Spasso: stay for the wine

Chef Tittle in the Wine Shop with his phenomenal polenta fries

Chef Tittle in the Wine Shop with his phenomenal polenta fries

17523 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka
appetizers $5-$9; entrees $10-$28

Spasso's timing couldn't be better. Amid mortgage meltdowns and investment bank bailouts, the new Minnetonka restaurant is offering a dining deal that's unmatched anywhere in town: They're selling bottles of wine at retail price—roughly half what you'd pay at any other restaurant.

I know what you're thinking: It sounds as suspicious as an email that begins with "Dear Sir" and ends with a huge sum of money sitting in a Nigerian safety deposit box. Hefty wine markups are a standard industry revenue generator—and a constant source of ire to those who keep tabs on retail prices. (A Spasso regular's story about a nice dinner at a downtown restaurant captures the sentiment: "The food was good and the service was good, but you know what I remember most about the night? What they charged me for the bottle of wine.")

Spasso's owner, Chris Eriksson, hopes to use his partnership in the Wine Shop next door to the businesses' mutual advantage. Buying in large quantity for the wine store allows Eriksson to get a lower price on the wine he sells in the restaurant. By introducing customers to wines in the restaurant, they're more likely to buy a case from the shop. (There are basically no boundaries between the two: Diners can bring one of the Wine Shop's 1,600 bottles into the restaurant without paying a corkage fee.) From an economic perspective, what Eriksson loses on margins he makes up for in volume. From a layperson's perspective, the wine's a bargain, so drink up.

According to recent statistics, the U.S. ranks third worldwide in sheer volume of wine consumption, just behind France and Italy. But while French and Italian wine drinking has stagnated or even declined since the millennium, growth in the American market has increased each year, on pace to overtake the other two. Wine has gone so mainstream that Riedel wine glasses, once purchased only by serious connoisseurs, are sold at Target.

Spasso's broad, user-friendly wine list rides this trend. It's intended more for everyday wine drinkers (most bottles are in the $25-$30 range) than hardcore oenophiles—and it helpfully lists Robert Parker and Wine Spectator ratings. The problem with serving consumers who don't keep track of vineyards, vintages, and their relative value is that they might not even recognize the deal. The modern Norman Rockwell family I saw one night, refueling after a soccer tournament with glasses of milk and soda—was the concept lost on them? Now, I hate an upsell as much as anybody—no, I don't need a scone, a box of mints, or a plush Hug-a-Bou with my latte—but I spent two meals at Spasso sending telepathic waves to my servers, hoping they might mention the wine list's virtues. I almost considered dropping off a copy of Brag: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It.

Finally, on my third visit, our waiter asked, "Are you guys wine drinkers?" then helped select a glass of Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée pinot noir—a bottle that's typically too expensive for restaurants to sell that way (restaurants tend to price wines by the glass high enough that they only have to sell one to cover the wholesale cost of the bottle). It was a good example of how the restaurant's pricing offers more options for diners and allows the wine list-makers to get more creative, knowing that people are more willing to explore unfamiliar wines if they're less expensive.

The populist attitude matches the dining room's decor—dark wood, brick pillars, and colorful glass accents—and its Italian/American menu. The place is big enough that you don't have to wait for a table, but popular enough that you might get the last one. The staff wear T-shirts that say, "Come as you are," which in this neighborhood I take to mean that you already have your hair combed and your shirt tucked in, and you're wearing lipstick. And while I like the casual, comfortable-as-home attitude, with entrée prices in the teens and twenties I expect the food to be better than whatever's at home in the fridge. During my visits, some dishes made a compelling case for staying; others made me wish I'd taken my wine bottle home.

Some of the best things I ate at Spasso were those atypical for wine pairing, like the phenomenal polenta fries, their edges thin and crisp as a crème brûlée crust, their centers a gooey mix of molten cornmeal, Parmesan cheese, and chicken stock. The veggie panini was a far cry from the typical middling, meatless, sprout-stuffed sandwich. It's piled with portobello mushroom, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and a salty spread of artichokes, olives, and capers. If you're the carnivorous sort, the meatsa pizza was good enough to forgo the drive to Punch or Pizza Nea, as it had a tender, chewy crust, good-quality pepperoni, sausage, and cured meat, and sprigs of fresh rosemary.

Several upscale entrées—saffron-glazed salmon, filet mignon—share the page with everyday, informal fare, which make sense when you realize that these were the sorts of high-end dishes that Spasso's chef, Damian Tittle, used to cook at the now-shuttered Zander Cafe. One of these delights was dubbed the "seafood volcano," an elegant seafood potpie with shrimp, crab, and scallops bathed in creamy lobster bisque, spilling from a puff pastry shell.

Yet in every section of the menu, each good item had its inverse—like the pork prime rib that didn't nearly live up to the seafood volcano. Tittle smokes the meat to create a nicely caramelized exterior, but since it was such a large portion, the flavor didn't permeate the center, where bites were as cottony and bland as a boneless, skinless chicken breast. In contrast to the meatsa pizza, the mosaic version was topped with meatballs that tasted like dried-out meatloaf, sweetened with fennel and golden raisins—though we could hardly pick up on those subtleties due to the overpowering giardiniera, an Italian relish that caused the pizza to taste almost like a sweet pickle sandwich.

Some dishes almost worked, marred only by proportions that were a little off-kilter. The walleye fillet, for example, was eclipsed by thick slices of focaccia. And while the "black and blue" salad contained a nice mix of homemade fried onions, strips of skirt steak, and tomato vinaigrette, it could have used more gorgonzola to tie the flavors together. (I had to unearth a few paltry crumbles from under the mound of greens just to convince my friend of their existence.)

Other dishes were more fundamentally flawed. The fonduta, the Italian version of Swiss fondue, tasted like a blah béchamel with a hint of truffle. (If you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, might this be the gruel you get when you're grounded?) The spinach and artichoke dip was so indistinctive that, had the dish contained truffle, I might have closed my eyes and mistaken it for the fonduta. As for the pastas, I expect a Bolognese to be bold, but this one was lackluster—watery, even—as if powdered milk had substituted for cream. The pesto on the radiatore had little garlicky oomph and tasted no better than something that came powdered in a foil packet. I looked at all the diners around me, who were eating and looking happy. Was it them or me? Had they eaten so many Lunchables and microwavable meals that they'd forgotten food was supposed to have flavor? Or had I become the person who couldn't go to a small-town diner without complaining that the chicken basket didn't come with house-made aioli?

As three scoops of homemade gelato melted together into a soupy gray puddle, I wondered how the dessert could have been so luscious last time, and this time so icy and unappealing. I suppose for the same reason I adored the lemon chiffon cheesecake—so light as to be nearly foamy, served with a tart lemon curd—and despised the drab chocolate torte and bread pudding.

Spasso's staff doesn't lack talent, but perhaps the restaurant's faults stem from talent being stretched too thin. Zander Cafe excelled with upscale American food because that was the only thing it did. Same story with pizza at Punch and pasta at Broders'. The more ground a menu covers, the harder it is to cover it well. Who has time to make fresh, homemade pasta when you're busy with burgers and steaks and seafood volcanoes? I'd like to see Spasso focus its menu to improve its consistency. Otherwise, the deals on wine, no matter how good, aren't worth the culinary misses.