Attention former band geeks: Do you remember which instrument the piccolo is? It’s that tiny, flute-like instrument that had to be played by the girl in the band with the smallest fingers. The instrument not only shares its name with the restaurant that recently replaced Cafe Agri on a quiet corner near Lake Harriet, but it also lends many of its attributes to the food featured at the new dining establishment — short, sweet, and pricey.
While the expertly prepared food reflects the admirable skill of chefs Doug Flicker (formerly of Auriga fame, as well as Mission American Kitchen, D’Amico Kitchen, and Porter & Frye), Polly Nielson, and Dan Berger, the tiny portion sizes (described as “moderate” on the restaurant’s web site) fail to justify the hefty bill that arrives at the end of the meal. The well-trained and courteous waitstaff at Piccolo recommend three to five plates per person, which, at $7-14 / plate, can easily lift the total past the $100 mark per couple* before you’ve ordered wine. Many people have no problem paying three figures for an imaginative and well-executed meal, but then they probably aren’t looking to the good-but-not-great bread basket to provide as much sustenance as it has to at Piccolo.
Make no mistake — the cuisine at Piccolo is worth touting. A trio of sunchoke croquettes ($8) topped with shaved fennel, radish, and a green apple mustard kicked off the evening with a bang. The crunchy coating encased two bites of creamy vegetables, and the inventive mustard added a welcome punch. If one person ordered this dish as an appetizer, it would be the perfect portion leading into a larger-sized entree. But since sharing is often the custom at a small-plates restaurant (think Spanish tapas), that means a few bites for each person and it’s gone. Poof. What’s next?
For many, the potato gnocchi ($11) will be an appealing choice, and Piccolo’s version includes white beans, robiola cheese, and guanciale in a creamy sauce. Though the beans were slightly dry and undercooked, the delicately flavored sauce (is that homemade chicken stock we tasted?) and perfectly cooked potato dumplings rallied to save the dish. A more solid all-around plate is the sea scallop ($12), prepared to the ideal texture, highlighting the scallop’s natural sweetness, and paired with red wine-braised onions that a dining companion favorably compared to a tangy barbecue sauce.
The black cod ($12) also showcased the chefs’ skill at seafood preparation. Matched with smoked celery, pancetta, arugula, and hazelnuts, the fish featured the proper firmness, without tasting overcooked, and blended seamlessly with its accompaniments. It would have been ranked the favorite if it had not been followed with the roasted chicken with ricotta pain perdu, cipollini onions, and golden turnips ($13). The golden, savory rectangle was everything you’d want in a roasted bird — juicy, meaty, and comforting. If that chicken were served as a full portion, Piccolo would have customers standing outside the door waiting to experience its superior flavor. Instead, you’re teased with those few luscious bites and then have to put down your fork and knife with a longing for another plate or two.
There’s no question that you’ll have room for dessert at Piccolo, and with only three choices on the menu, you may have room for the entire selection. Luckily, all succeed beautifully. The bitter almond cake ($6) tastes anything but bitter since it’s paired with vanilla ice cream and brown butter honey, but you’ll be so busy capturing every last drop with your spoon that you won’t notice. The ricotta panna cotta ($6) is a burst of spring’s promise with its Meyer lemon and quince topping, while the chocolate terrine with dark raisins, chocolate pearls, and pinecone syrup ($8) will more than please chocolate lovers. It may look like a brownie when placed on the table, but its pudding-like texture gives the dessert a lightness that echoes the rest of the meal.
Piccolo deserves credit for dividing its wine list (priced at the relative bargain $5-9.75 / glass) into user-friendly categories that make it easy to choose exactly what you’re craving that night. With sections like “aromatic and fruity” and “full-bodied and tropical” whites, as well as “spicy and jammy” and “full-bodied and rich textured” reds, even wine novices will feel confident when ordering their beverage. Several wines are available in half-carafes and full bottles as well, for parties that decide to share their drinks along with their food.
Listen, no one is expecting the Cheesecake Factory here. The Minneapolis-St. Paul dining scene certainly has room for restaurants like Piccolo that focus on quality over quantity. However, though quality comes at a price, it doesn’t have to come at such a steep one. No one should have to spend $30-50, without wine or dessert, to quell the grumbling in his stomach but not feel truly satisfied. So if you have a Chipotle-sized appetite, put Piccolo on your list for another day when you’re not so ravenous. Perhaps a payday would be ideal.
*Editor’s note, Feb. 7, 2010: The original version of this review neglected to note “per couple” in reference to the $100 check. We regret the error.
Modern American small plates in East Harriet
4300 Bryant Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55409
CHEFS: Doug Flicker, Polly Nielson and Dan Berger
Mon, Wed-Sat 5:30-10pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes for weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: One dish / No
ENTREE RANGE: $7-14 / small plate; 3-5 plates recommended per person