Barracuda Baby Turtle Vodka

Vintage chef Patrick Atanalian dances on the bleeding edge of the culinary avant-garde, pushing past the current "fusion" trend into a world where everything in sight has fused and become surreal.

The Vintage
579 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 222-7000

Weak readers are doomed at the Vintage. First, they won't get through the impressive list of 25 wines by the glass, and the paragraph descriptions full of poetic phrases like "grapefruit and honeysuckle dominate the nose." They will miss the prose naming 18 martinis and four-dozen-odd beers, as well as the 400-some-bottle wine list fleshed out with quotes and commentary. They'll be thoroughly mystified by tongue-twisting menu items such as "plantain-red-lentil-jicama-Coke ragout." Frankly, even the scholarly among us should remember to pack our reading glasses.

Why this prosodic approach to dining? Sometimes people have such ambitious goals that they need a lot of words to get them out. Chuck Kanski, the Vintage's 28-year-old wine manager, has the passion of an evangelist in his eyes when he describes the restaurant and wine bar's "wine program," which seeks to offer "the truest representation of each region and each varietal we feature." This essentialist enterprise is meant to provide a sort of wine college, where diners will get to experience the truest zinfandel one week and the purest Riesling the next, developing an appreciation for the various varietals, coming to know their own tastes and, ideally, becoming lifelong wine lovers.

Kristine Heykants

The revolutionary character of Kanski's endeavor is obvious to anyone who has spent time pondering the many wine lists in the world that pride themselves on snobby obfuscation--using strange abbreviations, making patrons ask about prices, even holding special secret wine lists in reserve, away from the proletariat. Kanski, by contrast, litters his list with narrative comments like this one on the 1994 Alban Estate Syrah from Reva Vineyard: "One of the best American Syrahs available. Massive." In addition to all the text, Vintage barkeeps are extraordinarily chatty about wine, and servers are agile with recommendations--which is how the restaurant, only a year-and-a-half old, has developed a wine business as big and busy as that at any number of decades-old hotel restaurants. Much of this is due to the 20 to 25 bottles the Vintage offers by the glass, selections that change every month and are chosen for varietal diversity, excellence of flavor, and value.

While most wine bars and restaurants build their wine menus from the offerings of only a couple of local liquor distributors, Kanski works with as many as 25 suppliers and also deals directly with vineyards, arranging for the delivery of bottles that ordinarily wouldn't make it to these Cities. This allows the Vintage to offer wines at lower prices (suppliers grant steep discounts to those willing to do their own legwork and place large orders), and to bring in labels you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Right now, nine of the 25 wines on the Vintage glass list are such direct imports.

While Kanski spends his time proving that the emperor of wine snobbery has no clothes, Patrick Atanalian dances on the bleeding edge of the culinary avant-garde, pushing past the current "fusion" trend into a world where everything in sight has fused and become surreal, even Dada. Since he started at the Vintage in July, the wildly playful chef from Marseilles (formerly of the New French Café) has been treating the menu--which he changes top to bottom every other month--as his own personal art show.

Sometimes his experiments prove mightily successful. The marinated pork tenderloin seared in "Chinese barbecue sauce," served with garlic-chili-purple-potato sauce around a mound of zucchini risotto topped by roasted tomato-peppermint-tea tapenade ($18.95) sounds outlandish on the menu, but is actually reasonably tame and very good. The pork is simply a tender, seared piece of sweet meat elegantly spiced and served with a sauce that is a colorful, earthy, slightly hot, and an excellent complement to the tenderloin.

A similarly confusing-sounding dish of bone-in chicken breast served with "basil-chocolate-red-bell-pepper broth and panoche [raw sugar]-sweet-onion marmalade, with porcini-mushroom-vodka bread pudding" ($16.95) turned out to be a simple, elegant dish of baked chicken with a warm, Italian-inflected gravy and a large cube of yummy pan-baked dressing.

One crowded Saturday night, I had a special of barracuda on a sort of mélange of chopped baby artichokes and farm-raised turtle meat with a vodka crème fraîche ($24.95). In a buzzing restaurant, the name of the dish is a string of words like "barracuda...baby...turtle...vodka" and sounds like something of a dare. Of course I said yes, and it turned out to be fantastic, a luscious and tender piece of fish seared to perfection in a crisp, salty crust, surrounded by grassy artichoke pieces and sweet, nutty chanterelles. It was delightfully fresh and modern and made me feel simultaneously bold and adventurous, bourgeois and happy, which is really all you can ask from a Saturday night's dinner.

Later, Atanalian told me the dish was such a big hit, it sold out before the end of the night, so I guess Vintage diners are hungry for a challenge. "I push myself, and I want you to push yourself too," says Atanalian. "And I don't want my customers to get bored." Atanalian, who speaks with a charming accent, blushes if you ask his (obviously young) age, and he delights in mischief-making. His father is a classical French chef and came to visit Patrick two years ago at the New French. "He was like, 'Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! You are crazy!'" Atanalian Jr. recalls.

When I ask what his father would think of his food at the Vintage, the chef starts to laugh, stretches his arms out as if to embrace such an outrageous possibility, and continues to laugh heartily for an uninterrupted three or four minutes before wiping the tears from his eyes and saying: "I think he would be interested, and proud."

Rejecting the traditions of the father can be a little hairy, though, and some of Atanalian's innovations are too much even for someone who'd happily eat baby barracuda vodka turtles on a dare. Like the maki roll appetizer ($7.95), sushi rice rolled around a reasonably tasty braised combination of beets, greens, roasted mushrooms, and wasabi-plum vinaigrette. But they were leaden and weird both times I tried them, little bits of salad contained in icy masses of rice. Bringing them to room temperature might have helped, but as it was, the dish tasted like a mistake. Ditto for the jalapeño-chèvre-custard puff pastry ($8.25), a mound of chèvre topped with half a dozen slices of raw, marinated eggplant served with a nearly black, profoundly sour basil-pomegranate reduction and a few stale moons of plain pastry for a confused, bitter, and unpleasant effect.

Another loser was a selection of appetizers available only on the bar floor, downstairs from the nonsmoking formal dining area. It was described as smoked salmon and rice cakes ($7.50), and I thought the two would be together in one cake; unfortunately the dish turned out to be small cubes of smoked salmon scattered on a mushy pillow of ground breakfast cereal-style rice. They were supposed to be flavored with orange and Tabasco, but I couldn't taste either. My last complaint was with an entrée of balsamic-glazed lamb ribs ($18.95). The cassoulet base of beans and chanterelles was perfect and awfully tasty. But the ribs themselves were white and greasy with fat, impossible to pull apart, and should never have been served in such an elegant setting--after about 10 minutes of effort, I was greasy from eyebrows to elbows, and no amount of fine wine and romantic fireplaces was going to make me happy again.

While I'm whining, I'll point out that you should take your choice of where to sit at the Vintage very seriously, since the ground floor is "cigar-friendly" and offers a humidor from which diners may pick cigars, so at a moment's notice, your quiet table by the fireplace can turn into a sewer of cigar fumes. This happens even on the no-smoking side of the ground floor, because cigars are just that powerful. Your best bet is to request the nonsmoking upstairs, where there are another two fireplaces to cuddle by.

One of the best things to cuddle over is dessert, in which Atanalian's culinary wit is most elegantly showcased. The plantain-Grand Marnier bread pudding ($5.95) arrives with two long antennae of fried plantain waving from its crown. While the pudding is topped with some unnecessary plantain chips (their starch distracts from the sweet richness of the dessert), the bread pudding itself is delicious, and the sauce of white chocolate, mango, and passion fruit, impossible to resist. The "Cherry Sabayon Soup" ($5.95) is a Dr. Seuss-style bowl of scrumptious chocolate mousse given textural interest with crisped rice (just like the candy bars!), served with a lush cherry sabayon sauce and scattered with fat, festive maraschino cherries. Likewise the chocolate Frangelico crème caramel ($5.95)--a dessert of chocolate custard with a perfect caramel layer and a coffee-infused chocolate caramel sauce--is heavenly.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the advantages of having nothing to prove, but lately I've seen that having something to prove can work out pretty nicely, too. Whether you're just stopping at the Vintage's beautiful Selby Ave. mansion for a glass of wine or staying for a full-fledged barracuda-to-sauternes experience (yes, they also have an extensive dessert wine list), the overall impression is one of youth, ambition, and, above all, hunger--hunger for something bigger than hipness, and more successful than mere success. So, a toast: To hunger!

TABLEHOPPING

LESS IS MORE:Word is in on those '98 vintages, from the West Coast, at least. Turns out El Niño --which in California has meant extremes of every weather sort--has resulted in crops half the size of what they ordinarily are, with very small grapes. Winemakers are saying it will taste great, but there won't be much of it. Frankly, I think local farmers could learn a lot from those media-savvy vintners, who make every detail of their agricultural process--from rootstock to mold to dirt (which they smartly call terroir) a selling point. Imagine: '96 soybeans are some of the best on the market! An intense nose and nutty beanlike intensity make these the beans to cellar for consumption after 2002. '98 milk? Perhaps the best since '78--full-bodied, rich, creamy; you can really taste the terroir. An outstanding year!

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