I love Bar La Grassa, the new Italian trattoria that replaced Babalu at 800 N. Washington Ave., but I can’t help but be struck by the contrasts. Babalu was made for romance – a nightclub with exotic cuisine, hot Latin jazz, and sexy dancing – the perfect spot to start a date that ends the next morning. At Bar La Grassa, it’s the chefs – Isaac Becker and Josh Thoma – who are hot, and the food is the romance.Tables are squeezed in as close together as possible, and the big show isn’t music or dance – it’s the open kitchen, facing the pasta bar.
The menu is perfect for the gastro-adventurous, beautifully presented and full of novelty, with lots of small plates that make it easy to sample a lot of different dishes in the course of an evening. The antipasti include trendy Fra’ Mani salumi (cured meats) from Berkeley ($8); and chicken and foie gras polpettone (meat balls, $6); and even when the ingredients are familiar, the combinations are not: pickled tomato with goat cheese ($6); beet and avocado with citrus. There’s a big selection of bruschetti – twin slices of grilled bread topped with everything from braised pork shoulder ($6), and soft egg with lobster ($13) to a lively agrodolce (sweet and sour) artichoke caponata ($9) and a memorable combination of white anchovy and buttery avocado.
Both dry and fresh pastas are offered, and all can be ordered in either primi or entree portions. I opted for the fusilli with pork sausage ($7/$14) in a simple but satisfying tomato sauce; but I wish I had tried something a bit more adventuresome, like the calamarata (a squid-ring-shaped pasta, $10/$20) or the paccheri (hollow tubes) with milk-braised chicken ($7/$14). Carol was a bit too adventurous, and ordered the tagliatelle with braised calamari ($9/$18), a dish dyed black by squid ink, with a strong squid flavor that she didn’t care for. No matter; we achieved a happy ending by sharing a plate of crespelli (crepes) bathed in a caramel sauce, with a dollop of Italian vanilla ice cream.
A variety of entree-sized secondi are also available, ranging from grilled pork ribs ($14) and chicken (not further described) to a shellfish platter ($35) and bistecca for four for $80.
Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable experience – and quite reasonable – with a salad, a beer and a couple of glasses of wine, our tab came to just over $70 for two, plus tip.
Bar La Grassa, 800 N. Washington Ave., 612-333-3837.