Ringo offers worldly menu

From South Korea to South Africa

These are the days of the shallows, not the deep, in which everybody seems more interested in doing a lot than in doing any of it well. We—the dilettantes, the amateurs, the dabblers—scan instead of read, because we tweet instead of essay. Give a guy a video camera and he fancies himself a television star. And everyone's too exhausted to distinguish the Emmy-worthy from the crap.

Out of this crucible, somewhat unsurprisingly, comes Ringo, a restaurant that supplements its core offerings with a new menu from a different international destination each month: South Korea in May, Belgium in June, South Africa in July, and so on. The restaurant has nothing to do with Ringo Starr (a fact that seems to disappoint everyone who asks about it); its namesake is first-time restaurateur Jim Ringo, who also opened the Forum in downtown Minneapolis shortly after Ringo's mid-spring debut.

The global-meets-local concept makes sense from a cover-all-your bases approach, as it accommodates both adventurous and conservative diners. It struck me as interesting, ambitious, and perhaps a little foolhardy—a lot to pull off, let alone pull off well. What are the ingredients, exactly, in a recipe for disaster?

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

But Ringo made a smart pick in recruiting Ryan Ablere, one of those chefs who seems to have more energy than a toddler babysat by a case of Mountain Dew. Aberle's most recent job was overseeing the kitchen at NorthCoast in Wayzata, where he spent summers sending hundreds of burgers and walleye out to a jam-packed patio each night, and winters cooking complex, molecular gastronomy-based tasting menus. Ringo, who formerly managed Cargill's malt division, developed a relationship with Aberle when he took clients, including Boston Beer and Modelo executives, to NorthCoast for beer-pairing dinners. Through his work at Cargill, Ringo traveled extensively, pretty much everywhere in the world where beer is brewed. "His passport is the envy of everyone I know," Abele says.

Ringo, in St. Louis Park's new West End Mall, looks lovely. Created by the design firm Shea, it suggests an upscale hotel lobby crossed with a beach cabana. Sliding glass doors let the breezes in, gorgeous reclaimed barn wood lines the walls, and a stretchy fabric canopy spans the ceiling. Global souvenirs and travel photographs submitted by those involved with the project (look for the shot of David Shea riding a bicycle) personalize the room. And a couple of "kissing booths" shrouded in filmy curtains look fit to seat a Japanese emperor.

A voyage with Ringo is not one of squat toilets and Purell—the restaurant's bathrooms are stocked with posh Caldrea products and cloth towels. This is travel for those who stay in five-star hotels, not hostels, and tour via cruise ship and charter bus, not burro and rickshaw.

The restaurant's base menu is part American chophouse, part global tour. That means steak, wedge salads, and meatloaf sliders with the former; Peruvian snapper ceviche, Vietnamese pho, and Alsatian chicken with the latter. Several of the more straightforward dishes are terrific, such as the summery mixed greens salad tossed with fresh raspberries and blackberries, sweet onions, candied pecans, fried goat cheese, mint leaves, and a light balsamic vinaigrette. If hot-stone cooking seems a little passé for 2010, Aberle's tuna and beef antipasti lends the technique a little gravitas. The protein slices cook with an enticing sizzle and pair well with their accompaniments, particularly the addictive sunchoke-garlic puree.

Several of the core menu's ethnic forays are equally successful, such as the Moroccan-style lamb sloppy Joe. The ground lamb is less greasy than beef and gives the sandwich a gamey boost. It's also a lot less sloppy than the childhood version, as the tomato sauce highlights the meat, rather than masking it. Topped with goat cheese, hot peppers, grilled radicchio, and rosemary—which we watched a staffer pluck from a patio pot—the hand-held snack possesses an entrée-like sophistication. Extra bonus: The Joe comes with a side of onion rings, crusted in a light, bubbly batter, with a hint of malty Guinness.

The international dishes at Ringo are an exercise in trust: Why should a diner order a dish prepared by a chef who has limited experience with its particulars? The question gets raised each time a Chinese sushi chef slices fish at a Japanese restaurant or Caucasian guys cook Caribbean barbecue, but Ringo replays the authenticity debate every month. Would we feel more comfortable ordering from Aberle's Korean menu if he were Korean, or had traveled to Korea, or had worked in a Korean restaurant?

But perhaps Aberle's outsider status is an advantage. Consider how two chefs, each focusing on a particular cuisine style, might be like two musicians, each with a different expertise in a musical genre. A folk guitarist may not have the jazz chops of a jazz guitarist, yet many of his core skills transfer—and what he lacks in familiarity he might make up for with fresh perspective.

Before creating his menu, Aberle dined at the half-dozen Korean restaurants in the Twin Cities and discussed the cuisine with their proprietors. The result, I think, is quite admirable. The stone pot bibimbap (a.k.a. "mixed rice" topped with thin-sliced meat, vegetables, and egg) wasn't as good as some I've had in Korean restaurants—I kept picking around the dish, in vain, for the characteristic crisp bits of rice stuck to the sides of the pot—but it still captured the essence of what makes the dish successful.

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."

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.

Going back to the previous music analogy, I see little reason to listen to the recording of a musician who's only made a cursory dip into a particular musical genre, when I have equal access to one who has made a deeper commitment and is likely to execute a better performance. But restaurants aren't sound waves: They're rooted to a physical space. Most St. Louis Park residents don't have convenient access—if any at all—to a dedicated Korean, Belgian, or South African restaurant, among others. Ringo's global menus may be less dialed-in than such places, but if the choice is between experiencing a newcomer's take on the cuisine or nothing at all, I'll give the former a chance.

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