By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Loren Green
The world is full of signs and portents: The first crocuses summon spring; the first red leaves announce fall; the first time a kid ducks and covers upon a parents' arrival heralds puberty; and, if history is any judge, the moment Chef Steve Vranian unpacks his knives signals a new bloom in the excellence of the local restaurant scene.
It all started in the '70s, when Vranian lit out from Michigan for San Francisco with nothing but a Volkswagen Fox and the Minnesota woman he was madly in love with. Instead of ending up homeless or as a night laborer in a cannery, Vranian landed in the kitchen of the Fourth Street Grill--the restaurant run by Mark Miller, a nationally known chef who was a principal figure in the Chez Panisse/New American Cuisine revolution. Miller introduced Vranian to Alice Waters and the rest of the foodie revolutionaries, and quicker than you could say "pan-roasted beet salad," Vranian was spending his off hours picnicking with Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters on M.F.K. Fisher's Sonoma farm. "She had a beautiful waterfall in the back," he explains.
Vranian got to be a player in one of the most important American restaurant developments this century, and when he moved on to establish himself under the wings of yet another nationally known chef--Jeremiah Tower, founder of the famous Stars restaurant and the acknowledged patron saint of contemporary California cuisine--he found himself on the bleeding edge of another international restaurant trend. As chef of the Singapore Stars, he experienced the pan-Asian/European fusion like few others.
Last Christmas, though, Vranian and his wife Jules, a onetime pastry chef at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, headed back to Minnesota to take advantage of the...internationally renowned restaurant scene? Name-brand chefs? Food writers' backyard waterfalls? Nope. As a dad of two, Vranian settled here to take advantage of the public schools. "Honestly, you could say I've had the life of a spoiled brat," he admits. "I got paid to travel to Paris with Jeremiah and promote his cookbooks, I've spent weekends scouting around Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok for Stars. I've eaten some incredible meals cooked by incredible people. But it's time to settle down a little bit, or my wife's going to kill me." Still, Vranian doesn't equate moving to the heartland with shifting to the backseat: He says the next restaurant avant-garde may be taking shape right in Minnesota. "I see a lot of people here who have traveled, who know quality, who know wine, and who want to spend some of their time and money on good food. I see some interesting restaurants opening up. I see a lot of interest in food generally. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the Bay Area when I first got there."
Sitting inside the California Cafe, contemplating the lengthy wine list full of Pacific Coast rarities and basking in the Cafe's plush service, I could just about believe it. After all, here was evidence of a world gone terribly right: My meal began with perfect circles of scarlet ahi tuna ($8.95), elegantly seared on their black-sesame rims, served on a plate brightened with a tart daikon and carrot salad, ginger caviar and wasabi. My companion had the impressively meaty crab cakes ($9.95), rounds of still-recognizable crab fried crisp and served with a crunchy black-bean-and-corn salsa and a smoldering chili sauce. A buttermilk-poppyseed butterhead-lettuce salad ($5.95) gave me new respect for this salad-bar standard, revealing a depth I'd never expected. My friend had a gorgeous entree of zebra-striped lobster ravioli ($17.95), stark black-and-white striped pillows holding a sweet lobster mixture, the plate filled with an exquisite lemon shellfish sauce and decorated with beautiful morsels of fresh-shelled lobster. I can't remember the last time I saw lobster ravioli served with actual lobster, and I was delighted.
On that same visit, I also had a grilled lamb sirloin steak, ($19.95) a tender fist of rare-grilled lamb served with a perky mint aioli on a beautiful, dusky bed of curried lentils which itself rested on a springy tangle of braised Swiss chard--a perfect harmony of strong flavors. For dessert we tried the heavenly apple pie, an individual, hand-formed beauty served hot beside a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream ($5.50.) By the time I finished that, I was ready to crawl beneath M.F.K. Fisher's waterfall myself.
A lunch visit yielded another series of delights. The Mediterranean vegetable pizza ($9.95) had a golden crust which struck the perfect balance between wood-fire smoke and yeasty tenderness. The chicken pot pie ($10.95) was a delectable combination of chunks of smoked chicken, chanterelle and button mushrooms, baby potatoes, and braised celery and carrots, all melded with a fresh-thyme gravy--one of the few dishes I've ever had that made me covet the recipe. The barbecued hickory-smoked ribs ($10.95 for half a rack, $16.95 for a full rack at dinner) were sweet and plummy, a good example of Asian-American fusion, the anise scent from the hoisin in the barbecue sauce as fragrant as the ribs were clean and meaty.
But then there was the other night--the one when I sat on the terrace, buffeted by the rumble and screams from the roller coaster, watching the flume go up and down, up and down, watching the Kite-Eating Tree swing ride go round and round, round and round, backed into a corner by the Cafe's two-foot-high "Ménage à Trois" appetizer presentation. (The Ménage is a three-tiered tower of plates featuring those wonderful sesame ahi tuna medallions, a sultry smoked salmon on a dill focaccia with a pungent sun-dried tomato aioli, and smoked-duck spring rolls--all tasty, but physically so big that the combination effectively blocks out all non-freakishly tall dining companions on a table for two.) That night, the idea that we're living in the next food utopia seemed distinctly unrealistic.
I spent much of the evening watching teens shriek and gossip in the alley that connects California Cafe's part of the mall with the food court. Then I spent a lot of time wondering about the muted quality of light in the mall's main dome, and what dim light coupled with rattling noise do to the human psyche. Entrees didn't do much to distract me: Neither the grilled New York Strip ($22.95)--a good but unspectacular piece of meat with decent but unthrilling potato croquettes--nor the grilled swordfish with a vegetable lo mein and a red-pepper Thai-curry-and-mango salsa ($17.95)--which was good and light and fresh--could compete with the screaming below. By the time desserts rolled around--a fine, rich tiramisu with Bailey's Irish Cream and espresso sauce ($5.50) and a mellow, creamy vanilla-bean crème brûlée ($4.95)--I was getting ready to renounce all my earthly possessions and join a mall-free cult.
I was also beginning to wonder about the revolution. If the New American Cuisine movement was based, as its acolytes profess, on a commitment to agriculture, the seasons, freshness, and a life spent stopping and smelling the roses, what would be farther from the ideal than a location in the temple of girders and mannequins?
But maybe that's the point. Maybe the rising tide has risen so high that top-quality food can now be had on the mad December dash between Baby Gap and Sears. Or maybe Steve Vranian is just good at spinning stories to Minnesota lasses. Looking at his tale of Bay Area fortune, I'm beginning to see there must be a flip side. Somewhere, there's a nice St. Joseph girl whose version goes like this: One day I fell in love, and somehow he talked me into moving cross-country with nothing but a Volkswagen Fox. Next thing I knew we were in Singapore...
Interested in learning more about the California/New American Cuisine movement? You've got three airfare-free options. Steve Vranian is teaching a class on "Cal-Asian Cuisine" through Byerly's Cooking School this fall (Tuesday evenings 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., starting October 27; registration is $40. Call Byerly's Cooking School, 929-2492, for more information).
If you'd rather study in the comfort of your own kitchen, local bookstores offer dozens of cookbooks spawned by the chefs mentioned above, for example, Alice Waters' wonderful Chez Panisse Vegetables (Harper Collins, $35). Vranian's mentor Mark Miller has written a handful of books including Coyote Cafe: Foods from the Great Southwest (Ten Speed Press, $29.95) and Coyote's Pantry: Southwest Seasonings and at Home Flavoring Techniques (Ten Speed Press, $25.95). Jeremiah Tower's latest cookbook is Stars Desserts (Harper Collins, $35). The Puck juggernaut continues with Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen: Recipes from the Famed Beard Award-Winning Owner of Spago (Houghton Mifflin, $18).
And if reading cookbooks still seems like too much work, consider whiling away some time at the Chez Panisse Web site (www.chezpanisse.com) where you can order books and olive oil and, most critical, find out what they're serving: I wish I had been there September 2, when $58 would have gotten me green bean and lima bean salad with fresh and aged sheep's-milk cheeses, Ligurian-style sole and parsley sugo (sauce) with tomato estratto (essence), Libert0y Ranch duck with bread crumbs, olives, and ginger, flanked by grilled eggplant and summer squashes, and brandied raspberry soufflé. Sigh.