In Season takes over Armatage Room on Penn

If I were blind, I might have liked Fugaise better. While Don Saunders's first restaurant offered some fine, French-inspired food, the bleak ambiance did nothing to enhance a diner's mood. The taupe-walled, windowless dining room felt stark and claustrophobic. The vibe was chic but rather formal—it felt like a place you visited a couple of times a year, when you wanted to splurge.

In contrast, his new restaurant, In Season, feels warm and inviting. It's the sort of place you'll want to return to again and again. Though Saunders's cooking hasn't changed much—it's still first-rate—and, logically, the digs can't physically affect what's on the plate, somehow the scallops seem sweeter.

After shuttering Fugaise two years ago, Saunders worked at Stout's Island Lodge in Wisconsin and the University Club in St. Paul while thinking about getting back behind his own stove. He envisioned a new restaurant that would have an open, more relaxed feel and a menu with a wider range of prices to give diners more flexibility and cultivate regulars. The space inhabited by the Armatage Room (a restaurant that was conceived as a private party room for Café Maude but had struggled to catch on) was exactly what Saunders had in mind. So he talked things over with Cafe Maude's owner, Kevin Sheehy, who agreed to turn over the space. Thus the sun rose on In Season.

The restaurant's dining room is small but alluring, with large front windows that look onto what should become a pleasant patio this spring. While Fugaise's walls displayed abstract works that suggested cold desolation, the colorful, bold brushstrokes of the paintings at In Season reference the warm-fuzzy world of gold-and-black beehives, women in white feathered hats, and rainbow-hued flower patches.

The restaurant's kitchen is compact but efficient, large enough for only Saunders and two assistants, who share all the cooking responsibilities, including washing dishes. Saunders's visibility through the kitchen window and his occasional forays into the dining room lend the welcoming intimacy of having been invited to the chef's home for a dinner party. While Fugaise's space felt like a make-do-with-it hand-me-down, In Season's feels bespoke.

Without the help of expense-account spenders, south Minneapolis has struggled to support top-tier restaurants (see Auriga, Five, and Restaurant Levain, for starters). But fine-dining restaurants that are slightly more price-sensitive and exude a more casual, neighborhood vibe (Corner Table, Piccolo, and Heidi's among them) have done just fine. While Fugaise drew from a largely blue-collar demographic with a high population of students, In Season's neighbors have more disposable income and, Saunders notes, are fiercely loyal to their local, independent businesses. Just check out the lines at Settergren Ace Hardware down the block.

If you don't live in the Armatage neighborhood, Saunders's new restaurant is still worth a drive. As the name indicates, the menu is loosely based on what's "in season," locally and domestically, and using ingredients at their peak. That means root vegetables such as beets and rutabagas from Minnesota and Wisconsin farms join West Coast oysters and southern citrus. Don't expect to see strawberries on the menu for more than about a month this summer, Saunders says, when they're naturally sweet and sourced from nearby growers.

Those Quilcene oysters, for example, are lightly battered and fried and featured on slices of rich pork belly with a smear of mustard and a haystack of sweet-and-sour cabbage. Scallops, which also fare better during the winter months, when water temps are colder, arrive on a bed of tongue-tickling quinoa, charred onion slices, and Texas Rio Star grapefruit. House-cured salmon and tiny cubes of chioggia beet are stacked on blini with high-tea elegance.

Seafood entrées are just as good as the appetizers. A monkfish fillet's lobster-like flesh makes a sturdy companion for garlicky spinach and soft gnocchi pats sweetened with five spice. Ocean trout comes clad in a crisp skin vest and paired with caramelized fennel and kalamata olives, and bits of blood orange—the rare selection that seems a little off-balance for its overt sweetness.

Steak never goes out of season, and Saunders uses a lean, tender Limousin beef tenderloin that has more flavor than is typical for the cut. Scattered with baby turnips and sweet potato cubes, the steak is the menu's spendiest item, at $28, but still a good value. A chicken leg and thigh are cooked confit until lush and plated with a mild trumpet mushroom and sunchoke risotto that's freshened up by a light, grassy chervil foam. The trendiest item from the winter menu is a sweetbread appetizer that serves the organ meat with a rich mushroom sauce.

With the exception of a couple of dullards (moon-shaped pasta filled with earthy red kuri were fine but not worth ordering again), the short menu is consistently solid. Desserts are worth the indulgence, particularly the gooey chocolate cake, silky with ground chestnuts, and topped with a quenelle of chocolate mousse. Citrus makes a lighter but still satisfying finale in the form of bruléed Clementine slices. The glassy sugar sheen contrasts the fruit's juiciness, enhanced by pink peppercorns, rosemary, and a drizzle of honey yogurt.

Saunders is a coffee aficionado, so you might as well pair that espresso semifreddo with its steaming-hot counterpoint. Cappuccino overflows with so much pristine milk foam that it seems suited to a movie scene—all it's missing is a handsome Italian stranger to whisk you off on his Vespa. Just don't look up from your mug or you'll break out of the reverie by catching sight of the dirty vent above the espresso machine. Dust bunnies cling precariously to the vent's slats, as if lying in wait to fall from the sky and contaminate the barista's masterpiece.

Sure, that's nitpicking, but a meal at In Season is so close to perfectly executing what it has set out to do that it seems worth tackling the last few percent. To that end, a microgreen salad with sherry vinegar and Parmesan shards has an expressive volume, but it needs to be meticulously cleaned to succeed. One gritty bite or tiny root clump can sully the appetite. If a nourishing lentil soup (good things happen when a haute chef tackles a dish so humble) is served in a shallow, un-warmed bowl, its impact will be as lukewarm as its temperature.

Service is knowledgeable, efficient, and warm with one critical exception. When the hostess is occupied in the back of the room, greeting guests can become a tragedy of the commons, with no one else taking responsibility. A diner might spend five to 10 minutes standing in the entryway as multiple servers pass by, attending to their tables, without so much as a head nod or a glance in the newcomers' direction. For guests, this replicates the awkward feeling of having arrived at a party of strangers, desperately scanning the room hoping to lock eyes with someone friendly. A simple "Someone will be right with you" would ease all the discomfort.

Saunders says he'd love to see In Season be able to support itself on neighborhood business alone—and if foodies want to treat it as a destination spot, so much the better. (For those in the southern and western suburbs, especially, it's easily accessible from the Penn Avenue exit off Highway 62.) And splurging at In Season is still possible, especially for wine lovers, as Saunders maintains an off-menu reserve list of 13 French bottles from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhône River Valley that range in price from $75 to $300.

Saunders's second restaurant hits all the marks the first one missed. With a few small tweaks, In Season should become an evergreen.

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In Season - Closed

5416 Penn Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55419


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