New block on the block

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February 15, 2010 // UPDATED 8:44 am - February 15, 2010
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Sad news when a restaurant closes, but — let’s face it— we saw this one coming: Choose a name no one can pronounce or remember, offer fancy-pants food and prices, and expect folks to flock to a room with all the sizzle of a Motel 6? Even East Hennepin’s condo crowd couldn’t keep Fugaise in business, and nobody else even knew it was there.

Enter Butcher Block, whose very name hints at a familiar concept — offering great food at giveaway prices. Even the New York Strip sails in below $20, not to mention the late-night piles of wings and burgers from a kitchen that stays open until tomorrow, and despite the lack of décor, you’ve got yourself a future. Au revoir, bistro; bienvenue, trattoria.

Filippo Caffari, who put its homey list together, hails from Rome, where he worked as a master butcher and, more recently, at the highly regarded I Nonni of Mendota Heights, where you didn’t head on the spur of the moment after a night on the town.

We piled in here, instead, following an orchestra concert, grateful for anyone who would feed us in this town of Early to Bed. And feed us he did, from zuppa to pine nuts, starting with antipasti that roamed from carpaccio to pork-and-ricotta meatballs to suavely-topped crostini, and more. Or begin with an insalata; the best of the three is the beet-and-arugula number, further marrying sweet blueberries with rich and salty Gorgonzola.

Then, pile on the pasta! Filippo’s gnocchi might cause grown men to weep with their tender-to-chewy body. The plump little marbles shared a satiny cream sauce with lots of pearly shrimp and shreds of zucchini. Bravo. But even better: the gutsy, no-airs plate of burly bucatini noodles fueled with a rustic Amatriciana sauce, which gets its name from the chilies that fuel those rich tomatoes. Add shavings of sharp Pecorino cheese and a sip of something red (most bottles are a mere $15) and pretend this isn’t Minnesota. A plate of squash risotto brought us back to earth — too soupy by far, and too sweet with butternut puree, despite CPR by smoky ham and Pecorino.

But on to the organic, grass-fed meat, his forte. Duck breast came grilled until blush-pink and tender. Muscular lamb chops, each boasting a salty rim that drew our lips back for more and more, proved hearty and full-flavored. And the beef short ribs, braised to ultissimo tenderness, were heaven on a plate. Except the garnishes. The duck got the balsamic-kissed mushroom-tomato mélange that belongs with the lamb. The lamb came with roasted potatoes plus a puree of canneloni beans that were better suited to the beef; and the beef, cooked cacciatore-style (and that’s perfect), found itself with roast potatoes.

Doggie bags aplenty, and no room for dessert. Next time: the cannoli or the torta di cioccolato, lush with caramel, sea salt and olive oil.

Butcher Block
308 E. Hennepin Ave.