When a $200 meal is at stake, there are certain imperatives. The table must be free of crumbs and oily smudges. Wine glasses have to be refilled swiftly and consistently. Temperatures on lavish steaks must be cooked precisely to order. Tables should be quickly cleared between courses so you're not sitting in a pile of your own mess. It's a choreography, and too many missteps turns the ballet into a barn dance.
A year ago, there were exactly zero local Italian restaurants specializing in Italian and a thing called crudo, Italy's raw fish answer to sushi. Then, suddenly, there were a half dozen of these restaurants, scattered all around town.
Parella has already closed. There are rumblings that another, Il Foro, is on the verge of changing formats. Evidently, there aren't enough Minnesotans beating a path to dine on cold, raw fish garnished with dots and daubs of sauces and purees. In the dead of winter. With no clear view of the sea.
Lela, located in the Sheraton Bloomington, made the wise choice of adding steak to its roster. Travelers need comfort, and comfort exists in steaks, potatoes, and icy martinis. What we found were some valiant efforts that instead resulted in discomfort.
The 494 strip, with its everyplace-America assault of TGIFridays, Babies-R-Us, and fortress-sized REI, offers few freewheeling charms. An urban-styled destination restaurant with legitimate cooking ambition could be just what Bloomington needs.
But in recent weeks, the restaurant has been struggling with the departure of its opening chef, John Mullen, and the proof is on the plates.
The space feels cavernous and cold with a lot of gray tones and brushed steel. It's sleek and anchored by a towering center island of transparent wine racks that look like they want to live in 1980s Manhattan. The semicircle of high-backed booths makes it difficult to catch the eye of servers, who often disappear for long stretches.
The steakhouse parts of the menu work best. A starter of beef tenderloin tartare was truly delectable with spot-on seasoning, high quality grainy Dijon, and a runny poached egg flowing over it like golden lava. At a stratospheric $18 for a small starter, it's a relief that it works. A baby romaine salad, their take on a Caesar, was also well executed with robust anchovy flavor, meaty flakes of good Parmesan, and lots of black pepper.
In the pasta section, frustrations abound. The noodles and pastas themselves are all handmade and skillfully prepared. But they take a heartbreaking turn with their clunky accompaniments. The fettuccine bolognese was made with fat, eggy, butter-colored noodles. But instead of the knee-buckling thunder of a true, slow-coddled bolognese, the meat was tough and chewy, almost like quick sauté. The tagliatellini was a similarly lovely noodle, silky and al dente. But accompaniments of beef tips, mushrooms, greens, and Gorgonzola had the stark blandness of cream of mushroom soup. No Gorgonzola presented itself. It went on like this. Prosciutto di Parma ravioli were frilly pillows of perfect size, shape, and consistency. But inside, a salt-lick of dry, ground prosciutto tumbled out, sad and off-putting. Truffle gnocchi was lovingly plated in a soft tangle of lobster, mascarpone, and roe. But it had to be sent back, the gnocchi were so raw and gummy.
I've come to the conclusion that crudo is crudo, almost no matter where you go. If a guy has a set of knives for carving away flesh from carcass, along with an arsenal of squeeze bottles filled with purees and sauces, he will zag upon the plate some miso aioli, or zig upon the fish some fennel puree. I'd still rather have my raw fish at a sushi restaurant, where the chefs are specialists. At Lela, the yellowfin tuna and sea bass crudos were fine, but absolutely not worth their $17 and $15 price tags, for what amounts to a couple bites of raw flesh.
The steaks are lavish, and soar into the above $80 range for a 40-ounce porterhouse. To be fair, they're meant to be shared. The 18-ounce ribeye is a beautiful cut of meat, extravagantly marbled and served with a knob of butter melting sumptuously on top. Curiously, we were also offered a pile each of four artisanal salts to season our own meat, itself already generously and properly seasoned. It's a silly and unnecessary flourish. Regrettably, this stunning $44 hunk of flesh was underdone, served rare rather than the requested medium rare. The manager offered to take it back for a re-fire, but no one really wants that kind of a Band-Aid when dining this expensively.
Throughout our experiences, service ranged from confused to absent to squirrelly. At one point it felt as though we were being served by committee, so many different servers came by to refill drink orders, drop courses, and deliver forgotten utensils. They were friendly, yet harried. Cocktails were clearly not mixed by a pro hand. A London Calling with gin, balsamic, St. Germain, and strawberries was delivered in a glass overflowing with ice cubes. A whiskey sour was delivered twice, the bartender amicably taking a second crack at the first subpar iteration.
When a recommended lemon tart was delivered taut, prefab, and still frozen in the center, no amount of sugar could help digest the bill. By now, servers and management were graciously, though nervously, making attempts at appeasement. But at that point it was just palliative care.
There's a special kind of exhaustion to enduring disappointing and costly evenings like these. You feel for the staff because clearly there is something going wrong. You feel for yourself and your date, because at every bend there is a distracting problem. You feel for your pocketbook, because $200 is a lot of money. You feel for your Saturday night out, because you won't get another one of those for a week.
But look on the bright side: You'll have time to re-pad that wallet.
5601 W. 78th St., Bloomington
menu items: $7-$86
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