Corner Table 3.0 ventures south

In its newest iteration, Corner Table ventures down south — geographically, a few blocks along Nicollet to 46th, and in influence, further into the deep culinary traditions of the American South.

Partially it's that chef Thomas Boemer, himself a Southern transplant, is preparing for his newest venture, Revival, which is set to open in the former Corner Table location later this summer. As Corner Table's more casual sister spot, Revival will take up the gauntlet thrown down by so many fried-chicken-starved Twin Cities diners and craft a menu based entirely on the crispy bird. We're giddy with anticipation, with visions of venerable institutions — Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans, Gus's Fried Chicken in Memphis, Prince's Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville — dancing in our heads.

But the Southern influence has been there since Boemer first took over from chef Scott Pampuch in 2011. He broadened the scope of Corner Table's seasonal, local menu to accommodate his intuitive Southern flair with hush puppies, grits, and fried green tomatoes. Those famous hush puppies have made the trip from Corner Table's former location, and there are other Southern touches new to this spot: Cradling Boemer's signature crispy pork belly, for instance, is a tart and tangy chow chow, a pickled relish popular in the South. The country fried rabbit served over a sweet potato waffle, a brunch standout, twists the fried chicken and waffle craze in a way that somehow feels truer to Southern tradition than many of the bandwagon versions cropping up across the country.

Brunch itself is new to Corner Table, and executed with a pro's grasp of the sweet-savory balance. Take the Johnny cakes, those sweet corn pancakes known as hoecakes down South, which make it to the brunch table stuffed with gruyere and ham and topped with apricot syrup. The aforementioned country fried rabbit is fried in a slightly spicy batter and sits atop an earthy, not-too-sweet potato waffle, drizzled with a light touch of honey. (Our server offered a drizzle or two more, but even that much syrup would have tipped the soft waffle into soggy territory.)

Then there's the Doughnut Benedict, one of six Benedicts on the brunch menu, which combines molasses toffee-glazed doughnuts, salty pork belly, and poached eggs. It's a bit indulgent for the average bruncher, but every menu should have a dish that both inspires the adventuresome and comforts the world-weary. Meanwhile Corner Table's delightful sweet potato long John is expert in its subtlety. The crispy fried exterior gives way to a rich, dense center that somehow feels healthy. In fact, it likely was healthier than we anticipated, because much to our dismay, the pastry was filled only halfway with the advertised maple cream.

If all of this sounds heavy, prepare to be pleasantly surprised by Boemer's generally light-handed approach at dinnertime. A trained butcher, he allows each flawless cut to speak for itself, as in the duck breast with salty, crispy skin, among the best we've had. And the backing flavors — sweet snow peas and gently cooked radishes with duck breast; a crown of pea shoots on top of the already herbal Parisienne gnocchi with lamb — keep the rich cuts in check. Even the rabbit kaesespaetzle, which was billed as a gussied-up mac-and-cheese by our server, was restrained: no detectable Bechamel sauce on the fluffy bits of spaetzel, which were mixed with generous chunks of tender rabbit and topped with melted Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese and a smattering of crispy fried onions. And that fried rabbit and waffles from brunch? It comes with a lightly dressed, sweet and grassy sunflower sprout slaw. At Corner Table, you don't just get the rabbit, you get the meadow the rabbit was frolicking in.

At times the restraint proves too much. The warm asparagus flan was too delicate in flavor to hold its own, and there was too little truffled buttermilk and too few of the salty house-made lardons to make up for the seasoning shortfall. The lamb Wellington, though it offered another example of Corner Table's unimpeachable handling of meat, could have used a touch of finishing salt to carry the rich brioche crust, tender medium rare lamb, and slightly tart asparagus to its full potential.

The dessert menu will appeal to inveterate sweet tooths and the more abstemious set alike. The Candy Bar, a deconstructed, dolled-up Twix bar, will be an obvious choice for the former. But the latter will likely be drawn to the milder panna cotta with buttermilk, seasonal rhubarb, and streusel. Somewhere in between lies the Napoleon, the pitch-perfect blend of sweet maplescotch, flaky puff pastry, and a savory maple-mascarpone mousse. The sweet potato doughnuts with molasses are a perennial favorite for dessert, we're told, but we say save it for the sweet potato long John at brunch, and opt for the fancy French pastry instead.

Corner Table does not have a full liquor license, so the extensive wine and beer menu will have to suffice at dinner time (it does), but the team has whipped up a few aperitif-based cocktails for brunch, including a Michelada, a savory bloody Mary-like drink made with Pilsener that we'd like to see on more brunch menus, as well as the extremely tart and refreshing Rhubarb of the Moment, made with rhubarb shrubs, a dry spring cava, and lemon peel. A foil for the savory beer-based drink and the tart champagne cocktail, the I'm Not Really Awake Yet mimics a Thai iced coffee to great effect, picking up just enough sweetness from the cardamom-laced, herbal Italian aperitif Zucca, a mellow bitterness from the cold-press coffee, and a velvety mouthfeel from the creamy splash of milk. A small but much appreciated touch is that the regular hot coffee is served in a French press — no waiting for the kitchen to brew an entire pot, and no fussiness with the elaborate tableside pour-over method. As a bonus, they let you plunge your own press whenever you're ready; it's the simple pleasures, really.

Speaking of simple pleasures, diners prone to a bit of chitchat with their pork belly will be pleased with Corner Table's new setup. The former location suffered from its stark aesthetic and cavelike acoustics, notorious for conversation-killing noise levels. The new Corner Table softens the edges a bit: Tall-backed booths keep conversations contained to each table and dark wood touches anchor the fine-dining experience. Custom wallpaper in the entryway and a collection of old silver platters lining the top of the dining room make this feel like a homey, if elevated, neighborhood joint. Two patios flank the new location — a small one connected to the dining room faces Nicollet, sequestered by a row of shrubs and equipped with large umbrellas for sunny afternoons, and a slightly larger but still quaint outdoor seating area is tucked along the side of the restaurant.

Corner Table's prices remain reasonable for the quality of ingredients and caliber of cuisine. The most expensive dinner entree rings in at $29 for the truffle-crusted halibut, but one could eat quite well for less with a selection from the pasta menu ($18-$22) or a combination of starters ($6-$13). Brunch is the best deal here, topping out at $15 for the country fried rabbit, and offering a hearty array of Benedicts in the $11 to $13 range, though be vigilant: Each brunch cocktail will tack on another $8.

That Southern cuisine is having a moment on the national scene right now is beside the point; Boemer's down-South inflections come from a place of experience, from growing up around certain comfort foods that stuck with him. As the subtle influences at Corner Table and the out-and-out fried-chicken joint Revival evince, Boemer will be one to watch for a taste of the true South here in the Midwest. And we aren't just whistling Dixie.