Mission (Mostly) Accomplished
The king crab soufflé trembled like something alive undersea as it descended to the table. It was a pale, truncated dome served in a pale, high-sided bowl, and the dark, seaweed-looking confit of young Swiss chard leaves and the blood-dark shavings of prosciutto that perched upon it made it look less like food than like something precious snatched from a coral reef. And the taste! Like the smell of seawater on skin: sweet, subtle, pale, oceanic. The chard added a vegetal strength and accented the sweetness; the prosciutto threw a spotlight on the creamy texture. It was the kind of dish you can taste in your mind for the rest of your life, it was so unique, so pure, so lovely.
This once-in-a-lifetime flan was the first course in one of the $65, five-course tasting menus that Mission American Kitchen now offers on Friday and Saturday nights, and when it appeared, in October, it quickly ascended to the pantheon of the best dishes I've ever had in the Twin Cities.
More courses followed. Fresh spaghetti sauced with a ragout of celery root and pigeon was like a forest-tinged Bolognese—mild, earthy, rich. The foie gras was served simply but elegantly, an all-but-unadorned and utterly fresh slice from local Au Bon Canard, expertly seared till it was just cooked enough to offer foie gras's elemental thrum of sweet-iron-and-butter; the tempura-battered fried chestnuts that decorated the plate were the best possible frivolous toss-offs, lighthearted and light on the palate, yet combining somehow to accent the bloody power of the foie. And the squab! Pan-roasted, with a mahogany skin and dark crimson flesh, it was meaty, lush, as deeply flavored as ripe berries, and wild-tasting; another one for the lifetime scrapbook.
It was one of those meals that was almost difficult to eat, because if you eat it, it will be gone, and brief, intense joy will vaporize in the night. Overwrought? Sure, but you'd be overwrought, too, if you'd been there. It was some flan.
I'd been putting off going to Mission American Kitchen for a while, waiting for chef Doug Flicker, formerly of dear, departed Auriga, to debut his own menus. You see, when he first took over Mission's kitchen late last winter, he was cooking the place's signature menu of every crowd-pleaser known to mankind, but when the former Mission staff departed late this summer to open sister restaurant Via in Edina, Flicker was finally able to bring in key parts of his former line at Auriga—namely, sous chef Erik Anderson and key sideman Adam "Ace" Ruhplinger—and roll out menus of his own. The food on offer since September at Mission is often nothing short of stunning.
A lunch visit yielded a white bean soup ($4) garnished with a chiffonade of sage. It tasted like a little song expressing the most graceful parts of autumn. A special of confit pork shoulder steak served with creamed artichokes, roasted artichokes, soft polenta, and spinach ($18) was as rich and satisfying as the best cassoulet, but in the way it combined its layers of thistly artichoke and deeply tender pork, it had the rare trait of seeming entirely new.
The sauce on a fresh spaghetti dish could only be described as the pale and trembling hybrid of Alfredo and carbonara. It was so wondrously creamy that my lunch date and I spent half an hour poking at it: I don't believe it! Do you believe it? Even when it was gone we kept saying we didn't believe it had been there. This must be how lottery winners live.
Dinner inspired more awe: A vast portion of quickly fried rock shrimp ($14) were so tender, so fresh, so not-overcooked (I'm looking at you, nearly everyone else in Minnesota) that the minutes spent with them were like a beach vacation.
Salmon carpaccio ($12) had pristinely fresh salmon rendered even more buttery and silky with a bit of brown butter and finely chopped hard-boiled eggs cut with olive oil. It glistened and slithered in the most appealing way.
Potted duck ($13) featured an espresso cup of sweet, simple, spoon-lickable duck pâté, the cup filled with duck confit and the plate filled out with house-baked olive oil torta crackers, blood orange marmalade, and ricotta-stuffed figs. It was classically French in the most elemental, satisfying way.
Yet, even with all of those awesome heights of cooking skill, I don't feel comfortable wholeheartedly recommending Mission. There's much that's awkward about the place, and after a number of visits I began to feel that it was like a family station wagon upgraded with a Ferrari engine. I suppose that would be fine if you just want your station wagon to work, but it's less satisfying if you keep thinking: You know, we could have a Ferrari here if only some things would change.
What should change? I saw three main problems at Mission. First, the wine list is awkward. Few bottles under $40 are drinkable, and the list as a whole leans toward heavily oaked American or Australian cocktail wines, or European wines with a similarly aggressive flavor profile and similar good scores in wine magazines. In short, these are not good food wines; they're good bar wines.
I happen to have a copy of the wine list Mission opened with in 2004, under different owners, when it had more of a steak-and-chophouse theme. I was unsurprised to find it largely unchanged. The list that made sense for an expense-account steakhouse isn't the same one you want when wooing food cognoscenti paying their own way. Worse, three out of the four people on the service staff I dealt with had no understanding of the wine they were selling. One well-meaning server recommended the flabby oak-and-fruit bomb Coppola "Director's Cut" Chardonnay ($12 a glass) to go with the restaurant's hauntingly elegant black cod with buttered leeks, which would have been like getting a butterscotch pudding to wash down the fish.
The restaurant was out of the only bubbly they serve by the glass on two of my visits, the Mumm Napa Brut ($10, now replaced with a $15 split of Moet), and one server tried to convince me that a $45 half-bottle of Laurent-Perrier was the logical substitute. When I told her a half-bottle was different from a split she looked at me as if I had suddenly lapsed into speaking Serbo-Croatian.
The cocktails at Mission leave much to be desired now, too. The "Mission Statement" ($13), once a mysteriously elegant martini made of Gray Goose and Inniskillin ice wine that seemed like the frozen shadow of a grape, now is thin and biting. Another martini, ordered "a little dirty," came as salty as brine.
I don't really blame the servers for any of this; I blame the management. All the people who work on a restaurant's floor should know the restaurant's food and wine, and they should have a manager or sommelier to retreat to if the questions start seeming over their head. I didn't see any evidence that the servers at Mission had this backup.
I did have one server who seemed aware of the pitfalls of Mission's wine list. When I asked about two of the glass-pours, she ventured that many guests had been unhappy with one of them and immediately went to the bar to fetch a taste of each for the table. I was impressed with her instinct for good service. However, another server on another night, also winging it, leaned over the table and confided that the red velvet cake had just been baking earlier that night, and the kitchen smelled heavenly with the scent of it. Only when she retreated with our order for a piece did I remember that frosted layer cakes are by definition never served hot from the oven; the cakes have to be cooled, cut into layers, frosted, and left to set in the refrigerator. When the cake arrived it was refrigerator chilly, and while I had one reaction to that, I'm sure another guest with visions of warm cake dancing in his head would have had quite another one.
In addition to these odd holes where management should be, Mission has a menu that's too long and an identity that's a bit perplexing. For instance, I couldn't tell you why the place is so committed to its ever-looping soundtrack of Rat Pack and '40s jazz standards—except that that's how it opened. Again, it's not an expense-account destination anymore, so why alienate every young hipster with a soundtrack that today sounds very Starbucks-five-years-ago? More weirdness: Servers begin every meal with a bit of theater that, even after a series of visits, completely mystifies me. You sit, then they come and switch out your white napkin for a black one. Or they offer you a napkin to match your clothes. I never comprehended it.
I did comprehend that the very long menu (at dinner, 16 starters and salads, 10 entrees, 6 sides, a few bar-only treats, and whatever specials of the day or tasting menus are on offer) loses vigor in its legginess. If you're not careful ordering appetizers, you could end up with a first course of nothing but brown fried things—like truffle-cream cheese wontons ($8), cornmeal-crusted rock shrimp ($14), fried lobster croquettes ($14), and house-made chips ($5).
I thought a few of the dinner entrees missed the mark. A Kobe beef pot roast ($28) was so rich it crossed into chocolate-truffle territory; I can't conceive of anyone finishing even half of it. A bone-in veal tenderloin chop ($30) was cottony and unfocused.
Desserts didn't seem to have any coherent underlying philosophy: Are they retro? Creative? Delicious? Placeholders? I'd say yes to one of each: The red velvet cake ($9) was sweet, mellow, pretty, and more or less unremarkable, as the old-fashioned cake is in even its best versions. The chocolate tart ($9) has nothing to recommend it; the tart shell is salty and dense, the chocolate layer tasteless. Even desserts from the tasting menus were a little ho-hum: A pistachio French toast was heavy; a squash tart lacked pep.
Mission does have one brilliant dessert, a baked Alaska ($9), in which a burnt orange ice cream is wrapped in a hedgehog-pointy ball of Swiss meringue and broiled. The result is alternating bites of slightly sweet cream, bitter orange, and all sorts of different kinds of toasty. It's remarkably sophisticated, a Creamsicle for people with a palate for whiskey.
So, since when does a restaurant need a coherent underlying philosophy for its dessert menu? Well, the answer is that often they just have them—it's a Thai place, for instance, and there are mangoes and coconuts. Most of the time, though, that's the kind of thing I wouldn't dwell on too much—each according to their ability and all that. However, I truly believe that chef Doug Flicker is a national-class chef, as good as any Food Network star on the right night, and much of what I've seen at Mission American Kitchen over the last month reinforced that: the king crab soufflé, the squab, the potted duck, and more.
However, a truly world-class restaurant is one in which any diner, any night, ordering anything at all, is going to have a flawless experience, and Mission seems unable to pull that off right now. Will I be back? Without question. It's inarguably one of the best lunches downtown. I think only Cosmos at the Graves Hotel, Vincent, and the Dakota are in the same league. In addition, the tasting menus and parts of the dinner menu offer exquisite, original cooking, which is the hardest thing you can do. On top of that? It ain't over till it's over: Two years ago I had consigned Mission to the "also-ran, may die, won't care" file, and it's struggled back, which few restaurants ever do. The remaining problems are very fixable, and, if addressed, Minneapolis will have a new, and very precious, jewel in its crown.
If not? I'll always have that flan.
MISSION AMERICAN KITCHEN
77 S. 7th St., Minneapolis
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