Sunday, January 31, 2010

Neighborhoods – North Loop

The North Loop, also known as the Minneapolis warehouse district, has been through quite a few changes since I got a job there three decades ago. A friend of mine had a loft in the Amsterdam building—I mean a real loft, on the third floor, that you arrived at via freight elevator, with an enormous photo of Joseph Beuys on the wall and pigeons outside the window. In those days the Wyman Building across the street was loaded with art galleries and the New French Bar was the place to hang out.

Not that I was ever a part of that scene. You’d be far more likely to find me passing through on my way to the downtown library (the old one) or heading off from work in the opposite direction, toward the Salvation Army headquarters on 10th street in search of old books and LPs and furniture and clothes. I was introduced there one day to both Kenny Barron and Sonny Fortune via a LP called Innocence that I got for 50 cents. The freeway spur from I-94 into downtown hadn’t been built yet and along the way you passed a restaurant supply warehouse and a little concrete-block building that housed Mix Transfer. Ah, the good old days!

In recent decades most of the jobbers have left, of course, and warehouse “lofts” are everywhere, some of them in old buildings and many more in structures newly built for residential purposes. Convenience stores have sprung up in some of the buildings, and even a wine bar here and there. The neighborhood has reached the point in gentrification where restaurants have not only opened but closed again sveral times over. But there have always been restaurants. The old Monte Carlo on 3rd street, more suitable for truck drivers and shipping clerks than lawyers and sales executives, had a wonderful steak salad and a plate called the Critelli Queen Special consisting of steak and spaghetti ($3.95). And before there was J.D. Hoyt’s there was the 301. I once heard the Cajun band Beausoliel within the intimate confines of Bunker’s Bar on 8th Street N.

But all that’s ancient history. What interests us now is two recent additions to the neighborhood that lie at opposite ends of the sociological spectrum—Black Sheep Pizza and La Grassa. Black Sheep (on the corner of Washington Ave and 6th street N, in the basement of the old Brin Glass Building) specializes in coal-fired pizza and I must say that its crusts are very good—not quite as doughy as the also-excellent crusts at Pizza Nea and far superior to the too-often soggy crusts at Punch. The toppings are also closer to the fresh and primitive ones you often get in Italy (or at least as far as I can remember) with less dependence on tomato sauce and rubbery cheese.

Black Sheep is extremely popular and there can be a long wait, but you can have fun on a cold winter night standing around on the staircase of the restaurant’s tiny subterranean confines with a glass of wine in your hands, taking in the heady aromas of garlic and oregano as you look around, examining the dishes that have been served and listening to the buzz of men and women, most of them several generations younger than you, who are also waiting in line to be seated.

Though the servers were rushing here and there feverishly, they seemed to be enjoying themselves and exuded an earthy charm that seemed to derive from the atmosphere and management of the place. It makes you feel at home. There was energy and even (dare I say it) joy in the room; everyone was getting pretty much want they wanted.

La Grassa is two blocks up the street in the place that used to be occupied by Babaloo, a chic restaurant and dance palace that evidently lost its luster with the Latino crowd. To my mind La Grassa has laid the same space out better, with a brightly lit, animated pasta bar along the far end, a dark, semi-enclosed bar space just as you walk in, and a square, tightly-packed dining area in the middle. The huge wooden beams that hold up the warehouse remain exposed and the back walls seem to be covered with the kind of bead board you’d find in a Wisconsin roadhouse built before the days of plywood paneling. On the other hand, the table settings are lavish and elegant.

The menu follows the traditional Italian pattern of antipasti, pasta (et and dry), entrees, and contorni, with a heavy emphasis on the first two categories. Many of the dishes run in the $5 to $8 dollar range, though the lobster bruschetta will set you back $13.

La Grassa received the Star-Tribune‘s Restaurant of the Year Award recently, and we stopped by unannounced recently at 5:00 when the restaurant opened. (It’s only ten minutes from our house.) The hostess merely said, “I can seat you if you’ll be out by 6:30.” Though I was a little concerned about the whispering dullness of an empty dining room, there were people waiting outside the door when we arrived and the place was lively from the get-go.

The wines are reasonably priced, with a bottle of 14 Hands Chardonnay (which recently vanished from the Vincent wine list) at $20, for example, and the Château Graville-Lacoste (which retails for $16.49 at Surdyk’s) at $33.

Our waiter, who looked like Kevin Spacy’s little brother, helped us wander the menu, though we had already made a few choices in front of the computer at home. My silver-anchovy-and-avocado bruschetta was flavorful and limy and fresh; Hilary’s gnocchi with cauliflower and orange was even better; my pasta cooked in red wine with pine nuts was pretty good; and only the orecchiette with braised rabbit left something to be desired. The orecchiette themselves were on the tough side of al dente, and though there was a hint of rabbit flavor in the air above the dish, the meat itself consisted of a few shards amid the slightly pedestrian tomato sauce.

I could very happily return for another sampling, perhaps checking out the torchio with artichokes and mint, or the crab ravioli, or the chicken and foie gras polpettone. Even the pork ribs and the chicken look pretty good.

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