I dined at Lampreia once, the kind of dining that wants a capital D. The multicourse tasting menu was intense: Each plate was a small marvel, beautiful and balanced and unusual and excellent, a world unto itself. The atmosphere was objectively dated: It looked like the fancy restaurant on an '80s sitcom or the most elegant place they'd have in Idaho (with apologies to Idaho: great lakes, excellent trout and huckleberries). Fittingly, the outside world was curtained away, tablecloths were pristine, everything was hushed. Service was all pomp, to a degree that could be considered ridiculous, except that for the price—approximately one million dollars a person for what seemed like a 97-course meal—a little ridiculous pomp was warranted.
No one wants to pay one million dollars for a 97-course meal anymore (see also Mistral's recent reformatting and Rover's cheaper new little brother Luc). Perfectionist (and some say mercurial) chef Scott Carsberg shut Lampreia down, remodeled it in a contemporary-upscale mode, and reopened as Bisato, a place serving Venetian-style small plates averaging around $10. (As a jovial Australian server said with a laugh one night recently, "It used to be all the bigwigs. There aren't so many around anymore, so we had to start letting the smaller wigs in.") Before we go any further, let it be emphasized: These are small plates. These are plates of food that are small. If you are looking to make a main course out of one of Bisato's $5 lamb chops, you are shopping in the wrong department. If, however, you don't mind paying $5 for a few bites of the best lamb you've ever had—cooked more on the medium side than most high-end lamb, but still heart-wrenchingly juicy, full of flavor but ungamy, and miraculously hot all the way through—then onward.
Carsberg's long been known for cooking that is simple but stellar, for distilling the essence of foods in socks-knocking-off combinations. On the Bisato website, he says (not at all in jest), "In my kitchen, the best of the carrot stays as a carrot... Minimalism puts a creative person in a state of nakedness and reveals the true artist." At Bisato, Carsberg's in a new state of nakedness, there on the stage of the yellow-tiled open kitchen, overseeing the assembly of nearly every plate. You can tell he worked walled-in for a long time, and the new configuration is a little tense; he and his cohorts labor silently, and they watch those sitting at the curve of the long bar intently. Carsberg tends to glower, then he'll look directly at you for a response to what you've just engulfed. A thumbs-up gives him a visible charge, then he's back to it.
You might see five people congregate around your celeriac soup ($6), all giving it a golden moment of undivided attention—Carsberg painstakingly shaping a spoonful of Parmesan cream, then resting it precisely on top of a snowdrift of Parmesan in the bottom of the bowl, then positioning a glowing red coin of jellied soul of tomato near it. The soup itself is poured ceremoniously in front of you, flowing from a flared glass beaker into the bowl. It's steaming hot, subtle but entirely rich, and the bites with tomato in them somehow contain the experience of eating a whole bowl of delicious pasta. The curtains may be gone from the windows, but loving bits of pomp remain—the soup pouring, the wine by the glass decanted from a bottle that is rested for the moment of service on a silver tray. The mostly Italian wine list starts at $7 a glass; if you ask about one, you'll receive a disquisition that's practically worth the price in thoughtfulness and poetry alone.
The best things at Bisato are transporting. Right now, a blanched and peeled whole sphere of tomato sitting on a pedestal of crouton is cold and clarion, its insides veined with super-creamy halibut rillettes ($9); grains of salt on top tease out the tomato flavor, and a panzanella sauce contains the essence of basil. Nothing could be more vividly Mediterranean. A whole poached duck egg rests on a thin, green crespelle—the Italian version of a crepe, but here more like a round of delicate pasta—with melted scormozza cheese, laced with truffle oil ($8.50). Each texture is similar to the next, but adds to the whole—creamy duck yolk, creamy but elastic crespelle, elastic cheese—and the whole thing tastes, only somewhat explicably, like walking in the forest. The smell of the broth of the mussels ($10.50) is the smell of the ocean still just one hill away. The polenta with lobes of super-soft, finely ground meat ragu and fonduta cheese sauce ($12) is a journey into the center of richness that is, frankly, kind of scary—you fear you might not ever get back out, and you're relieved there's not too much of it. Conversely, three petite medallions of firm, cold, rosy pork loin with the lightest application of creamy Venetian tuna sauce and the tiniest bits of mostarda ($10) make you want several more orders.
The only thing at Bisato that didn't seem like a revelation (and revelation has become a food cliché, but there's no other way): a bowl of zucchini macaroni ($11), just noodles cloaked in the finest green puree—like kids' food, for really lucky kids, but still. There was another thing I didn't care for that still passed the revelatory test: a slice of orange confit, cooked for three days so the rind was edible. This tasted like essence of fruitcake, which is not something I'd choose to eat—but still, such a powerful thing is commendable, and the chocolate-caramel mousse with it was grand. A pistachio nougatine seemed to have the flavor of at least 1,000 nuts crammed into an inch-and-a-half square, and its caramel sauce was anticloying, a little boozy, and completely great. Desserts here ($6.50) are the antithesis of sugar slatherings—they are miniature sculptures of pure flavor.
Bisato still feels odd: the formal service, the sort-of-casual bar seating, the fierce energy emanating from the kitchen, the food demanding reverence, Amy Winehouse playing, Carsberg obsessing. All will be quiet for long moments, then there's a couple from California quacking at the impeccable Australian waiter about which way the water swirls in the toilets in that hemisphere. It doesn't matter. Go and have whatever you can afford—there's always less-extraordinary food to eat afterward.