Headlines to Funeral Parlors
Sometimes, as a critic, you decide to throw all of your weight behind a young and upcoming chef, to see where it gets you. If the last year of my life is any indication, what it gets you is mostly egg on your face.
Let me explain. Such was the case this last year with me and young Marianne Miller, former chef of Red, who I thought displayed more pure cooking talent than anyone I had known to take up a chef's knife around here in years. So I wrote a glowing review of her restaurant, Red, which, she told me, led to her getting fired three weeks later. (She said the restaurant wanted to raise prices and lower the quality of the ingredients, to capitalize on the review; when she objected, saying it would destroy her name, she was asked to leave.) Well, fast-forward to last fall. Red, without Miller, locked its doors in a flurry of alleged bad, bad things. So, the next thing I reported was that Miller planned to take over Red, and its debts, and reopen at the end of January. This did not happen.
"It was like going to your house closing, and then, poof! You don't get your house," Miller told me when I talked to her on the phone for this item. "I had already given written offers to front-of-the-house people, to managers; I had talked to the wine people, to my purveyors like Roots and Fruits, and gotten them to trust me after getting so burned on that place, and then...." Well, to make a long story short, Miller, who had sold her home to come up with the down payment for Red, had also hired an attorney to facilitate the purchase and at the last minute that attorney found all kinds of bad things, and the whole plan went down in flames.
So then in came Chris Paddock, owner of Northeast's Bobino (famously located in a former funeral parlor), the adjacent Starlite Lounge, and the splashy St. Louis Park Brazilian steakhouse Mojito. He evidently recognized that Bobino has been on a slow coast downhill for years, and so offered Miller the opportunity to buy in to Bobino and become head chef. And so, on February 4, she took over that kitchen, and sometime soon we should see a full transformation of the Northeast stalwart with the exquisite lighting but the lackluster everything else. "I had lunch with Chris, and I was a little nervous," Miller told me. "I could agree with him in a friend way, but once it's a business thing, it's different. So I just asked him straight out: 'Is Mojito more important to you? Has Bobino had its day?' I figured, if he still liked me after that, we could probably go forward. It's one thing if a restaurant is coasting. It's another if people are really onerous about it: 'We like it this way, there's nothing wrong with it'--that kind of thing. I don't want to get in a situation where if you bring up change, you're seen as engaging in a personal attack. Quite frankly, the place now is a little dusty and odd, and needs a little time spent with it. But Chris is really excited and open-minded about change. Then again, a lot of people who work there live and breathe Bobino--it's like family to them. So, we'll see, I guess."
The new Bobino, and, eventually, Starlite menu is going to be, of all things--well, you'll never guess. "Retro '70s continental!" Miller burst out happily. "Remember Jack Tripper, the Regal Beagle, right before nouvelle cuisine?" The next sound anyone listening to our conversation would have heard was my jaw hitting the floor. I eventually regained my composure. "With onion soup and frogs' legs?" I murmured faintly. "Yeah! That's on my menu!" "Quiches?" I asked. "Yes! You know exactly what I'm doing. Osso bucco, moussaka, pot au feu, pasta primavera, as it was originated in Le Cirque in the '70s." Now wait just a minute, I demanded. The very hallmark of Regal Beagle cooking was stale saffron, water-injected ham cubes, and, to put it mildly, glop. Are we losing the Marianne Miller of the mirepoix vegetables cut to geometric eighth-inch cubes? "Oh, no. I have to cook like that," Miller explained. "I can't just chop. I can't do that. First of all, I don't like the way food looks when you do that, and second, because it's my name, and it's my hope that my name isn't about being famous, but that it's synonymous with standards. So yes, I'm always going to be completely anal retentive about cutting mirepoix," that mixture of diced carrots and such that is used to make brunoise, and is so critical to high French cuisine. It turns out that Miller aims to do for good old Continental cooking what Thomas Keller did for French bistro cooking at his Bouchon restaurants: Give the old dishes new life, through the holy fire of exacting technique.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to reinterpret brown rolls and margarine," Miller told me. "For the bouillabaisse, it won't be a stewy stew with jumbled ingredients and dried herbs. It won't be stinky. I can't even find good mussels in this town; they usually smell horrible. But I'll find them, and we'll go from there. You know, a lot of people think I'm crazy for cutting my brunoise that close, but when you're paying that much money for things, I figure there's a certain unspoken contractual arrangement. The average Minnesotan makes $11 an hour, so if you're going to charge them that for a dessert, the basic contract is that you're serving high art, not sustenance. So it better be high art, otherwise you're just ripping people off."
Oh, all right. Sold. Yet again. But I swear, if this all goes down in flames again, that's it for you young chefs and your big dreams. I'll never write a single nice thing about any of you ever again, or at least not until it's too late to matter to you, or embarrass me.
(Bobino Café, Wine Bar, 222 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.623.3301)
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