What's Good for the Goose

Tasting menus near and far, or what I did on my Winter vacation

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

AURIGA
1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.871.0777

DB BISTRO
55 West 44th St., New York City; 212.391.2400

Taster's choice: Auriga chef Doug Flicker has been known to create stunning tasting menus
Tony Nelson
Taster's choice: Auriga chef Doug Flicker has been known to create stunning tasting menus

JEAN GEORGES
1 Central Park West, New York City; 212.299.3900

 

Dear Dara;

Do you ever cook for yourself? And if so, what do you do that the great chefs of the Twin Cities area can't?

--Arlin Carlson

I'm glad you asked, Arlin, because I really just cannot even begin to tell you how frustrated I get with the great chefs of the Twin Cities. Why, if I get to thinking about it, I could just stamp about the number of times I have gone into my kitchen and been forced to make my own tea. Is Tim McKee from La Belle Vie making my tea? No. Is Alex Roberts from Alma feeding my cat? Hardly. And there, what's that noise, is that Doug Flicker from Auriga, Lisa Carlson from Café Barbette, Vincent Francoual from Vincent, Patrick Atanalian from the Loring Café, and Lucia Watson from Lucia's fighting over who will refill my sugar bowl? Again, my disappointment is bottomless--no, no, a thousand times no.

Actually, I think that noise is the washing machine in the basement, breaking. And if I know anything about anything, the replacement parts will need to be ordered from Turkmenistan, and furthermore they will be made of only the finest rubies. And the great chefs of the Twin Cities--where will they be in the moments of my despair? Don't think I don't know: At Jeremy Iggers's house, making tea. Don't tell me they're not.

It's right about now that a girl gets to calling up Doug Flicker at Auriga and demanding: Why don't you make your tasting menu available to the general public, and quit making it this ridiculous insiders' thing that nobody knows about? That one time I had a tasting menu at Auriga it was perhaps the best meal I've had in Minnesota: cumin-smoked hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; oysters topped with celeriac granitée (like sorbet, but not sweet)--unbelievable stuff. Other Great Chefs of the Twin Cities offer tasting menus: lots of tiny courses that allow a chef to show off technique and interests, instead of the standard run of appetizer-entrée-dessert. There's a tasting menu offered at Alma nearly every night, for around $42 per person. It's great. There's one at Aquavit nightly, too, for a lot more. But the one I had at Auriga was inspired, playful, like a tune on a flute, each note pure. So memorable. But I never write about it, because what's the point if you all can't go?

"Fwah fwah fwah fwah," responds Flicker, to my demand of publicly available tasting menus. Or something very much like that. "If I do that, then it won't be special, it won't be spontaneous. I only want to do it for people I care about."

"But," I whine, "if you only did it Tuesdays through Thursdays, for oh, $40 or $50 a person, you'd boost those slow nights, and you'd eliminate the very real risk you're currently running of becoming the chef's chef. And there aren't enough great chefs of the Twin Cities to come eat your food to pay the rent, now, are there?"

"Fwah fwah fwah," says Flicker, "$50 is too much, and I like having slow nights."

"But wasn't it a great Delta bluesman who said, 'If you can do something that makes people happy, and you don't do it, that's just plain mean?'"

At which point Flicker tried to distract me with the news that he had just received a vat of olives the size of crabapples. "I don't care if you've got olives the size of Garrison Keillor's manure spreader!" I screeched, and exploded into a thousand pieces, each of which hit the floor as a tiny, egg-sized, squealing restaurant critic who ran about the room plotting to get news of Auriga's super-secret tasting menu out to the general public.

When I came to, I was delighted to find myself on vacation in New York, at the side of my new friend Jonathan Gold, an editor and critic at Gourmet and City Pages' sister paper, LA Weekly, and probably one of the earth's most generous people, as he, for no good reason, took me on a whirlwind tour of the high points of New York dining, which, it goes without saying, are the high points of world dining, which, it goes without saying, knocked my socks off, peeled the scales from my eyes, and left me confused and ecstatic.

The day that stands out most was the one where we went to db, the midtown bistro of star chef Daniel Boulud, where chef de cuisine Jean François Bruel cooked us a tasting menu that was amazing: Highlights included a seared piece of cod in a bowl of the brightest-green blanched-parsley sauce you can imagine, a darling little shot glass of beef aspic with tiny, tiny little perfect cubes of carrot and terrine and turnip suspended in their gelée like an up-thrown spray of confetti, the top of the glass finished with horseradish cream, which slid down into whatever track your spoon made, giving a little fiery edge to everything it touched.

But the true stunner was the famed "db burger," a $28 hamburger in which fresh-ground sirloin is wrapped around a filling of the stringy meat from braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffle, the whole thing served in an onion-Parmesan bun, topped with the luxe variation of ketchup, a piquant tomato confit. The burger is seared without, but rare just around the filling, so you get several stages of beef--seared sirloin, rare sirloin, and braised short rib--as well as the meaningful enhancements of the foie gras and truffle, which add those fleeting, heart-stirring rich and woodsy notes. I was so jazzed I could hardly sit still in my chair. I say if wine can be said to be profound, that freaking burger is profound: It made me feel suddenly as if all our foods were open to reinterpretation and glory heretofore unimagined. If any local chef wants to take a run at a similar lowbrow passion, like, say, the tuna melt, just let me know-- I'll be there.

Then, hours later, we went to Jean-Georges, the restaurant of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for a tasting menu that, if it contained less than 30 dishes, well, I'd be very much surprised. High points included every breath I took, but also, service the likes of which I never knew existed: an ivory room, dusky and luminescent at the same time, full of hawk-eyed guys with lowered lids watching the surface of your table with rapt attention from a discreet distance. Soil a knife and another is folded into linen on a silver tray and exchanged in seconds, but somehow you never feel watched or intruded upon. Likewise, the water and wine glasses seem to be tied on some subconscious level to the hearts of your guardians and the glass levels rise and fall like the invisible work of waves at high tide, unconnected to you but charming to behold. The maitre d' ripped through descriptions of complicated dishes clearly and concisely in the space of seconds and seemed to know everything there would ever be to know about cheese. And, you know, the food.

The food.

I feel embarrassed writing about the food, because I'm going to start blushing and gulping like a schoolgirl, but I'll try. The stuff was assured, refined, and, on the basic level, delicious. But on another level, smart and insightful and full of comment on itself and the world. I didn't know food did that. Consider a single course: the foie gras. I got a perfect pink circle of foie gras terrine that was unspeakably creamy and made every other foie gras I've ever had seem overcooked. It was topped with some kind of crazy pistachio cookie-brittle thing that was clear, like a perfect circle of glass set with bright-green pistachios. It was placed atop the terrine but cantilevered over the plate: It looked like magic. To one side was a pistachio butter, glossy and green, resembling a bone spoon lying on the plate; up to one corner, a little portion of hot, sour-pickled cherries all tart and sweet. Moving from one bit of the plate to another wasn't just delicious, it was like an essay on all the sweet and floral qualities of the liver.

Meanwhile, beside me, Mr. Gold received a seared piece of foie gras, brown and black, caramelized, resting on a fancy bruschetta that was itself lying in a pool of dark wine sauce, the whole thing crowned with a moon of grainy Meyer lemon jam. It, too, was delicious, but also like a commentary on the winey, irony, muscular, and gamey side of foie gras. Moving from one plate to the next was certainly about dazzling-tasting food in a dazzling restaurant, and yet, if you chose to let your thoughts wander another way, it was to learn not just about the nature of the ingredient, but also about...about everything. About the way that technique, talent, and character are the most important things, and everything else, elements, molecules, habits, fall before them. I could go on like this about another dozen courses, about the squab and venison and the dusky nature of the forest. About crab salad and islands. And still, nothing was too flashy, too theatrical, too show-offy. Just so controlled, so smart. I'd heard before that Jean-Georges is the best restaurant in America, and I think: Boy howdy, oh gosh, yeah. (The standard seven-course tasting menu is $115 per person; reservations can be made a month in advance.)

Then, suddenly, I was descending through spitting snow into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and for a few days I couldn't think clearly, because my blood was mostly foie gras. Eventually though, I came around, and thought: Well, what the hell do they have out there that we don't have? I mean, besides all the money and all the stars? Ambition that knows no limits, fierce, fierce competition (would we have reached the moon without the Russians? Would these New York chefs fly so high without other chefs across the street just dying to eat their lunch, so to speak? I bet not.), and relentless buzz. Constant energizing and flagellating buzz.

So, Arlin, to answer your question: I can't do much that the great chefs of the Twin Cities can't do, except this one thing: I can sometimes drop their names and try to browbeat them into new highs and get them buzzing.

 

Now and again, I skip the standard review and just answer reader mail, in my own unique style. Want in? Write me at 401 North 3rd Street, Suite 550 Minneapolis, MN 55401, or with wire and keyboard: dmoskowitz@citypages.com.

 

Correction published March 7, 2002:
Owing to a reporting error, we misspelled the name of New York restaurateur Daniel Boulud. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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