Fine Dining, with Hash Browns

The man who transformed pot roast in our time: The Corner Table's Scott Pampuch (right) and Keven Kvalsten
Jana Freiband

The Corner Table
4257 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis

Is Kingfield the gosh-darn friendliest neighborhood on earth? When Scott Pampuch started cleaning up the space that would soon be his new restaurant, the Corner Table, neighbors sent six--count 'em, six!--welcoming bouquets from local florists. "It blew me away," Pampuch told me when I spoke to him on the phone for this story. "Two nights later, people started coming in the door: 'Hey, did you get my flowers?' 'No, did you get my flowers?'"

By golly! You know, when you hear something like this, you are just so stricken by the milk of human kindness that you are forced to skip around in circles waving silken ribbons while braiding dandelions through your hair. And while you're at it, you might just skip down to the Corner Table and try some panzanella salad ($6) made with fresh mozzarella that's as light as a marshmallow but as fresh as a rosebud, a steak and eggs brunch with hash browns as fluffy as a snowball and as weighty as autumn sunshine, or...or...or nearly anything, which will lead you to rise from your table with a dark and glowering visage and throw your gloves down on the table in disgust: Friendly! Kingfield residents aren't friendly! They're friendly like a fox, that's what they are...

And if any of those six flower-givers manages to wrangle a table at Pampuch's soon-to-be-legendary weekend brunch, you'll be wishing you'd had the foresight they had.

Now, Pampuch, Pampuch is the chef most closely associated with the success of the Modern Café in Northeast--the knife behind the pot roast that ate Minneapolis, shall we say. He left there a while back and, briefly, helmed the kitchen at the failing NE Thyme Café--remember that place? It was in the exact same place that the Corner Table is today, and I will never forget it, for two reasons. One, because the name was abbreviated from Never Enough Thyme, and not once did I think of it without some little part of me rising up to howl: Without exception, there is always enough thyme! And double dog ditto for marjoram, lovage, and chervil! Frankly, I think the only stand that could be legitimately made on this front is to argue that there is, if anything, frequently far too much tarragon. Heed my words! Or, you know, don't. There are so many of them some weeks. I mean, secondly, NE Thyme was part of a local restaurant trend I was deeply torn about, a trend that saw warmly heartfelt yet irredeemably amateurish restaurants blooming in our neighborhoods (fare thee well, sweet, perplexed Marimar!) and made a girl feel like an utter jerk for not being able to overlook their flaws. Their fatal, fatal flaws. Which I bring up because I think we may well start to see some of these passionate amateurs fall by the wayside to be replaced by passionate professionals. (Likewise, look for Jon Hunt, a former chef from Italian powerhouse Pane Vino Dolce, to debut his new restaurant, Al Vento, in the old Marimar space). Passionate professionals preparing penne pastas, peppered pork, and peach pastries in the p'neighborhoods? Peavens, I pink I may paint.

Hey, you'd be delirious too if you had the grits I had one morning--creamy, toasty grits blended with a resonant echo of sharp cheddar, roasted red peppers, and onions, cuddling beside a pair of fresh fried eggs, the whole thing covered with a ladleful of the richest, creamiest Italian sausage gravy. Each bite was like the Italian vacation dreams of some gravy-talented Kentucky grandma. At that same weekend brunch the Corner Table also serves pasta carbonara ($6)--a bowl of spaghetti tumbled together with a pudding-creamy concoction of fresh egg and parmesan, made lively, chewy, and peppery with wee bites of house-cured pancetta. After five seconds in the restaurant I knew we had a new contender for best brunch in Minneapolis, and this was before I tried the exquisite steak and eggs--a tender cut of Minnesota beef, seared to a tender, rosy pink, presented with eggs and a nest of onion-touched hash browns, crisp and fried so lightly they held together like lace.

In my experience, Pampuch and his chef de cuisine, Keven Kvalsten, are peerless talents when it comes to cooking local meats. Pampuch grew up in Winona and has a fundamental understanding of local farming--he gets all of his meats directly through local family farmers, through the wonderful Southeast Minnesota Food Network, which represents farms in the fertile hills south of here. "We use them exclusively for all of our meat, chicken, pork, beef, lamb--how could I not?" says Pampuch. "I feel really good about where our money is going--it's kind of where I grew up. I keep waiting for the local news in Winona to call me up: Local boy makes good with local meats! But it's outstanding stuff: The brisket we're getting is half the size of the normal company-cow brisket, and it has so much more flavor, it's ridiculous. Before slaughter the typical company cow is pumped full of junk to get some weight on it, but these animals are out there roaming around until someone calls up and puts a hit out on one of them. To me, the quality of it and the flavor profile is so much better than anything I can get otherwise--and customers love it."

Of course they do--this is from the man who transformed pot roast in our time, you know. His restaurant's own version of pot roast, Minnesota beef daube Provençal ($13), with roasted shallots and lemon-sage potato gratin, is just as big, deep, rich, and satisfying as that legendary dish of the Northeast--though I won't say anything more about it, since it's not on the menu any longer. It may be back one day. Look for it. If you see it, though, don't order it. Wait until you've checked that the kitchen can feed you and still have enough left for me. Because, I, as anyone can plainly see, I have called it. No, I'm telling you, I called it first! No backsies! Rules of the playground! I'm rubber, you're glue...

Oh, wait. Ahem. In any event, many of the big entrées at the Corner Table are just as dazzling: Rainbow trout ($18) was painted inside with a cilantro-based puree, pan-seared, and set on a tropical feast of spicy, earthy black beans, a tart green papaya salsa, and a pool of pale crème fraîche. It was a beautifully light arrangement--summertime simple and very clear.

The place aims to be a neighborhood café with benefits--benefits such as wine dinners and a learned and worldly wine list. This list, by Pampuch and local consultant Jason Kallsen, is truly sophisticated, bypassing the splash of well-known wineries or current hot sellers to focus instead on wines in two categories: one, budget-friendly and guest-helpful (like splits of light Zardetto Prosecco, $6, or bottles of meaty, concentrated Sageland's merlot, $26) or, two, those rare well-knit, complex productions that wine nuts travel great distances for--the vivid Ridge Ponzo Vineyard Zinfandel ($50), for instance.

I got to attend the restaurant's recent Adelsheim wine dinner, and must admit that sometimes when the restaurant stretches for the fine-dining stars, its reach exceeds its grasp. That night I tried a fairly grainy and tasteless halibut mousse on a dry little piece of toast that seemed like everything restaurant outsiders mock about fine dining; later, muddy-tasting seared tilapia didn't benefit at all from a cloyingly earthy saffron sauce. The only good course was a local meat--a lamb cutlet seared gorgeously rare and presented in a lilting thyme demi-glace. On prior evenings I had found that the most highfalutin dishes succeed the least. Avoid the lifeless sweet corn strudel ($6) and the overly vegetal and crunchy leek-, zucchini-, carrot-, and ricotta-filled crepes. My mantra at the Corner Table came to be this: If it sounds humble, it will be fantastic.

Following that formula, the most charming desserts are the plainest ones--like the layered block made from four sorts of ice cream (malted vanilla, plain vanilla, black cherry, and pistachio, $6). More ambitious concoctions tend to be less successful, like the leathery raspberry peach clafoutis ($5) or one night's oddly flavorless coconut milk layer cake ($5).

But you know, good for them for being so ambitious, because a more cynical crew would simply charge two hundred bucks a pound for their brunch specials and convey their money to the bank in buckets fashioned from solid gold. Oh, those cheddared grits. You know, poets can have their roses in May, their dew upon the morning hedge, their sunsets of fire and flamingo--I'll take the grits. My only regret is that I'm certain I'll never get in the door again once this review hits the streets. Why, oh why, didn't I send flowers when the flower sending was good?

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Corner Table

4537 Nicollet Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55409


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