Monello, located in the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis, is gorgeous — it certainly ranks among the most visually appealing restaurants to open in the area this year. In an airy space that feels like an urban spin on Northern California style sits a clean marble bar and contemporary fixtures. Nothing distracts or confines, and the entire composition invites guests to linger.
Monello, one of a pair of restaurants, hovers lightly above its basement-dwelling cousin, Constantine. Both are operated by Jester Concepts, the group behind Marche, Coup d’Etat and the Borough-Parlour tag-team in the North Loop. But while Borough and Parlour share a certain keen sophistication, Monello and Constantine couldn’t be farther apart from one another.
“Genuine” is the name of the game at Monello; its website lists the buzzword even before getting specific about the food or experience. The focus of the menu is seafood, particularly that in the style of the Campania region of Italy. That means crudo, small plates, and pasta are in the spotlight. As promised, quality ingredients walk hand-in-hand with advanced cooking techniques.
The cocktail list follows suit — ingredients with an Italian emphasis are the basis of many Monello cocktails. Each drink is affordable at a mere $8. Cocchi Americano Rosa and prosecco star in one of our favorites, the Rossini. Creating a fruit-based cocktail that is balanced but also flavorful is not easy, but this blush beauty is a crowd pleaser. Its berry flavor remains robust without being cloying like candy or jam. The fortified wine reins in the sweetness, and prosecco also contributes to a drier finish.
Worth a mention in the savory direction is the briny and herbal East Side Collins. Its dill aquavit and vinegar act together to create a pickling-liquid effect, almost like a savory Gatorade. The drink is dramatically refreshing and ushers in a multitude of brilliant food pairings.
Try the razor clam with sweet corn and chervil for a small snack ($12). This dish is beautifully composed and flavorful, with strong summer ties. Each ingredient speaks for itself, even the chervil, which acts as more than a garnish. For a more substantial experience, try the unexpected grilled octopus with cucumber ($18). Avoid the lobster entree ($32) — on our visit, the meat was incredibly chewy, and the risotto was lifeless and overdone.
Before you leave, be sure to try the house-made limoncello. It is made using Meyer and Eureka lemons in a 60-day process that results in a moderately sweet, complex digestivo. We found it mellow enough to be sipped with dessert but pungent enough to stand on its own.
Bar staff upstairs spoke highly of Constantine, and descending the stairs felt a bit like discovering a secret lair. At the bottom, an elevated pulpit introduces diners to Gothic decor, which is reflected in the spot’s altar-like table and reclaimed stained glass.
The scheme continues with dim lighting and more candles; the room is so dark, in fact, that we could barely read the menu. The experience was like reading a hymnal at a candlelight Christmas service, but with somewhat more taxidermy lining the walls. The lack of prices on the menu added to the frustration.
With a high proportion of tropical ingredients like coconut, banana, and lime, some of the cocktail choices presented a puzzling contrast to the environment. The menu read like a Tiki-skewed Eat Street Social, but with thematic elements of Donnie Dirk’s.
Our first round of drinks was abysmal. The Hour Glass Shape is served sno-cone fashion in a stemmed hurricane glass, with bitters dripped over the mound of ice. The creation makes for some entertaining viewing. Unfortunately, toasted fennel dominates the other flavors, and toward the bottom of the glass tannins akin to over-steeped tea take over. Equally unbalanced is the It’s Naught a Turmeric, which tastes entirely like turmeric. The lemongrass, ginger, and lime are drowned out, and even the tequila is scarcely able to rise above the monotonous spice.
At a second visit, drinks were more pleasant. The Deephaven is similar to a Manhattan but is made with Black Mission fig liqueur and has an incredible, honeylike aroma. Whiskey stands out in the flavor profile, and a mulling-spice finish — while it felt out of place in the warm weather — did add dimension. Smoke and peat are overwhelming in the Hypercyllin, which is created using three types of scotch as well as lemon, ginger, and coconut. As the palate fatigues from the peaty flavor and aroma, the ginger is able to contribute, and the drink becomes more enjoyable.
Half a dozen food items, created by chef Mike DeCamp, sounded intriguing but unfortunately fell flat. We ordered the Foie Gras Nachos ($12) and Chicago-Style Mortadella Hot Dog ($9). Cloth napkins and plastic forks were delivered to the table in checkered paper trays that seemed absurd sitting on the distinguished bar. The plastic picnic baskets lined with deli paper, in which the food was delivered, were also starkly out of place.
Nothing Chicago-like topped the dog, and the cold, boring bun makes for a sad foundation. The meat was tasty, but the snack cost double what is is worth. The nachos were even more disappointing. Shredded lettuce sat atop Tostitos rounds along with an apricot-pepper reduction and chunks of foie gras. Rather than being showcased, the foie gras acted as an ineffective life preserver, as though the decadent ingredient could make the plate appealing. It had the opposite effect, however, dominating only because there was little else notable about the dish. One taster got a vein within the liver, as well.
Service at the bar surpassed table service significantly, but all in all we would return only for Monello, unless the basement makes some significant improvements and does away with disposable flatware.
Italian-focused seafood and drinks at the Hotel Ivy
1115 2nd Ave S, Minneapolis 55403
Breakfast: Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m.
Sat-Sun 7-11 a.m.
Lunch: Daily 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
1115 2nd Ave S, Minneapolis 55403
Mon-Thu 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-2 a.m.