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.

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.

A chunky steak tartare ($10) made with lots of red onion, lemon zest, verjus, and a bit of mustard was good in a sturdy, country way. Mussels ($12) were prepared one day in a dark, salty beer broth with bacon, then served topped with handfuls of shredded green cabbage that had been cooked just until the pale leaves had their green, licorice aspect brought forward. I couldn't really see eating the cabbage, it seemed almost like the seaweed mussels are cooked in sometimes, but the preparation gave the mussels a nice, unusual sort of Alsatian accent. It was wonderful to find the mussels themselves given a cook's full attention: They were sweet, soft, oceanic, fantastically clean, and ideally cooked.

A whole poached artichoke was delicious, if knee-wobblingly decadent, as the huge $12 beast was served, literally, in a soup bowl of hot "beurre fondu"--that is, melted butter. Pluck a leaf, dip it in the butter, swill it down with some crisp white wine and plenty of bread, and by the time you reach the lush artichoke heart you'll feel the heady intoxication of someone who is vacationing in France in 1978 and eating a whole artichoke dripping with butter; what a wonderful world that must have been, before they invented constant public-health carping about what you eat! In any event, if you vegetarians have felt left out of the whole mind-altering decadence of foie gras, now there is a mind-altering decadence just for you.

The full entrées are a bit hard to head into after the intensity of the appetizers, but I found a number that were thoroughly charming. My favorite was another butter-bomb, panko-crusted veal scallopini ($24). For this extravaganza, beautifully textured, weighty little pillows of garlic-thyme gnocchi floated in a bath of silky butter, nestled among the first plump green peas of spring. Each gnocco had the perfect balance of plush weight and springy resilience to it, and by themselves would have been utterly unforgettable. And yet, they were nowhere near alone. On top were two golden medallions of sweet, light, pure veal, fried to a state of fork-tender cutlety joy, and on top of those were four loops of slightly pickled, salted cucumber, each loop curled loosely around a spoonful of shredded red radish: The cold, raw, sweet, spicy radish was a radical addition and, like a cold sun-shower moving through a perfect hot summer day, brought the excellence of each element of veal and gnocchi into stark relief. A tour de force of a preparation.

A vegetarian dish of Bergamasca polenta ($19) was served such that triangles of the fluffy, refined Italian corn cake were seared dark and crisp outside. Pierce the shell and you found an ivory-colored, elegantly subtle middle. The polenta was dressed with a plate-licking tangy, creamy Pecorino cheese sauce scattered with a spoonful of micro-diced chives, and beside it came a sort of deconstructed caponata, an eggplant confit and a mélange of roasted red and yellow peppers. Rack of lamb ($27) was as red as strawberries, memorably tender, and served with nicely al dente flageolet beans. I did try one clanking failure, a hot charcuterie plate ($26) of smoked pork tenderloin, pork belly, cabbage, apples, and a square of creamy, layered potatoes: Each element was so obliteratingly salty I couldn't eat it. Odd. Oh well, that's what proves a kitchen is made of humans, and not magicians.

Pastries and sweets, by Christian Aldrich, are often excellent. I especially liked the homemade profiteroles, four wonderfully fresh miniature éclairs filled with nicely bitter coffee ice cream and served with a pitcher of the silkiest possible dark caramel sauce. They were worth driving an hour for. Chocolate truffles were incredibly delicious; there were dark ones filled with a fleur de sel caramel that were so rich and powerful it was nearly disorienting to eat them. I had them another night as part of a more ambitious chocolate tasting, with chocolate sorbet and a chocolate mousse cake, and concluded that they need to stand alone, because they make any other chocolate thing taste like an also-ran.

A few little things at Bobino still need adjusting if it really wants to be a great restaurant. Servers are sweet, well-meaning, and make you feel terrifically comfortable, but it would be nice if they could add a few more big-restaurant tricks to their act. For instance, if everyone united as one and figured out some way to write on the tickets who gets what dish, so that anyone delivering the plates might know, that would be marvelous. The bathroom, which the restaurant shares with a neighboring coffee shop, needs a revamp.

The wine program needs work. First, it's pricey. Most bottles seem to cost 300 to 400 percent what they do retail, like a $9 retail Hogue Riesling for $30. Second, you have to be something of a mind reader to know what's actually on the list. Is the "Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc Gundlach Bundschu, Sonoma Valley $42" the California winery's $12-ish table red, Bearitage, or its more prestigious $17-ish Rhinefarm Vineyards Mountain Cuvée? If you know enough to ask that question, you are a wine person, and Bobino's wine pricing will probably eliminate the restaurant as a first-choice destination. Moreover, if it's not the pricing that bugs you, it'll be the heavy reliance on best-known, big-brand wines, or the ridiculous omission of any wine's vintage.

All told, though, these are all doable adjustments in a restaurant that has already made major, major strides. I'd say Bobino is now at least five or ten times better than it was when I last reviewed it, so I also say, hats off to Bobino's founder and owner, Chris Paddock, who took a big risk in messing with his old reliable. I wish more local restaurant owners were as brave.

What, you think it's a no-brainer, taking a likable restaurant, and adding a great chef? Guess again. Many restaurant owners see real, talented chefs as a problem wrapped in an ego tucked in a cost overrun. Here's why: First, a real chef will demand you spend ridiculous amounts of money on strange ingredients that most people don't even recognize. Then, instead of dealing with one purveyor with one check, suddenly you're writing checks to a dozen purveyors for God knows what--and worse, your accountant constantly has to be on the scene to write checks for it all. Then, they pick fights with servers over God knows what. They're constantly trying to replace a perfectly good $8-an-hour kitchen prep worker with some $14-an-hour pain in the neck straight out of cooking school who'll last six months, tops. And at the end of it all, if you give them every single thing they want, they go off and open their own restaurant, taking all your customers with them. On the other hand, there are plenty of docile clock-punchers who also graduated from cooking school, but who can be trusted to make Caesar salads with what you give them, make peace with whoever's on the premises, and keep everything as calm, predictable, and as (mildly) profitable as white toast.

But not at Bobino, where they've chosen bravery over fear, and hit the jackpot.

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