2004's Top Dozen Dishes
How do you pick a baker's dozen of the best dishes of 2004? With an ever-increasing hunger. I mean, be careful! Beware! If you have not eaten lunch, do not read this story! If you are on a diet, no, no, a thousand times no--take yourself into the basement and shackle yourself to the furnace, please, I beg of you.
Please also know that my lawyers have advised me that by your reading this sentence I am hereby indemnified against any damages that may come about if you read this list and subsequently feel compelled to eat your newspaper, hat, arm, or that spider web over yonder. Rubber! Glue! No backsies! We're off.
1. THE LOBSTER Red
Chef Marianne Miller invented what can only be called the dish of the year during her tenure at Red, a restaurant that she built from scratch, got fired from, watched closely, and now has bought from the bank, so that she can open it again (fingers crossed!) in late January. Phew. Well, out of great drama comes great lobster: You had to see this thing. A whole Atlantic lobster, all scarlet and cream, removed entirely from its shell, sliced invisibly into gossamer slices, laid on a bed of mashed potatoes--enhanced, on one end of the plate, by a beurre blanc made with Meyer lemons and on the other end of the plate by a totally different butter sauce made with truffles, vanilla, and white chocolate. The sauces meet and blend in the middle, kind of like the way bliss and triumph can intermingle in that one moment when you're getting that gold medal at the Olympics. Or I'm guessing it's like that, anyway. I tell you, eating this lobster is like winning the lottery. Except the finances go the other way. But who cares? What price ecstasy? Market price, actually--and the Champagne is extra. But sister, you're worth it. (Red Restaurant; 821 Marquette Ave. S., Minneapolis 612.436.8888. Please note: This restaurant is currently closed; call in a month for updates.)
2. AMUSE-BOUCHES Auriga
Auriga has been an especial fascination of mine over the years. Chef Doug Flicker has a particular elegance and originality that is dazzling and surprising without ever being show-offy or out of tune. He always manages to bring just the right amount of finesse to a dish to turn originality into a moment of aha! clarity. And, uh, weirdly, he seems to do much of his best work when he's working on something that's about two inches square. Well, hallelujah: After much-anticipated renovations, Auriga reopened earlier this month with a new sort of menu, one in which the various complicated "amuse-bouches," those teensy pre-appetizers that chefs use to "amuse the mouth" and "knock the socks off the feet," were listed separately, at $2 or $3 a pop.
Of course, I had to order all of them, and you do too, because there's a chance you'll experience miracles: In December there was a wee beehive of steak tartare--raspberry-red meat hand-cut and seasoned to order with salt, a little lemon, morel mushroom powder, olive oil, and a micro-dice of shallots. It tasted throbbingly fresh and intense, a dewdrop of the blood and fire of life. My date and I considered chucking the rest of the menu and simply ordering 20 of the things; at $3 a pop it would have been well worth it, as it was unquestionably the best steak tartare I've ever encountered.
Another amuse-bouche that day was a single Kumamoto oyster topped with a thimbleful of celeriac gelée and a dozen grains of caviar--just devastating. The sweet ocean brine of the oyster was brought to a new level of vibrance by the light, slightly sour bit of quivering, herbal gelée, and then the popping salt of the caviar eggs. In staid moments of quiet reflection, I can only conclude: Whee! (Auriga, 1934 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.871.0777, www.aurigarestaurant.com.)
3. POMEGRANATE QUAIL Solera
I recently had the opportunity to dine with two huge national-caliber chefs, French Laundry bigwig Thomas Keller and former El Bulli apprentice and current Bouchon head chef Jeff Cerciello, and where do you think they had reservations? Solera, of course. As course after traditional, wee tapas course hit the table, Cerciello kept oohing and aahing about how very authentic and Spanish the experience was, but it was the pomegranate quail that got me myself oohing: Tiny, deboned quail (except for the handy leg bone) had been char-grilled to the point of utter tenderness and then dressed with pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses, layered on a bed of blanched, caramelized salsify, with its bit of pucker and resilience, and then covered with lightly sauced handfuls of bloodred pomegranate seeds. It tasted like the food of Spanish kings: those roasty, tender quail veiled luxuriously with layers of sweet and tart pomegranate, and enthroned, as royalty will be, on a bed both rich and earthy. Want some? They've been on Solera's $30-a-plate tasting menu lately, and were featured as part of the restaurant's luxe $40-a-head New Year's Eve menu. (Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.781.6042, www.solera-restaurant.com.)
4. VENISON CARPACCIO Levain
It's exhausting watching chef Steven Brown and his team flail around like opposing football teams in the far-too-open kitchen of Levain, but it's enlightening, too: If you didn't think genius cooking was a contact sport, guess again. To receive what comes out of the kitchen is to deeply understand grace under pressure. First, there was the devastating venison carpaccio, paper-thin sheets of ruby-red meat made by rolling seared venison between pieces of waxed paper, and topped with a tiny dice of eggplant reduced with soy and chile peppers. It all combined in a glossily earthy and gamy way, as if you were tasting a bit of silk woven from the Midwestern forest.
Then, there was a single scallop, seared on the outside, sashimi-sweet within, set on a risotto as black as leather, made with just enough smoked jalapeño broth to give it spine and just enough cuttlefish ink to make you suddenly lose sense of the jostling, noisy frenzy of the restaurant around you and appreciate the brilliance of a chef who has the vision of an artist and the fortitude of a running back. (Restaurant Levain, 4762 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.823.7111, www.restaurantlevain.com.)
5. SOFT-SHELL CRAB A Rebours
A Rebours was the big news in St. Paul this year. It was what happened when the ultra-Minneapolis types of Bakery on Grand (Doug and Jessica Anderson), Aquavit (Roger Johnsson), and café un deux trois (Michael Morse) fled the cold and cruel First City of the West for the generous and embracing Last City of the East. When they moved to St. Paul, the A Rebours crew got a police department with a higher homicide clearance rate, improved proximity to professional hockey (supposedly, anyhow), and a sweetheart of a dining room that feels very T. S. Eliot in his prime.
But I think it's the people of St. Paul that really won out when it comes to appetizers: I'm thinking here particularly of one night's special of fried soft-shell crab. The crab was as crisp as the sound of a hockey puck slapping off a stick in an empty Excel center, but far less depressing in the face of an NHL strike. I mean, each half of this little sea monster rested in a bowl of sauce that defined that magical meeting point where vanilla and crème fraîche shake hands. And all around the creature, little hills of tomato salad emerged from the sauce, telling you everything you might ever need to know about what happens when the bay essence of crab is gilded by the sweetness of cream and sharpened by the acid of tomato. What happens is, jaded Uptown types finally get in their cars and drive east. (A Rebours; 410 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651.665.0656)
6. DANCING FISH SOUP Tea House
I come very close to recommending every single thing at Tea House, the best Sichuan restaurant in the metro, but the one dish I can't get out of my head from this year was the "dancing fish" soup, a large tureen of chili-orange broth full of bright-green cilantro leaves and gelatinous, quaveringly fresh fillets of river fish. Each bite is filled with all of the contradictions and variety of life: the fire of it, the bounty of it, the oceanic tinge and meadow herb of it, the miracle of finding it so close to a movie theater in Plymouth. (Tea House Chinese Restaurant, 88 Nathan Lane, Plymouth, in the Willow Grove Center mall, www.ultradining.com/teahouse.)
7. BUTTER-SAUTÉED VEAL CHOP Mission American Kitchen
I'll admit a certain partiality to veal chops. They were the height of my Grandma Millie's kitchen repertoire, and discussing the ever-worsening state of local butchers was her preferred mode of discussing politics, existential worries, and communicating the larger lessons of history (i.e., things were better before you were born). I had my doubts about this view of the world until I tried the veal chop at Mission, a Flintstones-sized portion of veal, fried in enough butter to boil a horse. Tender? Rich? Voluptuous? Boy howdy. Catastrophically, this dish is not on the menu anymore, so those seeking a prehistoric treat will have to content themselves with the phenomenally light catfish fillet, a sprightly cascade of batter, buoyancy, and tender fish. (Mission American Kitchen & Bar, ground floor of the IDS Center, 80 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis, 612.339.1000; www.missionamerican.com.)
8. GAL BI Dong Yang
Thin slices of beef short rib, grilled until crisp, chewy, and bursting with that deep, roasty, meaty flavor that makes you plunge two hands fearlessly onto a smoking iron plate, the gal bi at Dong Yang combines everything you like about caramelization with everything you've enjoyed about steakhouses, thick-cut bacon, and the careful attention of your Korean grandma. Sometimes I have thought, The gal bi at Dong Yang is to the pricey rib eyes at Manny's Steakhouse as potato chips are to big fluffy baked Idaho potatoes, and other times I have thought, I have to stop telling people about this place if I ever want to get a table. Don't ask. It's complicated. (Dong Yang Oriental Food, 735 45th Ave. NE, Hilltop, in the back of the grocery store at the back of the Central Plaza Mall, 763.571.2009.)
9. THE BURGER Vincent
They hate it when I do this, but while Vincent, the restaurant, is inarguably the home of some of the most exquisitely cooked fish in the state, and one of the most earthily intriguing wine lists, and some of the most adventurous and budget-friendly prix fixe meals you'll ever hope to enjoy, it's their burger that drives readers to send me rhapsodic valentines. And, of course, the only thing I've ever contributed to the project is clapping from the sidelines.
Oh, this thing. This thing is a sirloin burger built around a patty of smoked Gouda and short ribs braised overnight in a complicated stew of tomatoes, tamarind, Worcestershire sauce, and lots more. It gets placed in a light, eggy, buoyant bun and dressed with a mayonnaise made jazzy by sherry vinegar and minced cornichons, and then of course there are the fancy-restaurant-quality garnishes of lettuce, tomato, and onion. It's not easy for a burger to fascinate through every bite, but brother, this thing boasts more intrigue than a bathtub of desperate housewives, and is a lot easier to fit into the standard lunch hour. (Vincent, A Restaurant, 1100 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.630.1189; www.vincentarestaurant.com.)
10. ANYTHING-POACHED ANYTHING Levain under Stewart Woodman
I thought about skipping the Stewart Woodman-era dishes from Levain, purely out of self-interest. What if some reader decided to throw a brick through my window for bringing up treats that are no longer on the market? And wouldn't that act be, in fact, well justified? Yes. Yet Woodman plans a new restaurant sometime in the next year, so hold tight to your bricks, and your pennies, in hopes that you might encounter something like the butter-poached lobster or cream-poached pheasant sometime in 2005, both of which I tried last winter at Levain. Quoth me, on the lobster: "paired with cèpes and black trumpet mushrooms is a concoction of such expansive, ghostly subtlety that you feel that it might start to fog up and float from the plate as notes of the sweet sea and forest earth whisper to each other through the nutty pools of browned butter." Ooh, I remember that one. Meanwhile, each bite of the pheasant was like eating a meadow made with cream.
So that was then, but what about now? I talked to Woodman last week, and things are barreling ahead with plans to turn the old police precinct on Bryant between 29th and Lake into a multilevel destination space with a bar on one level--a bar for grown-ups, like the Whiskey Bar in New York--and a fine-dining restaurant and bistro on another. It will be called Five, because that's what the cops called the place back in the day. Five. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? I tell ya, the future's so bright, we gotta wear shades.
11. THE AL PASTOR Taqueria La Hacienda
If Mae West had become a Zen monk, that would be the rough trajectory that could best describe the al pastor barbecued pork at Taqueria La Hacienda. Unspeakably voluptuous, awe-inspiringly refined. The second you walk in the door to this tangerine-tinted taqueria, you notice the spit of slowly turning al pastor: teensy little scraps of pork, tossed with spice, topped with a fresh pineapple, and built into a cone about the size of Joe Piscopo. It spins and spins, basting itself in fat and spice, becoming as rich and spicy as a week in Oaxaca, but much closer to the Lake Street K-Mart. Get the al pastor as a taco, for a buck fifty, and you will experience the sweet and spice, accented with fresh cilantro and crisp onion--fireworks on the tongue. Order the al pastor "alambres," griddle-fried with bacon, bell peppers, and cheese, served with tortillas, rice, and beans, and you may feel that your work on the earth is complete. (Taqueria La Hacienda, 211 E. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.822.2715.)
12. SQUASH SALAD The Modern Café
Phillip Becht was the longtime sideman of Steven Brown, of Loring, Rockstar, and now Levain fame, but since Becht took over the kitchen at the Modern last winter he has slowly been unspooling evidence of his own talents, within the resolutely uncomplicated home-cooking idiom that the Modern is famous for. For instance, last winter he was serving a brilliant squash salad--a fan of roasted squash pieces, crowned by bits of Austrian speck ham and then surrounded by a tangy cream dressing which was in turn crowned by a tangled halo of resilient sunflower sprouts. It was genius because of the contrasting flavors of roasty squash and salty ham, creamy dressing and green sprouts. It had every component of a perfectly balanced dish; it was both bold and confident and simple and likable. With this one dish, Becht announced himself as one to watch in 2005. (Modern Café, 337 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis, 612.378.9882.)
13. ICE-CREAM PIE Crema Café
Like most humans, when I walk into Crema (home of Sonny's ice cream), I become instantly obsessed with the tubs of just-made ice cream and sorbet. What about the rosy raspberry ice cream with chocolate chips? What about the deep, dark apple cider sorbet? One time last year, though, I went in and bypassed the case in favor of a slice of the plain-looking, chocolate-coated Crema pie hiding off to one side. I may never recover: Coating the organic cream, tiny-batch, handmade ice cream in chocolate ganache just seems to compress and intensify the cafe latte ice-cream flavor in the most profound way. This ice-cream pie is essentially the confit form of ice cream.
Additionally, they've recently opened for lunch. I had a lovely croque monsieur there last week, and a cup of squash-and-pear soup that was not at all sweet, but complex, earthy, and just as good as any from one of those fancy downtown restaurants. In January, this little charmer even plans to start serving dinner! I mean, what I'm trying to tell you is, finally, a place to take your friends for their birthday lunches that isn't at all expensive, but where you can treat them to some of the best Minnesota has ever had to offer. (Crema Café; 3403 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.824.3868.)
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