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.

Duck ravioli ($13) were repeatedly astonishing: At first I thought the appetizer was deconstructed entirely, because the pasta that contained the duck was stretched so thin it resembled oiled parchment, but it wasn't. Atop each pale, see-through dome was a little pile of just-cut, millimeter-diced apple squares presented in a fresh relish, and down below the ravioli was a creamy, foamy foie gras emulsion that had a flowery scent not unlike fresh apricots. Inside was a combination of confit strands, weightier ground duck, and fresh herbs. All together, the flavors were shockingly light, despite the inherent heaviness of duck and liver; it was constantly surprising in the way that grace in a heavyweight fighter is always surprising, too.

Some entrees achieved similar heights. Finger-thin fillets of rainbow trout were removed from the fish and served on top of another of Saunders's signature vaporous, ethereal sauces of cream and mystery: This one tasted of dairy and also, as subtly as if the flavors were being experienced in another room and then heard only faintly through the walls, of lemon rinds, mushrooms, oceans, and pepper. Atop the trout were pale, poached fingers of artichoke heart, and pitted exclamatory slices of brined black olive; beside the tender fish in the remarkable sauce were buttery oyster mushrooms. All in all, it was sort of like eating the sunlight glinting from a stream.

A simple plate of top quality, pink, gamey, tender pork tenderloin ($21) was given the most traditional of partners, a mustard sauce and a celeriac puree, and the most earthy of complements, a leaf of napa cabbage stuffed with spiced ground pork, yet somehow the refined treatment of it all left behind an impression of almost lilting lightness. Several times at Fugaise I found myself thinking, with exclamation points, I could eat this every day! I've never thought that in all my years of fine dining.

I will say that I've brought out just the highlights of my experiences, all of which happened at times when the restaurant was, at best, half full. I can't vouch for how the restaurant would be if it ever reached capacity, as it can be much easier to cook finely during slow times. The one time the kitchen was slightly off, and slices of undistinguished tuna arrived resting on unpleasantly resilient cranberry beans, everything appealing about the place seemed to fall away at once, and I found myself feeling less like I was in the sacristy of a rare talent, and more like I was confined in a gray cell.

You see, aside from Saunders's cooking, most of the other aspects of Fugaise are bare-bones. The physical space is peculiar. You enter the restaurant from a narrow street-front doorway that looks as though it would be the entrance to offices above the building, and proceed down a hallway; halfway down the hall you find the host stand, and past that, a very pretty cocktail bar that is comically tiny--it is, literally, three seats wide. Past that is the gray, windowless dining room, which is decorated with abstract art and has the air of having been physically assembled by the chef himself during late nights. The bathrooms are common to the building and down a fluorescent-lit hallway.

The wine list, almost entirely French, with a few Spanish and Italian options, is well chosen and entirely appropriate for the menu, though priced on the high side. The servers are well trained, can answer any question about any dish on the menu, have an admirable understanding of what the heck you do with flatware in a restaurant with four-star aspirations, and deliver each dish with a short speech detailing the ingredients and preparation, a practice which I find helpful, but which several of my dining companions thought pretentious.

Desserts, like the room, are bare-bones: Whenever I visited, there were only three on offer, all very simple, but definitely competent. A chocolate pot de crème was almost savory in its bitter, espresso-deep concentration. An apple cobbler was little more than freshly assembled, quickly baked apples and buttery crumbles united with a house-made caramel sauce and coffee ice cream. A scone-simple yellow cake served with Stilton cheese was given interest with fragrant, bright green olive oil. A Grand Marnier and Bailey's buttercream layer cake was notable primarily because it wasn't oversweet.

All of which is to say that if you go to restaurants for anything other than the high-flying food on the plates or the conversation with your companions, you are not going to like Fugaise. There is no hubbub, no dancing, no dueling pianos, no roaring fireplaces, no food-phobic anorectics with silicon ka-pow adjusting one another's lipstick at the bar. In fact, there is no nothing except fine dining in a quiet room. This means that if the food ever falters, even a few mere degrees out of perfect, as it did on one of my visits, the place is subject to immense backlash along the lines of, "Is that all there is?" This is especially true at dinner, when the cost easily mounts to $50 to $80 a head.

There is no other fine-dining restaurant in town that relies so heavily on the cooking talents of one individual. In fact, the mind wobbles to contemplate what would happen to Fugaise if, one dark day, Chef Saunders should happen to oversleep or, heaven forbid, get a head cold.

If such a day should arise, malevolent forces will, no doubt, spring from every corner with claws bared. Not that there's any avoiding it; in the end, that's what it means to be a tall poppy, what it means to be young and have nothing between you and the abyss but your talent, your ambition, and your willingness to work like a dog. The sad truth, the wonderful truth, is that tall poppies can't behave like dandelions, lying beneath mower level in the boulevard crevices. If you would like to see how this works, please know that right now a tall poppy grows in Minneapolis.

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