Thursday, November 15, 2012

Colossal Café

My relationship to restaurants in general has been evolving for years. I suppose this is because I'm more of a grownup than I used to be. Mostly, though, I attribute the change to my devotion to bettering my own cooking. Certainly this is understandable. Your reaction to, say, a creme brulee, when you don't know how on earth it's done, is something akin to religious revelation. When you know exactly how it's done, and maybe do it just as well yourself, it's still delicious of course, but your descriptive adjectives are probably going to start shedding syllables.

Miss J and I spent last night with the crew at The Colossal Cafe in Saint Anthony Park. I have been traveling most of the last month, and a quiet night with my honey was the best late birthday present (for both of us) I could have asked for. J had been to Colossal for breakfast. It was brand new for me. And to be fair, dinner is fairly new for them. There are already plenty of reasons to love this neighborhood, and the chance to combine a trip to the Bibelot with a nice casual dinner proved an irresistible draw.

The new Colossal is a smallish, cozy space. It reminds me a lot of the old Blackbird. Lighting is dim but workable, tables might be a little close together, but not annoyingly so. The best spot in the house is the bar, which is wide and uncluttered and gives you a nice chance to chat with the staff. This is a good idea, since everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming. I have nothing but praise for a restaurant that understands the importance of just being nice to people.

Being on the road with a bunch of musicians involves a lot of food in, um, well, let's just say the Golden Brown family. When dinner after the show means something between 9:30 and 10:00, you're almost certain to end up at the bar, eating whatever deadly appetizers are available. So I, even I, ordered a salad. Gem lettuce, pecans, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and blue cheese vinaigrette. The red onion in the vinaigrette was a little heavy-handed, but admittedly I hate hate hate onions in this context, so that could just be me. The whole would have benefited from being a warm dish, but it was still quite good, and I ate all but the stumps of the lettuce. Here's what it looked like.

Next up was a trio of seared sea scallops from the small plate menu. These were smallish, but beautifully done. The presentation was surprisingly busy. Cauliflower puree, chopped almond, citrus vinaigrette, crispy pancetta, and a small side of roasted oyster mushrooms were all jockeying for space on what was indeed a small plate. The results were hit-and-miss, which ironically was a fair metaphor for the rest of the evening. The mushrooms were perfect, the vinaigrette very good, and almonds are always welcome. But the pancetta was on the tasteless side, and the cauliflower puree was really just pureed cauliflower. I'm not sure why you would go to the trouble of pureeing it if you weren't planning on adding any other flavor. I suppose the fresh stuff would be harder to balance a scallop on.

Miss J surprised me and ordered the ribs for dinner. These were served up with collard greens and maple roasted diced yams. I went for the gnocchi, in a basic tomato basil sauce with shaved parmigiano. I skipped the option for house-made Italian sausage, since I had been overloaded with meat during most of those aforementioned bar visits.

A couple of years ago I bought a charcoal smoker, and since then I have formed several rather strong opinions about ribs. As a cut of meat, ribs just aren't worth much unless they're prepared properly, at which point they become intoxicatingly good. This involves relatively low temperatures for a long time.  The ribs at Colossal had a too-strong smoke flavor, but didn't fall apart the way they should have, and dried out fairly quickly after their arrival. I suspect they were rushed, and probably at too high a temperature. The meat wasn't bad. Once everything was sorted out, the good bits, though over-smoked, were still delicious. But ribs you have to work at are problematic right out of the gate. On the bright side, both accompaniments were excellent. More dishes should include yams.

Gnocchi I generally order because I'm a glutton for punishment. To be frank, they are almost never done well. There are lots of wonderful preparations out there. The trouble is, they are rarely paired with gnocchi that are worth the trouble. What you should get are flavorful, light, fluffy dumplings. What you normally do get are chewy, heavy, over-floured, tasteless lumps of congealed disappointment. But they are so darned good when they are right that I keep trying, in the hope that one day I will have the experience I'm having in my head.

All that said, Colossal nailed the gnocchi. Seriously. They were perfect. What surprised me was the sauce. There just isn't anything tricky about a tomato basil sauce. And parmigiano? Always the right call. The sauce here was okay, and could have been great, but the whole dish was so over-salted that most of the other flavors got their savory little butts kicked.

J had a little bubbly up front and a beer with dinner. I stuck to root beer (another result of the post-tour hangover). The tap list is small but interesting, and combined with a reasonable and thoughtful wine list, should meet your needs quite well.

For dessert, I picked the Tres Leches cake. This was good, but not exceptional. The cream inside was flavored with raspberry, but so subtly that you might have missed it. The cake struck me as a little dense, but I certainly didn't have any trouble eating it.

The value at Colossal is decent. Not cheap, but good for the neighborhood. We had three drinks, one salad, one small plate, two entrées and dessert, and with tip we were out for under $100, with enough left over to put gas in the car. Service was excellent. Nice folks here. And the food that was good was extremely good. The unevenness was puzzling, and I wonder how much of this has to do with getting the hang of dinner service, but they've been at this for three months now. Sooner or later you just have to get it all right at the same time.

It's nice to have a new neighbor like the Colossal Cafe. I'm thinking they'll only get better, and they're getting a lot right now. But with Muffuletta right up the street, the consistency will need to improve, and quickly. Give them a try. Let me know what you think.


  1. I really love and look forward to your reviews, Mark. You have a real knack for description and a real knack for understanding objective versus subjective critique. Keep 'em coming, sir!

    1. Well gosh. That's awfully kind of you. Thanks for reading.