Ringo offers worldly menu

From South Korea to South Africa

There are a few notable differences between Aberle's bibimbap and the classic recipe. Typically, Korean kitchens will crack a raw egg on top of the steaming rice, allowing it to cook on contact. Aberle fries his first so as not to offend squeamish diners, though that technique doesn't allow the egg to "mix" as well. A more important distinction is Aberle's choice to use Thousand Hills grass-fed skirt steak—so far as I know, none of the local Korean joints use meat so impeccably sourced. But Aberle's biggest contribution to improving the dish may be adding diced sweet potatoes coated in hot almond syrup—a common Korean street food that's not traditional to the dish but makes an apt counterbalance to the richness of the meat and egg and the crispness of the other vegetables.

The spicy pork lettuce wraps—like Atkins-friendly, Asian-style carnitas tacos—were also winners, tender little bites of grilled meat folded in a Bibb lettuce leaf with scallions and bean sprouts. The house-made kimchi seemed to be missing something—perhaps the live cultures American health departments frown on—but I suspect few diners were disappointed. The Korean beverage list certainly made up for it. A thick, cinnamon-sweet rice drink resembled Mexican horchata; persimmon walnut punch tasted of candied nuts and star anise. A cocktail that combined grapefruit, rosemary, and ginger with Soju, a Korean alcoholic beverage similar to vodka, was especially refreshing.

During Ringo's first few weeks, Aberle says, he had to make a few accommodations to please guests unaccustomed to Korean fare. For starters, many diners disliked the unfamiliar, chewy texture of a dish made with mung bean noodles and asked for them to be replaced with linguine. Aberle's Lucky Dragon soup—oxtail and lobster broth with oysters, egg, and cellophane noodles—was dropped entirely due to lack of interest. "It was a great dish," Aberle says, "but I think I sold five of them, and one of them was to [former Red executive chef] Marianne Miller."

Ringo's not yet a star, but it is a bright light
Mike Dvorak
Ringo's not yet a star, but it is a bright light

Aberle has found that the international menu-a-month concept requires tight oversight of his staff, though not necessarily much more so than what he experienced with his weekly specials and tasting menus at NorthCoast. While Aberle spent a fair amount of time poring over the specialty menus (he started the process about nine months ago), he knows he can't expect the same depth of knowledge from his line cooks. "I can't put out a Craigslist ad looking for 'Cook Experienced in Everything,'" he says. With the specialty menus, once Aberle's cooks have mastered the bibimbap, a dish that most of them had never made, they're starting over with Belgian rabbit, a dish they've never cooked before either.

As for that rabbit, which Aberle calls Belgium's national dish, it's a touch salty but quite delicious, cooked confit-style, finished with geuse—a sour beer—and dotted with currants to taste rich and wild. It made up for the meal's shaky start of a bowl of moules, steeped in a tasty tomato/leek/beer broth, that arrived sans the expected frites. After experiencing Belgium's beer and chocolate expertise—polishing off bottles of a light saison beer and a robust Flemish sour one, as well as a delectable Callebaut chocolate mousse—we'd forgotten about it entirely. (The dessert was far better than the local Baked Minnesota, a s'more version of Baked Alaska that wasn't as good as either of the gourmet riffs on the campfire dessert I've had at the Kitchen or the former Lake House.)

Aberle says some of the greatest hits from the specialty menus will earn spots on the core list, a process that I think will, over time, greatly benefit the restaurant. During my visits, the most disappointing dishes came from the base menu, their major fault being the use of sweetness as a crutch. Thai crab cakes tasted of too much binder and were overpowered by a cloying green curry that was more sweet than spicy. Same with a hearty lamb lollipop with an apricot-mint sauce that overwhelmed the meat, and the caramelized onions on the "Paris" burger (one of many on a long list of internationally topped patties), which upset the balance of the beef, Brie, arugula, and roasted tomato. The Brazilian picanha steak was expertly cooked, but it came with a lackluster side of beans and plain corn tamale—as well as a piercingly sweet chutney.

The restaurant's next stop on its global tour is South Africa, and the menu is one that Aberle researched largely by talking to South Africans whom Ringo met through his travels. Doing any primary research on the subject in the Twin Cities was nearly impossible. Expect to see wildebeest on the menu, but not lion, which Aberle says his wild game supplier encouraged him to buy. ("I asked him, 'Is that even legal?'" Aberle says. "Apparently they farm-raise them.")

I'd rather see a restaurant do fewer things and do them well, but I realize that my perspective as a critic is different from the dining mentality of many of the customers Ringo is trying to attract: I love ethnic food, I know where to find it, and I am willing to drive for the good stuff. I am also rarely in the position of having to worry about choosing a restaurant that will please members in my party whose tastes vary greatly from my own.

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