American Omakase

"Okay--Uncle. You win," said Doug Flicker, chef at Auriga, to my answering machine. "Call me." I was so happy, I actually jumped up and down, and then I knocked a cup of tea right into my keyboard. Seventy dollars and a new keyboard later, I had to figure that mishap was karmic retribution for throwing Auriga into a tizzy when I outed Flicker's secret tasting menu in a March column (see www.citypages.com/ archive). But aside from causing some minor chaos in the restaurant the week the story ran (lots of people were apparently trying to make reservations for the essentially non-existent thing), it worked out just the way I wanted, because now Flicker's remarkable tasting menu is available to anyone.

Well, anyone who's coordinated enough to make a reservation in advance, who has a followup conversation with Flicker about likes and dislikes, who wants to dine Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, who has $40 for a tasting menu of tiny little portions, and who is up for having his or her picture taken so Flicker can see whom he's cooking for while he cooks. Which turns it into a very interesting and flattering sort of performance art.

Also it's a nice way to critic-proof the experience. Cut to me, scheduled for the new tasting menu, battling at the table to not get my photo taken. I won again, so we turned to the food, where everyone tasted victory: Eleven teeny-tiny courses, some as small as three bright-green olives in an almond and anise-tasting oil glaze, or a single Malpeque oyster in a wee spoonful of toasted Parmesan broth with a tiny bit of dried ham and little shavings of asparagus--an amazing dance in the mouth, all fresh and salt and brisk.

Some of my other favorite courses included a slice of truffled dwarf peach paired with a small plank of grilled chorizo; the sweet, dry, and concentrated of the peach was fantastic with the rich and spicy of the sausage. It was the sort of course that is divine for two bites, giving you a sensation you hadn't imagined was likely, and then going away--poof!--to live only in memory. Two small, braised beef short-rib sections were as intense as a chocolate truffle and just as lush, and came with the most unbelievable onion. It was half a sweet roasted yellow onion stuffed with a juniper-berry-flavored fig, which had itself been roasted in goat's-milk butter, the whole thing finished with a preserved lemon sauce--wow. The deep bottom notes of beef and onion, the complex broadening provided by braising and scenting and layering, the playful top notes of lemon and juniper. My only regret is that I can't relive the six minutes of that dish again and again. There were also two charming desserts: an espresso cup of warm banana-mascarpone soup with frothed almond milk, and a crème caramel given a little lilt with tart green apples.

This tasting menu is less like the other tasting menus you might have tried in town, as it's not just a pre-planned showcase of menu highlights. It's more like an American "omakase," that Japanese tradition of sending out a chef's selection of treats from the sushi bar based on what's fresh and what strikes his fancy at that moment. I've been at a lot of high-end dinners in Minneapolis lately, and this was the most astonishing and satisfying by a wide margin. Then again, everyone very distinctly knew it was me, so take that into account. But still, you can't fake that kind of talent and scope. As I've written earlier, Flicker has become something of the chef's chef in town, and when you go from oyster to prune ravioli to dessert with him, you really experience his remarkable intuition for ingredients. Yes, there was a prune ravioli, paired memorably with a nickel-size bit of foie gras, which was intense and perfect and tiny tiny tiny as it should be. I mean, with these impeccable wee portions I walked away from the meal feeling just normally full, not glutted and sick, as I have at a couple of high-end restaurants' tasting menus on the coasts. I couldn't be happier with the outcome of my outrageous bullying. And to all those who wrote and thought it was a dirty trick to play on Flicker to force his hand like that, well, maybe you're right. "I felt like a kid who was standing next to the pool thinking about getting in, and then you just came by and shoved me in," said Flicker. "But now I'm swimming, so overall, I'd say it worked out." Are you ready to jump in?

 

Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.871.0777

 
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