2004's Top Dozen Dishes

If you read this list and subsequently eat your newspaper and/or hat, don't come crying to me

How do you pick a baker's dozen of the best dishes of 2004? With an ever-increasing hunger. I mean, be careful! Beware! If you have not eaten lunch, do not read this story! If you are on a diet, no, no, a thousand times no--take yourself into the basement and shackle yourself to the furnace, please, I beg of you.

Please also know that my lawyers have advised me that by your reading this sentence I am hereby indemnified against any damages that may come about if you read this list and subsequently feel compelled to eat your newspaper, hat, arm, or that spider web over yonder. Rubber! Glue! No backsies! We're off.

 

1. THE LOBSTERRed

Chef Marianne Miller invented what can only be called the dish of the year during her tenure at Red, a restaurant that she built from scratch, got fired from, watched closely, and now has bought from the bank, so that she can open it again (fingers crossed!) in late January. Phew. Well, out of great drama comes great lobster: You had to see this thing. A whole Atlantic lobster, all scarlet and cream, removed entirely from its shell, sliced invisibly into gossamer slices, laid on a bed of mashed potatoes--enhanced, on one end of the plate, by a beurre blanc made with Meyer lemons and on the other end of the plate by a totally different butter sauce made with truffles, vanilla, and white chocolate. The sauces meet and blend in the middle, kind of like the way bliss and triumph can intermingle in that one moment when you're getting that gold medal at the Olympics. Or I'm guessing it's like that, anyway. I tell you, eating this lobster is like winning the lottery. Except the finances go the other way. But who cares? What price ecstasy? Market price, actually--and the Champagne is extra. But sister, you're worth it. (Red Restaurant; 821 Marquette Ave. S., Minneapolis 612.436.8888. Please note: This restaurant is currently closed; call in a month for updates.)

 

2. AMUSE-BOUCHESAuriga

Auriga has been an especial fascination of mine over the years. Chef Doug Flicker has a particular elegance and originality that is dazzling and surprising without ever being show-offy or out of tune. He always manages to bring just the right amount of finesse to a dish to turn originality into a moment of aha! clarity. And, uh, weirdly, he seems to do much of his best work when he's working on something that's about two inches square. Well, hallelujah: After much-anticipated renovations, Auriga reopened earlier this month with a new sort of menu, one in which the various complicated "amuse-bouches," those teensy pre-appetizers that chefs use to "amuse the mouth" and "knock the socks off the feet," were listed separately, at $2 or $3 a pop.

Of course, I had to order all of them, and you do too, because there's a chance you'll experience miracles: In December there was a wee beehive of steak tartare--raspberry-red meat hand-cut and seasoned to order with salt, a little lemon, morel mushroom powder, olive oil, and a micro-dice of shallots. It tasted throbbingly fresh and intense, a dewdrop of the blood and fire of life. My date and I considered chucking the rest of the menu and simply ordering 20 of the things; at $3 a pop it would have been well worth it, as it was unquestionably the best steak tartare I've ever encountered.

Another amuse-bouche that day was a single Kumamoto oyster topped with a thimbleful of celeriac gelée and a dozen grains of caviar--just devastating. The sweet ocean brine of the oyster was brought to a new level of vibrance by the light, slightly sour bit of quivering, herbal gelée, and then the popping salt of the caviar eggs. In staid moments of quiet reflection, I can only conclude: Whee! (Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.871.0777, www.aurigarestaurant.com.)

 

3. POMEGRANATE QUAILSolera

I recently had the opportunity to dine with two huge national-caliber chefs, French Laundry bigwig Thomas Keller and former El Bulli apprentice and current Bouchon head chef Jeff Cerciello, and where do you think they had reservations? Solera, of course. As course after traditional, wee tapas course hit the table, Cerciello kept oohing and aahing about how very authentic and Spanish the experience was, but it was the pomegranate quail that got me myself oohing: Tiny, deboned quail (except for the handy leg bone) had been char-grilled to the point of utter tenderness and then dressed with pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses, layered on a bed of blanched, caramelized salsify, with its bit of pucker and resilience, and then covered with lightly sauced handfuls of bloodred pomegranate seeds. It tasted like the food of Spanish kings: those roasty, tender quail veiled luxuriously with layers of sweet and tart pomegranate, and enthroned, as royalty will be, on a bed both rich and earthy. Want some? They've been on Solera's $30-a-plate tasting menu lately, and were featured as part of the restaurant's luxe $40-a-head New Year's Eve menu. (Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.781.6042, www.solera-restaurant.com.)

 

4. VENISON CARPACCIOLevain

It's exhausting watching chef Steven Brown and his team flail around like opposing football teams in the far-too-open kitchen of Levain, but it's enlightening, too: If you didn't think genius cooking was a contact sport, guess again. To receive what comes out of the kitchen is to deeply understand grace under pressure. First, there was the devastating venison carpaccio, paper-thin sheets of ruby-red meat made by rolling seared venison between pieces of waxed paper, and topped with a tiny dice of eggplant reduced with soy and chile peppers. It all combined in a glossily earthy and gamy way, as if you were tasting a bit of silk woven from the Midwestern forest.

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