I had my first local sighting of "jeggings" the other night at Bar La Grassa. They are a confident fashion choice that recently arrived from the coasts: skin-tight denim leggings, often worn with a top that doesn't cover the tush and a pair of retro, round-toed pumps. They hug every curve, and then some. And they make their precursor, skinny jeans, seem as baggy as elephant skin.
The jeggings-clad women arrived at La Grassa on the arms of slick guys in crisp dress shirts who entered the restaurant as they would a club or party: tiptoed and scanning. My friend pointed to a guy with frosted hair. "Where do these people go during the day?" she mused. I couldn't fathom an answer, even for the one person I did recognize, Norm Coleman, who was standing out on the curb, handing his car keys to the valet.
Besides its throngs of fashion-conscious diners, the other thing Bar La Grassa has in common with New York City is its Yankees-esque, dream-team roster of Twin Cities restaurateurs. The executive chef is Isaac Becker, owner of the highly lauded 112 Eatery and recent James Beard Award nominee. Becker's wife, Nancy St. Pierre, runs the front of the house with the same warmth and professionalism she has brought for years to the Eatery. To open La Grassa, Becker and St. Pierre partnered with the team behind Barrio—Josh Thoma, Ryan Burnet, and Tim Rooney—who seem to launch restaurants with diners already lined up outside.
The team took over the former home of Babalu, on the far western edge of the Warehouse District, just before Washington Avenue rounds the corner and heads north. In recent years this North Loop neighborhood has become an increasingly appealing nightlife destination that avoids the parking hassles and drunken clubbers of downtown proper.
The big, open, brick-and-beam warehouse space has been broken up into smaller sections so it feels more intimate than the previous Latin music venue. The decor exudes an artsy vibe that mixes vintage and contemporary: On one wall, Johnny Cash grins broadly, on another, beekeepers sit down to a plated bee dinner. Decorative light fixtures, which look like birthday cakes, according to Becker and St. Pierre's young son, were salvaged from an old movie theater. Racks of copper pots and wine glasses dangle above seats at the pasta bar. Between the marble tabletops and the reclaimed wood on the walls and floors, the space possesses the relaxed luxury of a wealthy person's cabin.
When full, La Grassa feels lively and clamorous. And when nearly empty, it retains the same electricity as the moment the final guest leaves a party, having stretched the last conversation into the doorway.
La Grassa, which means "the fat" in Italian, might attract those living high on the hog, or at least trying to act like it, but the eats aren't necessarily fancy or spendy. The food might be the least trendy aspect of the place, in fact. True, some of the cocktails possess a sophisticated air—one's made with acai berry, another hits the lips with an espresso crema and finishes with a flourish of bitter orange—but most of the menu feels rather rustic. The bowls of noodles and marinated pork shoulder on toast wouldn't have looked out of place a hundred years ago.
Becker says he always wanted to open a pasta bar, but the 112's tiny kitchen and six-burner stove had no space for the requisite pots of simmering water. His approach to La Grassa's menu suggests an Italian version of a Spanish tapas bar: lots of small, sharable options.
Meals begin with a gratis appetizer that's a humble mix of giant lima beans ("I like to try to get people to eat things they normally wouldn't," Becker says), cubes of Manchego cheese, and pickled vegetables served in kitschy floral-print dishes. It's a rich comfort spiked with the zing of vinegar and heat. Imagine Grandma roaring up in a Maserati and you'll get what I mean.
For starters, Becker offers nearly a dozen bruschetta, which at first struck me as very early-'90s until I read down the list and found nothing close to the mealy tomato-topped versions popularized at Buca and the Olive Garden. Case in point: the burrata, a compact, stark-white knot that looks nearly like a mound of whipped cream sprinkled with chili oil. In fact, it's Italy's famed buffalo-milk mozzarella, pulled till it's silky, then shaped into a ball and filled with cream. The result is a silky-soft cheese that tastes as fresh as milk sipped straight from the farmer's pail. It's expensive, highly perishable, and, since it's air-freighted from Italy, must be ordered in bulk, making it a challenge for most food retailers and restaurants. But after you've indulged in burrata, even the freshest cheese curds seem like a waste of time.
I liked the marinated mushroom bruschetta, too, and several other antipasti, including the Taleggio bigne, which are little puffy buns filled with runny cheese and served with braised apple and honey. The crispy insalata, with peppery greens, pine nuts, Parmesan crackers, and a fine balsamic vinaigrette, is also a good pick. As are the raw halibut slices sprinkled with cilantro, pumpkin seeds, olive oil, and tiny peppers.
The menu offers a few selections of house-made charcuterie, a specialty of Becker's second in command, Erik Sather. The chicken and foie gras polpettone, though, proved an unfortunate choice. The chunky terrine was a jumble of flavors and textures—cottony, creamy, salty, and metallic—that refused to fuse. Knowing the cost of foie gras, it seemed a shame not to serve it in a form that took advantage of both its flavor and its delicate consistency.
La Grassa's array of fresh and dried pastas is among the largest in town, and while the standard combinations are good, they're not as appealing as some of the other options. I thought the bucatini with bolognaise was tasty, but the sauce could have used the punch of more intensely caramelized meat, more herbs, or more wine. The fettucini alfredo is, thankfully, the opposite of the Americanized, cream-smothered stuff sold in "bottomless" bowls. The fresh noodles are taut and pliable, as if they'd just come from Pilates, and are topped with just the right amount of cheese.
Pastas may be ordered in half portions, which encourages the sampling of lesser-seen dishes: Fresh orecchiette, or "little ears," are toothsome buttons served with shreds of braised rabbit meat; rigatoncini topped with milk-braised chicken was fragrant with saffron; veal tortellini was bathed in a rich yet subtle broth.
But if I had to limit my selections, I'd go with the gnocchi, light little nubs that turned creamy on the tongue, flavored with bits of caramelized cauliflower and citrus. Or I'd choose something with seafood, as both the crab in the ravioli and the lobster in the linguini were at their sweet, briny best, enhanced, and not overwhelmed, by fresh pasta and spare sauces.
The secondi, like the pasta, are short on complications and long on flavor. They are described on the menu with the utmost brevity—a simple "chicken," for example—which encourages discussion with the servers. Though the staff would never let on, I wonder if inquisitive diners asking about multiple dishes become burdensome when the restaurant is busy.
In any case, the pork ribs were better than those at most places that call them their specialty. They're marinated in garlic, rosemary, and chiles, roasted, then grilled so that the tops are crisped, creating bites of "meat toast" if you will, while the flesh between the bones remains moist and fatty. The skate wing is a member of the ray family that has recently gone from trash fish to treasure for its versatility and affordability. In texture and flavor, skate's sweet, almost stringy flesh is a little like crab, so it paired wonderfully with capers, lemon, and butter. (The ethics of eating skate are a little less certain than its deliciousness, though, as it shows up on some "avoid" lists due to slow maturation/ reproduction and trawl-catch methods.)
One thing you don't need to be conflicted about is ordering dessert. I found several that I hope stay on the menu forever, including crepes filled with luscious, salted caramel and a lemon lavender mousse with an ethereal, semifreddo texture. Unlike jeggings, I can't imagine either will ever go out of style.