One recent Monday night, nearly every table in the dining room was packed, and decibel levels soared. Co-workers shared drinks and couples double dated. Few diners looked to be younger than 40. It was a crowd that thinks nothing of dropping a few Jacksons on a weeknight dinner but doesn't want to get any more dressed up than plaid canvas sneakers with jeans and a sport coat.
After you've navigated the maze of tall glass towers and concrete parking lots to find the restaurant, Parma's patio will seem a welcome oasis, with its low couches, pergola, fireplaces, and pool table sporting the image of a regal-looking bulldog. Ease into your meal with a cocktail out there or in the dimly lit lounge, which has the mark of a McMansion mancave with its thick pile rug, wide leather chairs, and coffee table made of reclaimed wood. Skip the prosecco with bitters and rock candy in favor of the DK Limonata, a summery blend of gin, lemonade, and basil that drinks like a riff on the country club favorite the Bootleg. The limonatas go down easy, so watch yourself—and keep an eye out for Mrs. Robinsons. The right kind of man left unaccompanied in the lounge might be mistaken for cougar bait.
When you start to get hungry, the kitchen, led by chef Mike Dalton, formerly of Campiello, turns out a menu of classics—fettuccine Alfredo, meatball sandwich, chicken Parmesan—with a few more contemporary dishes. Though the restaurant is named after the Italian city of Parma, it doesn't stick too strictly to those bounds.
When the kitchen stutter-steps, a meal at Parma can make you feel like you overpaid for generic fare. The cavatelli, or short, rolled pasta tubes, for example, came out a bit mushy, with a too-salty Pugliese-style country pork rib ragu. The chicken Parmesan was similarly leaden and nondescript. It tasted like the output of a workmanlike home cook and begged for a brighter tomato sauce or a bit of acid. The already ample portion arrived with a large side of spaghetti, whose noodles had the texture of having been reheated and whose sauce lacked depth. Still, there's reason to give it a second chance. The D'Amicos take customer feedback seriously and recently reworked the dish after diners responded to the first version tepidly.
More often than not, the kitchen knows how to please a crowd, starting with a gratis plate of soft bread covered with snowy cheese, oil, and salt. Ricotta-filled ravioli are spare but pleasant, served with basil, olive oil, and fresh tomatoes just barely melted with heat. On the more decadent side, cannelloni, the large pasta tubes, are stuffed with ground veal, smothered in a bold, rosemary-kissed tomato sauce, and blanketed in Parmesan, provolone, and béchamel. The veal is rich enough to inspire guilt, and its sweetness is enriched with a bit of nutmeg. The pasta sheets are so soft you'll wish you slept in them.
Beef "Brasato" is pot roast, Italian-style. The meat is braised to tender with red wine and garlic and seasoned with cinnamon, clove, and juniper that recall Italy's role in the spice trade. Pork tenderloin is rubbed with dried porcini and brown sugar and broiled to develop a delicate crust that contrasts with its juicy interior and agrodolce sauce, a sweet-sour blend of stewed peppers buzzing with chili flakes.
Daily specials tend toward the traditional: pork osso buco, lasagna Bolognese, and, as a nod to its mature clientele, a Venetian-style liver and onions, made with veal so as to taste less iron-y than beef. A lifelong fan of liver and onions declared it "perfectly cooked" and, predictably, left the dish's side of oil-dressed arugula untouched.
While D'Amico's seems hesitant to devote too much real estate to more modern, trend-forward dishes—the sort you'd be more likely to find at eateries in Uptown or the Warehouse District—that's where Parma's menu makes its biggest strides. The idea of eating sautéed asparagus with toasted hazelnuts, brown butter, and burrata cheese feels novel despite its simplicity. The cheese, a luxurious Italian import, is soft and buttery with a ripe, barnyard note. A sprinkle of salt makes all the flavors—grassy, nutty, funky—pop and glow.
The salumi plate—a choice of five cured meats from noted producers such as Iowa's La Quercia and San Francisco's Fra'mani—offers good value and arrives garnished with peppers, cheese, and a few smoky olives. If you're feeling more indulgent, have your prosciutto grilled and wrapped with mozzarella in carrozza, "in a carriage," or fried in bread.
The watermelon salad—fruit with basil puree, tomato, and goat cheese—is a pairing that's edgy without being overly complex. A salad made with shrimp and fregola (a small, round pasta, like Israeli couscous) is even better, with its mix of fresh sweet corn, peas, avocado, and a zesty, tarragon-heavy Green Goddess-style dressing.
It's not something you'd likely see in Italy, but neither is the pan-seared sockeye salmon, which lends Italian inspiration to the Pacific Northwest fish. The fillet is seared to acquire a fatty-crisp crust and served with spinach, shell peas, and a tangy cream sauce that's garnished with the salty, bitter bite of preserved lemons. It's 28 dollars well spent.
Service at Parma, in my experience, supported the restaurant's successes or exacerbated its flaws. One night, our waitress was extremely knowledgeable, attentive, and discreet. On another visit, our server seemed unprepared to describe menu items (the chardonnay "won an award," the steak "comes with a sauce") and her instincts—"Are you still working on that? . . . I mean, are you still enjoying that?"—might have been better suited to Joe Senser's sports bar around the block. Good intentions, such as replacing used place settings somewhat unnecessarily, ended up being more disruptive than helpful when utensils were forgotten.
Fortunately, the desserts designed by longtime D'Amico pastry chef Leah Henderson tip the scale in a favorable direction. Cannoli are crisp and creamy as they are supposed to be. Either you like the cheese-filled pastry shells or you don't, but the dark chocolate dip and candied kumquats of Parma's version undoubtedly add sophistication. The chocolate cremosa, a dense custard with a ganache-like texture, is a great choice, as it marries beautifully with its coffee semifreddo, hazelnuts, and a razor-thin slice of toast. The butterscotch panna cotta is also excellent: a pure bliss of brown sugar, salt, and cream.
As we spooned the last few bites of panna cotta out of the glass, my friends and I wondered when we might have it again. Was tomorrow too soon? Maybe for breakfast? "What time does this place open?" we asked.
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