Ambition Accomplished

Fugaise has sky-high ambitions and the kitchen skills to match

Fugaise
308 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.436.0777
www.fugaise.com

 

An eye for every detail: Fugaise's Don Saunders
Jana Freiband
An eye for every detail: Fugaise's Don Saunders

Ever heard of "tall poppy syndrome"? One of my friends described it to me in abundant detail before she fled town. Essentially, it involves the tallest poppy in the field getting mowed down, because it's the most eye-catching, and thus the easiest for malevolent forces to focus on. This tall poppy can get clobbered at various times and for various reasons by various forces, including higher powers wishing to send a message to the other poppies, average poppies who look around and feel jealous, or just for no reason at all, because said poppy is sticking up there without benefit of camaraderie or staking supports. Tall poppy syndrome is kind of the dark flip side to only squeaky wheels getting oiled, and it has something to do with Midwestern feelings about ambition, a psychological state which is, locally, considered at best unseemly, and at worst a fatal flaw, the telltale symptom of a soul striving toward a state of lying, vain megalomania.

I bring this up because I've been visiting Fugaise lately, the new white-tablecloth fine-dining restaurant that just opened in northeast Minneapolis, across Hennepin Avenue from Surdyk's, and the place is just nakedly, forthrightly, almost shockingly ambitious, brimming with high-wire cooking feats of derring-do, including a quivering custard of lobster bisque, resilient rectangular cakes formed from veal sweetbreads, and duck confit winking from within gossamer and transparent domes of egg pasta. It is one of the most ambitious cooking projects in the history of Minneapolis, every dish the obvious calling card of a young man who wants to be taken seriously.

That young man is Don Saunders. Until now, he has been working under various other chefs in town, most notably in sous- or chef de cuisine positions at Au Rebours, Vincent, and La Belle Vie. Fugaise is Saunders's first restaurant of his own, his first place with his own vision before him, his own name on the door, and his chance to be admitted into the elite group of top Minnesota chefs on the line. He is making a very good case that he has the skill to pull off his considerable ambition.

You see it in nearly everything that comes out of his kitchen, even in the most basic of basics, like a squash soup or green salad had at lunch. Saunders's butternut squash soup ($6) is simply gorgeous, glowing in its bowl like a smoky sunset, the vivid orange streaked with dots of mahogany brown pumpkinseed oil and given a meteor shower of texture with golden, aged pecorino. Each spoonful is like a melody echoed and replayed on another instrument, the depth of the roasted squash amplified by the acrid and deep bite of the pumpkinseed oil, its creaminess bracketed by the winey, rich taste of the cheese. The squash wasn't truly sweet or merely squash; truly, this was a tour de force of ground and liquefied squash.

Saunders's version of a simple green salad might be the best I've ever had in Minnesota. In it, simple greens and chicories were tossed with a dressing made of such buttery, high-quality olive oil that each sweetly bitter leaf felt positively fat in the mouth. Meanwhile, each of the salad's other simple but pristine adornments elevated this restaurant staple to the highest planes of fine dining: curried pine nuts, each nut bright yellow and individually crusted, were scattered about, coming to rest sometimes between wee, carefully cut centimeter-square spiced croutons, or pretty red grapes, sliced cleanly in half and pitted, or pale crumbles of Stilton cheese. Each element gave the salad sharp peaks of interest, without distracting from the essential nature of the thing, simple greens glossed with olive oil.

"Can you see how tiny these are?" my lunch date kept exclaiming, showing me tiny cube of crouton after tiny cube. "None of them are even broken. I can't believe someone worked this hard on anything. Never mind a salad."

This, mind you, was before either of us had glimpsed the skate ($13), a golden crescent of such incomparable lightness that I began to watch for signs that it might lift off the plate and float away, like a helium balloon. It arrived in a cloud of white foam, a cloud that tasted like crème fraîche and the brief tears cried by a young lemon, made into froth, and through this cloud, echoing the rim of the plate, ran an irregular ring of browned butter, threaded with a sauce of improbably finely chopped fresh herbs, a thread that was itself bejeweled with teeny-tiny florets of cauliflower and single capers all facing with their tails towards the plate rim--it was a plate design to delight the fussiest jeweler. The taste, though, was indescribably light and tender, and the dish itself, a tired old classic--just skate, butter, capers, that old song--had been so thoroughly deconstructed, reconstructed, and improved through the process that I could only find myself wishing that someone more important than me was there to see it: Escoffier, whisked up from the great beyond, perhaps?

During dinner I saw similar marvels. A starter of brown seared scallops ($12) trembled beside an unspeakably subtle green custard infused with the flavor of leeks. A thick, rich, almost pork-bellylike tangle of veal sweetbreads ($13) was given formality by its form, a carefully cut rectangle cake topped with curls of onion marmalade, and given the weight of tradition with a simple mustard sauce.

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