Chef Driven

What a difference a chef makes: Marianne Miller, newly established at Bobino, turns an old reliable into a new joy

Bobino Café and Wine Bar
222 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis
612.623.3301
www.bobino.com

 

I tiptoed into Bobino for an early Saturday lunch recently. I'd been haunting the place, trying to judge how it was now that Chef Marianne Miller had taken over the kitchen. I was particularly curious to see if Bobino could pull off a Saturday lunch, since I knew Miller probably wouldn't be there. She'd be waiting for the high-pressure, name-making/name-breaking Saturday dinner that would come with the dropping sun. And every restaurant critic knows there's no greater test of a chef than how her restaurant functions when the big name in the house isn't.

Chef Marianne Miller has turned Bobino back into a worthy destination spot
Raoul Benavides
Chef Marianne Miller has turned Bobino back into a worthy destination spot

There was only one server on the floor, and there appeared to be only two folks manning the kitchen. My lunch date and I contemplated the simple menu, with its unpretentious offerings of ham sandwiches and straightforward omelets. We ordered, and were rewarded with some of the best-composed, best-sourced plates of simple foods I have seen in the Twin Cities in months.

The cheese plate had a golden wedge of 12-year-old Taleggio, a creamy local blue, a pool of mahogany-dark Ames Farm buckwheat honey, a pile of grapes which, when poked, revealed that the grapes had been trimmed into charmingly decorous four-grape clusters, and a little scattering of nuts, two of each, like Noah's ark, each pair spiced differently: quite a showstopper, at five bucks.

A variation on a salade niçoise was an arrangement of a dozen chef-driven details: The centers of the quartered hard-boiled eggs were bright yellow and creamy, captured at that elusive 10-and-a-half-or-so minute moment where solidity briefly intervenes before sulfuric hardness. The rectangles of ahi tuna were jewellike and perfectly salted. The niçoise olives were of the highest quality, their reddish, olive-ish bodies unfurled by painstaking hand cutting, to prevent diners from having to sully themselves with pits. The haricots verts were crisp, bright green, perfectly blanched, and cut attractively, for no other reason than decorative panache, on a diagonal bias, so you could see the teensy-eensy little beans at home in their shells. Which is to say nothing of the peppery arugula and strips of pickled onion that gave spine to the salad. And all this for nine bucks.

The rest of the meal was lovely, too: a roast-chicken hash with a nice rosemary edge, plenty of tender potatoes, and poached eggs; a tangy goat cheese omelet with thick cubes of ham and earthy crimini mushrooms; a server who kept the coffee cups filled; and that always-vacation-sunset Bobino dining room, with its peachy glow.

It was a lunch to really settle an unquiet mind, and I left Bobino convinced that the restaurant has truly and definitely left behind its long mid-period of middle-brow middling, and has reemerged as one of the top dozen or so restaurants in the Twin Cities.

Bobino, you see, used to be very good: It opened in 1996 with J.P. Samuelson (now of jP's American Bistro) as chef. I was never there in Bobino's legendary opening days. By the time I got there it was mediocre, and coasting downward. My last review of the restaurant, in the spring of 2002, relied heavily on ideas like "boring" and "standard-issue country club food wearing a fancy hat." This past winter, however, Marianne Miller joined the restaurant. She was the young chef who made a name for herself at Red, a downtown Minneapolis restaurant that burned its candle at 10 ends, but, in the nanoseconds before it flamed out, made a lovely light. When I talked to her as she was inking the contract to take over Bobino, she explained to me that she would be working in a revivified Continental idiom--the food you would have found in fancy restaurants in the late 1970s, but made with today's fine ingredients and filtered through Miller's own technique and style. I was dubious about this idea, to an extreme, picturing a series of mustard sauces on overcooked pale things, but she has pulled it off with remarkable skill and elegance.

The dinner menu is now divided into two sections, large appetizers to share and entrées. Most nights you'll start with a complementary little amuse. One evening we were served wee slices of ahi tuna, poached and dotted with a perky little mélange of lemon zest, onion, and garlic; it was a light and lively bite, and well set off the more indulgent appetizers to come. Wild Burgundian escargots ($11) were dark little knobs sautéed in garlic until they were lively as snapping castanets and tender as spray roses. The little dears were then tucked into a little purse fashioned from puff pastry, a purse that had a pretty knot tied in its top and little sprouts of baby arugula bursting from the open seams. Beside the pastry purse were two pools of differently colored beurre blanc, one traditional and one green, made with parsley: Swoop the garlicky snail through the parsley beurre blanc and it tastes like a sunbeam illuminating a dot of forest. It was a glorious version of the old traditional dish, and one of the best I've ever had.

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