Star Tribune ***
Biella, the new Italian trattoria in Excelsior, and its sister restaurant Ravello in Long Lake, aren’t perfect, but they’re the best things to happen to the western suburban dining scene in ages. There have been plenty of noble efforts to raise the standards of gastronomy in the west metro, and most of them have come to an unhappy end — witness the demise of CocoLezzone, Coco Cha Cha, Yvette, Tiramisu, Portofino, etc. Biella and Ravello are smaller and more intimate than most of those, which is a big part of their appeal.
Biella, which opened very quietly last December, is the newer and more charming of Mark Nazigian’s two cafes. Housed in an 1882 storefront on Excelsior’s Water Street, its decor combines the earth tones of the Tuscan countryside with the rustic American charm of old wood floors and a stamped tin ceiling. The lighting is soft and romantic, with the walls of distressed plaster chipped away to reveal old brick.
The menu, which changes frequently, offers a half-dozen starters and as many entrees, as well as a few pastas and salads. Although the dominant culinary influence is Italian, chef Eric Rud doesn’t hesitate to experiment with flavors from all around the world. The most memorable of the starters included a pair of seared diver scallops, served over a very mild green curry sauce, garnished with green peas, slivers of sautéed leeks and shiitake mushrooms and diced morsels of salty sopressata (sausage); and an ahi tuna tartare marinated in soy, lime and sesame, served in a martini glass over a sweet and fruity granita (or a cucumber seaweed salad on the current menu). Even the more recognizably Italian offerings have some creative twists: the plate of paper-thin raw beef carpaccio is presented with baby arugula and tiny threads of lemon zest and drizzled with a lemon caper vinaigrette, while the pizzas are served topped with either ham and talleggio cheese, or chipotle and pulled chicken.
Although billed as Secondi Piatti (Italian for second courses), there is nothing especially Italian about the current crop of entrees, which includes daily fresh fish and wild game specials, as well as rack of New Zealand lamb with chèvre scalloped potatoes and broccolini; beef tenderloin medallions with wild mushrooms, barley and wheat berry pilaf; pork tenderloin with sautéed summer vegetables, polenta and a sweet ancho chile sauce; and roasted poussin (young chicken) with summer succotash and a roasted corn jus. Most of the entrees we sampled were solid renditions, though not quite as creative as the best of the starters: The rack of lamb consisted of three succulent triple chops, served over a big pool of intense red wine demi-glace, and the beef tenderloin medallions were tender and flavorful. (This is just a pet peeve of mine, but I think it’s a mistake to serve tenderloin sliced: The presentation may be attractive, but the meat cools more quickly.) On one visit, the nightly special was meaty elk chops, robustly flavorful with just a hint of gaminess, served with sautéed haricot beans and a risotto that was just a bit too salty.
I usually don’t care for rabbit, but a tender rabbit loin and leg confit with shaved Brussels sprouts and a little hint of truffle oil was delightful; here’s hoping it returns to the menu. Less memorable was a mushroom tart served with canneloni beans and sautéed greens (no longer offered), which sounded wonderful but turned out to be a glorified veggie burger. The peppercorn fettuccine with tiger prawns was also a disappointment: The prawns were undersized and overcooked, and the noodles a tad gummy.
Chocolate gets prominent billing on the dessert menu, with a double chocolate creme brulée, a white chocolate bread pudding with confit of pear, and a chocolate truffle gateau, but my favorite was the Sicilian citrus terrine, a dense white chocolate cake with a citrus glaze. Service was prompt and professional on two of my visits, but haphazard and inattentive on a third.
Minneapolis / St. Paul Magazine
Despite the revolving door of chefs, Ravello in Long Lake is one of the better choices for dining in the western hinterlands. On my last visit, the mache salad was perfect, the penne Bolognese was sturdy and authentic, the seared scallops were warm and trembling on the inside, crusty and well seasoned on the exterior, and the pan-roasted Chicken Ravello was moist and crusty. This is the sister restaurant of Biella in Excelsior, and together they represent the first wave of good restaurants to have arrived in the western lakes area. Ravello, 1935 Wayzata Blvd. W., 952-473-7373; Biella, 227 Water St., 952-474-8881