Haute Dish's Landon Schoenefeld: Talent with a temper
Chef Landon Schoenefeld's name has proved famously difficult to spell—even the newspapers get it wrong—which may be part of the reason why he's often referred to by his other moniker, Colonel Mustard. This is the nickname Schoenefeld earned at the Bulldog NE after he refused to honor a customer's request for salad dressing on the side and doused the messenger with mustard. (He was immediately fired.) Schoenefeld has worked everywhere from the Wienery to Sea Change; at 29 years old, he has held more restaurant jobs than many cooks who are retired. Local foodies watch Schoenefeld's career like it's a game of Whac-A-Mole, waiting for the chef to pop up somewhere new and hoping to be the first to make the discovery.
"People give me a lot of shit because they think I'm the peripatetic vagabond," Schoenefeld says. "But I've only ever worked for about five different people." It's just that each of those people has connected him to more jobs at more restaurants: Alex Roberts from Restaurant Alma to Brasa; Isaac Becker from D'Amico to112 Eatery; Steven Brown from Restaurant Levain to Porter & Frye to Nick and Eddie. By working several of these jobs at once, Schoenefeld managed to do time in most of the Twin Cities' best kitchens in a relatively short time.
To diners, Schoenefeld has a reputation for having a creative mind and an intense work ethic—as well as an impulsive, volatile personality. In the public eye, Jekyll has often been overshadowed by Hyde: His legacy at the Bulldog NE, for starters, is one of mustard munitions, not first-rate hamburgers.
But this spring Schoenefeld pushed his career to the next level by opening his own spot, Haute Dish, in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. The move was a chance for him to settle down and dig in, to convince potential customers to focus on his talent, not his temper. Could the dining public stop perceiving Schoenefeld as the Anna Kournikova of cooking and take his work seriously? Would they finally pay more attention to what was on the plate than the personality in the kitchen?
For a young, first-time owner, Schoenefeld and his crew chose an ambitious space to launch: The former home of Café Havana has high ceilings, pretty woodwork, vintage charm—and, after some modest renovations, 110 seats to fill. Schoenefeld spent several years planning before he assembled Haute Dish's team of investors/working partners—Jess Soine, David Walters, Tim Johnson—who were friends or friends of friends, all with various connections to the restaurant business, and ages that span from 26 to 30.
Both in terms of food and ambiance, the restaurant feels very personal, as if decisions were made on gut instinct, not using focus groups or demographic data. The dining room's soundtrack is reminiscent of mix tapes played in dorm rooms a decade back, including music by the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, and Michael Jackson. Each detail of the Haute Dish dining experience seems to have been carefully considered, from serving the Minnesota Mules (essentially Moscow Mules made with local Prairie Organic vodka) in their traditional copper cups to stocking the women's restroom with tampons.
Haute Dish's menu has a humble artiness: It's French-meets-Midwest, with a kiss of kitsch. Many of the house specialties might be characterized as man food, being rich, meat-based, and hearty. While there is gourmet mac and cheese on the menu—not on the recommended list, unfortunately, as the pasta and cheese smother the crab—the list doesn't otherwise feel trendy or market-driven. This is a restaurant that will never be cloned for diners in Utah or Florida, or even the south metro suburbs, for that matter.
Schoenefeld describes the concept as "fancy hot dish," meaning middle-American classics reinterpreted and refined. Grandma's flavors will still be there, but packaged with fancy cooking techniques and presentations.
The best dishes are clever and creative, without trying too hard. The Haute Dish Hot Dish fits that bill and has quickly become the restaurant's best seller. (To avoid confusion—or perhaps create more—the staff tends to pronounce "haute" as "hot.") The casserole comes deconstructed, a pretty sculpture of short ribs, haricots verts French-cut in delicate strands, porcini béchamel in lieu of cream of mushroom soup, and house-made tots, which are more like croquettes with their delicate crust and fluffy, mashed potato center.
General Tso's sweetbreads are another example of a gourmand's take on middle-brow fare, this time using a Chinese-American template. Schoenefeld notes that sweetbreads (the more palatable term for pancreas and thymus) are sometimes referred to as adult chicken McNuggets, as they hold up to frying and pair well with the fast food's associated sauces, such as barbecue and honey mustard. The Tso's sweetbreads have an addictive fried, sweet-spicy crust similar to that of the original. Inside, the creamy flesh is a little like a cross between tofu and chicken, with a slightly livery aftertaste. The sweetbreads are served on a pile of fried rice with a slice of foie gras—along with a house-made fortune cookie for those in need of a little prophesizing or advice. ("What's the point of a dress if it doesn't inspire your man to take it off of you?" mine inquired.) The success of this dish alone should be cause to promote Schoenefeld's alter ego from Colonel to General Landon Tso.
The restaurant takes nose-to-tail eating more seriously, perhaps, than any other in town, so its charcuterie plate is a fine one. Schoenefeld says Sea Change chef Erik Anderson trained him on the nuances of making mortadella and a headcheese that you'd never guess contains both tequila and PBR. Schoenefeld didn't hesitate to load the menu with so much offal. "I kinda like freaking people out, I guess," he says. "Maybe that's not a good thing."
Those looking for a basic steak and eggs won't find it at Haute Dish, but instead there's something arguably better. A top-notch tartare comes with a bloody Mary oyster shooter, kite-shaped lettuce leaf garnishes, and a fried egg that peeks through toast like an eye in a porthole. Each element is as delicious as it is beautiful.
While the menu's indulgent dishes draw the most attention, the lighter ones are perhaps the brighter gems. The kitchen handles humble carrots as deftly as it does foie gras, pureeing them into a soup of the day that was delicate yet layered with flavor. An asparagus salad was composed of stalks cut into thin strips, arranged in a lattice, and served with bacon, blanched radishes, and an asparagus flan with a runny egg yolk hidden inside—surprise! Also excellent: the spring pea puree on toast, piled with pea shoots, dill, asparagus tips, and tiny chive flowers, which served as a perfect complement to hunks of smoked sturgeon.
Christian Aldrich is turning out some summery desserts, the best of which is the buttermilk-rosemary panna cotta, lush and slightly sweet, with a little tang and a hint of underbrush. The strawberry shortcake with strawberry-lemongrass ice cream is also lovely, though the balsamic could have used more aging to mellow out its sharpness.
Some of the restaurant's less successful dishes struggled due to the choice of ingredients. The $18 flat iron steak is intended as a budget-friendly alternative to the $28 rib eye, but even though it was tender, nicely cooked, and paired with a prehistoric-looking marrow bone, its compromise in flavor wasn't worth the savings. A potpie that arrived in a cute, miniature cast-iron skillet had a lovely, flaky pastry hat covering a creamy stew of peas, ham, and snails—but the mollusks might just as well have been crimini mushrooms for all the flavor they added.
Other dishes missed when their concepts tunneled so far down intellectual wormholes that they failed to get their basic point across. The pig's foot preparation, which is now off the menu, was a complex deconstruction and reassembly: the trotters were cooked until tender, meat separated from cartilage and bone, laid flat, and pressed into a sort of porcine foot-meat "mat." Held together by natural collagen, the sheet was then cut into squares, rolled with a chicken sausage, mushroom duxelles, and sweetbreads, and then poached, battered, fried, and finished in the oven. Whew! It's exhausting just to think about so much work going to waste when, in the end, eating the gelatinous insides of the crusty tubes was, well, let's just say that there's no such thing as foot Jell-O salads for a reason.
The Duck in a Can, courtesy of Canadian chef Martin Picard, is an utterly ridiculous yet likable concept: duck breast, foie gras, carrots, and cabbage cooked in a metal tin that's opened at the table and dumped ceremoniously onto the plate. But while the vegetables and foie are well served by the savory, acidic broth, the cooking technique—or this execution of it at least—doesn't present the duck breast at its best. The meat seemed tough, as if it had seized up in panic, and the slab of unrendered fat on the top may be a bit beyond the pale for many. At $33, Duck in a Can seems destined to be a dish sampled once for novelty's sake but likely not ordered again.
Of course diners understand that risky concepts are prone to upsets, but they'll be less forgiving of imprecise cooking. The cassoulet-like pork and beans was sweet and pickley, with nice bricks of belly meat, but some of the beans tasted chalky and underdone. The burger—"with no temps, or substitutions, ever" the menu reads—was no trip to its namesake Flavor Country, and the patty was overly charred and tough. American cheese works for a $4.95 Jucy Lucy, but a $12 price tag on a burger would seem to imply something a little more sophisticated. For dessert, the Chocolate and Cheese ice cream sandwich came cutely wrapped in white paper, but it was frozen nearly as hard as ice, and its cream cheese flavor was too subtle.
One night, it was disappointing to see Schoenefeld reposing at the bar while imperfect dishes sat on our table, but most of the time he seems to be actively involved in the kitchen. (He's had, what, one day off since the restaurant opened?) A few times, Schoenefeld—in sandals, a tie-dye T-shirt, rolled-up jeans, and signature bandanna taming his shaggy mop—crossed the dining room with long, quick strides and thudding footsteps. His bearing suggested that of a gangly adolescent, post-growth spurt, who's not yet comfortable in his newly larger body. Perhaps it was a visual manifestation of Schoenefeld's new role: Not only is he shouldering the responsibility for his restaurant and staff, but he's also representing a generation of young local chefs who will become our next crop of Alex Robertses and Steven Browns and Isaac Beckers.
To its credit, Haute Dish has mobilized a whole cadre of young food zealots, including diners, cooks, and servers. Schoenefeld's kitchen has a collaborative culture (Remle Colestock, of Café Levain, is sous chef), as does its front-of-the-house staff. Some servers were more knowledgeable and polished than others (one was a former Splendid Table intern), but overall their pride and enthusiasm radiated.
Schoenefeld says he's been surprised by how many twentysomething diners he's seen at the restaurant. "The foodie culture has really developed in this town in the last few years, and it seems that, more and more, younger people know a lot more about food," he says. "There are 19-year-old girls coming in and ordering the pig's foot."
Schoenefeld reflects on his unsophisticated diet, which was largely the product of financial limits, at the same age. "I was eating ramen and Dinty Moore stew," he recalls. "I was peeling a 99-cent sticker off an apple and strategically placing it on the $4.99 pizza at the corner store."
He's come a long way in the past decade, but while he's managed to impress many of his colleagues, the public has remained somewhat skeptical. "People who don't know me think I'm an egotistical maniac," he says. "I'm not in this business for my ego, but to make people happy." If that's the case, then Haute Dish will be his best shot at wowing those he's feeding—for all the right reasons.
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