Wayzata's NorthCoast offers delectable edible science experiments

Foie gras pop rocks and hot ice cream are just a few of the selections

NorthCoast restaurant is in a suburban office park on Lake Minnetonka, not far from Cargill headquarters. It's decorated like a hotel lobby—smart yet unassuming—and boasts a clientele of boaters, businessmen, and ladies who lunch. In the summer months, its roof deck is so popular that the restaurant sometimes serves 700 guests in a night. The best-selling entree is the walleye.

It was also one of the last restaurants in town where I expected to be served an ersatz egg lounging sunny-side up in a soup spoon, like a misplaced piece from a child's kitchenette set. The egg's curvaceous white was as springy as a marshmallow, its yolk a flat yellow disc topped with a curl of candied ginger.

The "egg" was the midpoint of my five-course tasting meal, a dish designed to refresh my taste buds and prime them for the remainder of the meal. Later, I would learn that the yolk was not Play-Doh, as it appeared, but actual raw egg yolk that had been buried in a sugar-salt mixture and cured to a dough-like consistency. The white was similar to panna cotta, stiffened with agar-agar, the seaweed-derived gelling agent. It had been dunked in a pectin bath (pectin is used to gel jellies and jams), which reacted with the fructose in the custard to create its rubbery skin. This egg's production was far more complicated than simply heating a burner and cracking a shell—and to what ends? My fork pricked the white and milky goo oozed out like a runny, over-easy yolk, the inverse of the real thing. I swallowed a cool, creamy bite and chased it with a sip of hot, medicinal-tasting tea. My palate felt more crazed than cleansed.

NorthCoast's kitchen chemistry (clockwise from top left): A palate cleanser of hot and cold apple cider with liquid nitrogen and white chocolate filled with orange juice; Sambuca-infused pork tenderloin with polenta; duck leg confit with butternut squash soup; dark chocolate wrapped around strawberry mousse, coconut angel food cake, sesame seed ice cream, and strawberry puree
Bill Kelley
NorthCoast's kitchen chemistry (clockwise from top left): A palate cleanser of hot and cold apple cider with liquid nitrogen and white chocolate filled with orange juice; Sambuca-infused pork tenderloin with polenta; duck leg confit with butternut squash soup; dark chocolate wrapped around strawberry mousse, coconut angel food cake, sesame seed ice cream, and strawberry puree

Chef Ryan Aberle started serving tasting menus a few years ago as a way to get more diners into the restaurant during the winter months, when numbers might dwindle to 50 guests a night. "In the summer months, I don't get to cook," he says, giving two metaphors for his seasonal role: culinary air-traffic controller and the guy in the cartoon submarine plugging leaks with every part of his body.

To keep his workload consistent, Aberle seems to compensate for the reduced number of guests by cooking them considerably more complex meals. Each course in the tasting menu has several components, all with elaborate preps. A couple of years ago, Aberle started experimenting with techniques of scientific cooking—using lab-like equipment and additives to transform the chemical makeup of his ingredients—such as those pioneered by Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain. Drawing inspiration from various cookbooks as well as pilgrimages to Grant Achatz's restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago, Aberle and his team began creating such far-out foods as foie gras pop rocks and flash-frozen meringues.

Other local chefs have dabbled with this so-called molecular gastronomy, but Aberle has remained among the most enthralled. And his $35 tasting menu—the price of a steak dinner—is perhaps the area's most affordable introduction to this sort of avant-garde dining.

Though Aberle has more than a decade of restaurant experience under his belt, when he serves his creations to guests he seems almost like a kid showing off a new chemistry set. He rattles off times and temperatures for foods cooked sous vide (vacuum-sealed in plastic bags and cooked in a water-bath machine called an immersion circulator), grinning and waving his hands, tossing off terms like "anaerobic" and "amino acids" as if he's a walking textbook. "I'm kind of a science nerd at heart," he admits.

In the tasting menu I recently sampled (Aberle changes them every two weeks), sous vide played a key role in a dish that paired tuna with a pork belly dumpling and sweet corn chowder. Cooking the proteins in their shrink-wrapped jackets sealed in both flavor and moisture so that the fish took on a soft, buttery texture and the fatty pork melted on the tongue almost like bone marrow. In a subsequent course, Aberle mixed osso buco meat with transglutaminase, an enzyme that helps bond proteins, and pressed the mixture into a spherical mold surrounding a frozen cherry-jelly center. The result was a crispy meatball that was something like a Scotch egg, except with a fruity middle. But the most curious part of the dish was a translucent brown strip of dehydrated French onion soup. My first bite was a sensory trip: It tasted just like the broth—the same deep, briny, caramel flavors—but chewed like a Fruit Roll-Up. Bringing leftovers home had never been easier, I thought, as I slipped the rest of the soup into my pocket.

Another course was created with whole birds from Au Bon Canard in Caledonia, Minnesota, and served as duck four ways: seared breast meat, a clove-tinged demi-glace, and a cake of confit leg and thigh meat containing a foie gras center. The dish had so many components that Aberle designed an intra-course palate cleanser to break up its uniformity. (Yeah, you heard me right, and no, I'd never had an intra-course palate cleanser, either.) The cleanser, a tiny dumpling filled with pomegranate-mint juice, was meant to be popped whole into the mouth. Its tart shock cut the salty richness of the course that followed, the confit meat and a pellet of foie gras, hidden inside like a nut in a Christmas pudding.

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