Bar La Grassa: exceptional Italian

By Clark Jacobson

There’s no better surprise than a food-related one, and there’s no better food than Italian. That leaves us metropolitan Minnesotans in somewhat of a pickle, though, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find any reasonably cheap and reasonably tasty food-from-the-Boot anywhere proximal to Summit Avenue. The 20 minutes drive to Bar La Grassa or the hour-long metro transit trip required to reach this delectable destination at 800 North Washington Avenue should induce relief in the Italian sick hearts of Macalester. Hard rock, rap, and pop bombard your brain while you wait for your table by the bar, which is packed to capacity, and the lighting is dim and warm without being gloomy – true ‘mood’ lighting. It would be impossible not to notice that every single table in the restaurant is occupied, and that each diner at each table cheerily spears olives and cauliflower marinated in pepper-infused olive oil and pops the fruit and vegetable into their mouths.

This warm-up, Bar’s alternative to pre-meal bread, arrives almost instantaneously after the wait staff seats you at your marble table. Every waiter has a tattoo, piercings, or a ponytail that hangs all the way down their backs, and their characteristics combined with the ‘hip’ music choice makes you feel like you’re in a coffee shop in Portland, Ore.

This isn’t a bad transportation. Portland’s known for it’s laid-back yet exciting and exacting dining culture-exactly what you experience at Bar. The decently sizeable menu sports classic Italian dishes with a twist, such as white anchovy and avocado bruschetta and linguine with Brussels sprouts and almond. The waitress suggested the soft eggs and lobster bruschetta as a starter after questioning. The dish appeared on a warm plate shortly after ordering, and was gorgeous. Mounds of a yellow-red mixture with discernable hunks of lobster meat were piled spilling over golden toasted bread with chives sprinkled atop. The soft eggs and lobster resembled texturally moist and perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, while the taste was similar to lobster bisque. The delicate flavors of the lobster and egg stood out and were complimented by the crunchy and salty bread. The bruschetta recalled your mama’s morning toast and eggs, and appropriate beginning to meal.

The rest of the menu after the antipasti and bruschetta is seriously pasta-centric, so my companion and I accordingly chose the fusili col buco with lamb meatballs, orecchiette with braised rabbit, and pasta negra with sea urchin, chili, mussels and tomato. Everything about each dish was near perfection. The pasta was served al dente, a practice I’ve realized is hard to find in the Twin Cities, and the sauces were exquisite.

The fusili dish came in a pomodoro sauce that thinly coated the curly pasta with a mellow orange sheen, and the lamb meatballs nestled in the pasta featured sautéed onion, garlic, and parsley, giving them a fresh taste. Lamb was a good choice, with a generally softer effect on the palate than beef or pork.

Orecchiette is difficult pasta to make due to the danger of making it too thin or too thick, though Bar does it wonderfully. The rabbit in the dish is as tender as any slowly braised pot roast you’ve ever tried; the sauce has a little garlic and is just salty enough (it tasted like it was made with chicken stock); the pasta itself was light and tender, making the dish overall pleasantly homey and thoroughly satisfying-it’s like there’s a little heater warming your stomach once you finish.

Yet the true item of beauty that we tried was the pasta negra. The long spaghetti noodles were colored an intense black hue and steaming and almost totally obscured the mussels, pieces of sea urchins, and small slices of green chili lying beneath. Each twirl of black pasta contained a balance of heat, acid from the tomatoes, and a vague taste of the sea. The mussel shells yawned to offer little golden and beige jewels inside and the sea urchin wasn’t slimy. In fact, the dish wasn’t fishy at all. Plus, it was about the prettiest food I’ve eaten for months-the combination of the dark black of the noodles, the gold of the mussels, the deep red of the tomatoes and the attention-grabbing green of the chili came together in such a way that it could be considered art of the visual as well as visceral kind.

Bar La Grassa breaks from the norm and monotony of Midwestern Italian cuisine. It’s hip while being homey, and the chefs and line cooks construct the dishes so carefully that you may moan in anticipation when you see them and moan in ecstasy when you taste them. Okay, maybe it’s not that good, but it’s hard not to be very impressed with such reasonable prices (the check came out to be about 55 bucks) and laid-back style. There’s a massive wine and spirits menu, though the desert menu is small and less original than the dinner menu-with ice cream imported from Izzy’s, you may as well opt to go to the ice cream shop itself. What’s the key to the restaurant’s success, though, is that it’s all about the food. Pasta can be ordered in half or full portions allowing diners to have their own meals or, more likely, share and taste all the offerings. Bar La Grassa a tight display of how great food can be on a slim budget, and is perfect for the couple of college students looking for a gastronomical treat.

800 North Washington Ave

Minneapolis, MN 55401

Monday – Thursday: 5 p.m. 12 p.m.

Friday – Saturday: 5 p.m. – 1 a.m.

Sunday: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.