Lyn-Lake Conquers the World

A long-awaited mom-and-pop shop redefines Minnesota highbrow

jP American Bistro
2937 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.824.9300

Suddenly we awake and throw aside the blankets, shoo the cat from the bed, and come to reckoning with the improbable fact that gadzooks, my God, we are halfway through 2003, and how did this happen? And what is American food, anyway? Hot dogs and apple pie? Peanuts and Cracker Jacks? Thai calamari?

Correct answer: Thai calamari. At least to judge by the way that every table at jP American Bistro seemed to have a bowl of it on the table recently--a hand-thrown, artsy-crafty, earthenware bowl, for that matter--filled with squid that bore a striking resemblance to Japanese tempura, each piece coated with a pale veil of batter, like a crisp shadow of light. The dipping sauce that comes with the calamari is deceptively simple, a soy and vinegar concoction that actually contains touches of many exotic soys, sambals, and lemon grass, but it comes via the Caribbean, Thailand, maybe a little bit of Switzerland, and a lot of New York City.

I mean, see if you can follow this: Owner and chef of jP, JP Samuelson, worked for several years in some of New York City's more prestigious kitchens. For instance, he got his advanced postdoctoral kind of training in sauces, as it were, during his two-year stint as saucier at the original Bouley, where he learned David Bouley's deft art of using global ingredients in a classical style and, says Samuelson, talked a good deal about the art of technique as passed on to Bouley by Frédy Girardet, a Swiss chef who has roughly the same relationship to cooking legends as Zeus has to Mount Olympus.

Sauces well considered, Samuelson moved on to be sous-chef at the JUdson Grill, where he worked under well-regarded seafood chef Ed Brown, and presumably picked up a fondness for weird capitalization. From there, Samuelson helped open Brown's Caribbean-influenced Tropica, where he worked with Big Danny, a Thai native whom Samuelson remembers reverently. "Some of the best food I've had in my life was the 'family meal' at Tropica," noted Samuelson when I talked to him on the phone for this story. "I think it was better than what we were sending out" to the guests.

Of course, JP Samuelson doesn't live in New York. He moved back to our green hamlet of elms, roses, and mosquitoes many years ago. He is so local now, in fact, that our phone conversation almost made his little daughter late for her first day of Minneapolis parks-and-rec cooking camp. You yourself might have encountered his talents during the year-plus he was the opening chef at Bobino, or for the three years he helmed the kitchen at D'Amico Cucina.

For the last two years or so he's been invisible on the local scene, because he's been making nice with folks that generally have little to do with international cooking celebrities, folks like bank loan officers, the MCDA, and the Whittier Alliance. All of which has led to the old tire dealership building next to the new Jungle Theater now holding the new jP American Bistro, which also has a full bar, and an idiosyncratic wine list. Which means that beside those bowls of Thai calamari, with their deep and thick international history, one can have a cosmo, that symbol of the 1990s Internet economy, a sidecar, that flag of the 1920s American flapper gaiety, a bottle of South African chardonnay, or another bottle of wine from Italy, Spain, half a dozen regions of France, or even one from good old Santa Barbara, California.

And such it is that one can look at one's appetizer and become absolutely dizzy, vertiginous, and even downright loopy with the knowledge that this, this! is America, American cooking today, this is the land of everything, from everywhere, all at once. And we are all spiders on a vast, vast and dense and complex web, and when it is tugged far away we feel it slightly here, among the elms, roses, and mosquitoes.

Or, probably most people think: Hey, munch munch, that's good calamari, munch munch, and a good value for seven bucks, munch munch, and then they talk about the play they just saw next door at the Jungle, and how nice it is to have a place in the neighborhood that serves food in the bar till 11:00 most nights, and till midnight on the weekends, and boy, the neighborhood is really coming up! Did you hear that there are going to be 100 new apartments just over on Aldrich, practically across the street? It's true!

And that is the genius of jP's, I'd venture. On one level, the place is informed by breathtakingly highbrow kitchen thinking. And on the other, it's a Minnesota mom-and-pop shop with a deep understanding of what makes Minnesotan diners happy. (How mom-and-pop is it? See if you can spot JP's wife Cheryl darting from host-stand to basement bookkeeping, or if you can catch sous-chef Matt Morgan, formerly of the downtown Aquavit, making eye contact through the open kitchen with his wife, who is jP's lead server.)

I mean, look to the salmon. Recently, the restaurant has been serving a slow-roasted piece of salmon cooked in olive oil, but it is slow-roasted with such elegance, talent, and finesse that the fish proteins set up delicately, like gelatin, the fish turning to a silky, glossy rose that dissolves in the mouth leaving nothing behind but pleasure, and the bracing spritz of a little Brittany fleur de sel, which resets the palate for the next bout with the sweet, lush fish. And yet, for nine dollars, in an appetizer portion, the piece of salmon is as big as an entrée in many comparable restaurants, and I bet that is going to be the main thing that many people remember about jP's.

As my second piece of evidence, I present the beef short ribs: Marinated in tamarind, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and pickled mango, further flavored with black peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, and Szechuan peppercorns and then braised, the resulting giant fists of meat served on those luxurious, silky restaurant mashed potatoes you love so much, with a little pile of briefly pickled fresh ripe mango, the overall impression is of a big, deep, complicated, slightly spicy something you already know and like--it's very fancy, and it's very Minnesotan, and thus I think it's pretty darn triumphant.

Triumphant too was a vegetable of the day one week that had grilled asparagus tossed with bits of house-cured lemon preserves, the weedy green qualities of the asparagus were darkened by a bit of char, and then the whole thing twisted with the salt, piquant, bitter, and sour of the tart lemon peels. Asparagus, in a completely new way!

I can tell you nothing about the desserts: I mean, I tried six of them on three visits, and most were competent but not actually good, except for the fresh mango tarte Tatin, which was ill-conceived, stale-tasting, and slid apart on the plate. And yet, suddenly, on my last visit they produced a fresh strawberry-rhubarb crumble that was sweet and innocent and charming in every way. In sum, when considering the desserts at jP's, I can confidently say: Who knows?

That might well be a sign that the restaurant, which opened in early April, is still finding its legs. That's what I'd like to think about the few dishes that hit the table with a dull thud: An elaborate salad in which half a head of baby romaine with chipotle dressing was presented with a few grilled shrimp and a charred half of a grilled avocado tasted like any lesser restaurant's Southwest Caesar, except, whoops: an avocado. Bouillabaisse was overcooked and rubbery. And a bowl of Thai shrimp in red curry was so utterly forgettable, except for the $19 price tag, that I began to long for Chiang Mai Thai.

That feeling actually might have been influenced by the wine list, which is my one real issue with the place: Bottles are priced at the standard two-and-a-half to three times retail, which I think will be a real barrier to jP's ever becoming a true neighborhood destination. Cristalino Cava, which retails usually for $7 to $9, sells here for $28. Marc Bredif Vouvray, which I stocked up on last winter at $12 a bottle, sells here for $33. There isn't a single decent full bottle of bubbly for under $70, and when one knows that right down Lake Street Café Barbette is selling the light and lemony Col Vetoraz Prosecco for $17 a bottle, well, it gives one pause.

I'd like to think that one of the reasons Aquavit closed was because of their wine list of mass-market mediocrities at exorbitant prices, and even the wine list at Cosmos, the new super-duper high-end restaurant in Le Meridien, the new hotel downtown, is shockingly budget-friendly. Wouldn't it be amazing if the whole wide world gave to Minnesota their ingredients and techniques, and we in turn led them to cheapskate-sensitive wine lists in five-star hotels? The mind wobbles.

And you thought we were just going to have our minds a-wobbling over Thai calamari, the way that impeccably pedigreed chefs are just on a rampage lately of opening fancy, expensive new restaurants in formerly dingy nowhere bits of Minneapolis streetscape, and the bountiful fullness of every every everything that now makes up American cuisine. No! There's more! As 2003 totters and teeters forward, please note that you now have no idea at all where you'll be dining next Valentine's Day, or what the menu could possibly contain--Thai callalloo? Hindustani paprikash? Throw off the blankets and shoo away the cat, because I have seen the future world, and it is very complicated, but awfully good.

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