A democratization of fine dining has swept the Twin Cities before. Round about a decade ago, chefs were removing the white linens from their tabletops in order to appear more approachable. The noble burger had a mighty and indomitable comeback (and it hasn't gone away since). During the Great Recession, fine dining was scary.
Recently, fine dining has taken another hit. In the course of a week we lost La Belle Vie and Vincent, arguably the finest of the fine around here. Will others meet a similar fate?
Whether or not they mean to, fine dining environments seem to say: "Welcome. What is your special occasion? Hope you've padded your wallet good and fat tonight." Can Minnesotans figure out a way to introduce more haute cuisine into their everyday lives?
A first visit to Monello, the Jester Concepts modernist Italian in the Hotel Ivy, felt awkward, if not stilted. It was lunchtime and the room was all but empty. I was dressed in business casual, but the service was all fine dining, all starched white linens tucked smartly over our pant legs. Our server was nothing short of a cruise director leading us through a performance. It was impressive, fussy, and maybe even a tad anachronistic. I leaned over to my date and whispered, "Fancy."
The cooking was similarly, almost frustratingly constrained. A panzanella salad was an austere formation of ingredients, lined up like rigid soldiers: a crouton, a painstakingly peeled grape tomato, a single leaf of mache lettuce, a twirl of Parmesan, a frizzle of basil, and the whole sequence repeated once more.
The yellowtail crudo came in the same construction: a cube of fish, a strip of tomato, an herbed whisper, a chili dusting, salt seemingly counted by grain before placed. This was food more assembled than cooked, and while beautifully assembled indeed, I dearly missed the exuberance of cooking.
When I ask chefs why there is so much raw fish on menus just now, the answer is usually some variation of "Because we can." With advancements in travel and technology, any landlocked chef anywhere can play sushi chef, and why wouldn't he want to? Expensive knife blades need a place to land. But have chefs asked themselves if diners want it? Will diners feel like paying up to $19 for the pleasure of a few diaphanous bites?
When crudo works, it can really work. The sea bass presentation is a side-plated crescent of fish slivers, assembled again with daubs of creamy crème fraîche, preserved lemon curls lively as morning, precious beads of fish eggs, and feathers of tarragon. The flavors come together airy and precise, like a seaside picnic paired with the one and only perfect wine. And so here, the chef's sensibilities of piecing together flavors like tiny jigsaw tiles is clever and visionary.
But a crudo can also be maddeningly subtle or clunk uncomfortably. The yellowtail with chile and tomato was shoulder-shrugging in its quietude, like having a conversation with someone who's muttering. Conversely, a sturgeon with cherries and green olives was all but overpowered by its accompaniments, like Bluto coming around to blast everyone in his way with his big arm.
And so it tends to go working through this menu, where eye-popping genius moments occasionally pierce through a sea of overly calm restraint, like a dolphin puffing a blowhole stream.
At dinner, there were flashes of true inspiration that could awe for days afterward. A mozzarella-filled tortellini tinted with the spring green of basil pesto was a mouthful of summer. It was so refreshingly evocative of the growing season you wanted to rush the kitchen staff and hug one and all, to give thanks for the reminder that everything is not leaves crunching below boots, that there is also the fecundity of soil and the oily essence of herb. Bobbing around in a chamomile broth, it's a mirage of sunnier days.
Mint campanelle with lamb ragout and eggplant is a powerhouse of meat, game, depth, and nuance, nudging you to return the following night for another.
But then dishes like the raw and cooked vegetable tart or the seared foie gras with amaretti, red wine, and pears are back to that maddening assembly-line stack of things. The this-on-top-of-that motif does not necessarily come together in a symphony, rather a head-tilting confirmation of, "Yep, that's some foie on top of a pear and it tastes pretty good."
Entrees like dry-aged New York Strip and halibut with broccoli raab are pitch-perfect, technical renditions of what they are meant to be: entrees to serve all the people, all the time. It's good, serviceable food for people who are maybe staying in a hotel and want something familiar and satisfying if not necessarily memorable or provocative.
Service is similarly flawless, with vigilant staff preemptively doing just what they should, almost all of the time, just short of daubing the sauce off your chin.
And yet all of it comes at a price. I can't remember the last time I paid $300 for a dinner for two (after gratuity) in Minneapolis. Before now I thought it would be difficult to do. It's not particularly difficult to do at Monello.
Which brings us to the question of fine dining in our town. Can it work? Will it last?
There's no question of whether Monello chef Mike DeCamp can cook. He's clearly a master of technique, seasoning, and presentation, which makes us wonder why he chooses to do so little of it here. (Now is a good time to mention that if one wishes to have each and every DeCamp pasta, in one fell swoop, one can have just that on their six-course pasta tasting menu for $65. With a $40 wine pairing this might be the best value to be had at Monello, and the best way to be awed.)
If Monello could loosen its apron strings just the tiniest bit, it could become the kind of rollicking and exuberant, young and daring sort of restaurant in tune with diners of this era.
The fine dining experience is still here. This, Monello can deliver. The question is, do you want it?
Pro tip: Monello's lower level lounge, Constantine, is almost antithetical to Monello. They've swung far in the other direction with craft cocktails that border on the wacky, and cheeky takes on nachos and wings that actually arrive in paper-lined baskets. The surroundings are still quite elegant, but the experience is altogether different. Choose your own adventure.
1115 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis
Menu items: $11-$55