New Chef Rising
Remember the1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate, and the way Angela Lansbury had a kid specifically so she could brainwash him and work evil plots 20 years down the road? Like everybody, I enjoy the idea of secret schemes that take decades to execute, and sometimes I even prefer to think that upper-Midwestern parents have all agreed to combat the famous Midwestern brain drain like this: They raise beautiful daughters—well, beautiful sons, too, but, you know, beautiful daughters. They send these well-educated, independent, alluring daughters out into the world, to places like Portland, Oregon, and Paris, France, where they marry. Then suddenly, when baby booties arrive in the home, a powerful homing device switches on and they and their captured spouses are seamlessly, willingly relocated to the homeland for the purpose of enriching local culture.
Tell me you haven't considered this.
Well, we got us another one! And he's cooking at the Napa Valley Grille. I happened to be at the Mall of America a few weeks ago and, entirely by accident, walked by the restaurant and read the latest posted menu. It was irresistibly ambitious, full of things you never see, like local Chèvre dusted with zahtar (a Middle Eastern spice blend based on sumac), house-made chorizo, and—be still my beating heart—a ragout of Wisconsin rabbit.
I raced in for dinner and was utterly dazzled. Roasted clams and mussels with that house-made chorizo in a charred-tomato broth ($8.75) were deeply spicy, rustically bold, yet perfectly in balance in terms of the sweet, spicy, and salty within the dish. A fillet of Canadian king salmon ($24) was silky, plush, ethereal, and expertly seared. It was served on a basil risotto cake that was rich, fragrant, and firm, and placed in its bowl of roasted-garlic broth in such a way that the rice didn't fall apart but was actually enhanced by contact with the salty, fragrant broth. The artichoke antipasto that accompanied the salmon and rice added another sort of lemony, herbal note that somehow brought the plate into even more harmony. That's cooking.
And the ragout of rabbit! For this ($26), rabbit was turned into a sort of halfway point between pulled pork and the most tender pot roast you can imagine. The meat was sweet and light, the gravy potent, rich, and almost beefy. The remarkable ragout was piled into a warm bowl and topped with three house-made ravioli, as big as the palm of your hand, served delightfully al dente and filled with mascarpone cheese and carrots cut into the tiniest possible dice. The whole bowl was topped with fresh arugula, and the cumulative effect was just riveting: the savory rabbit, the sweet ravioli, the peppery greens; but also the meltingly tender rabbit, the chewy ravioli, the crisp greens. The dish seemed almost Italian in its abundant use of fresh, local ingredients, its casual intensity, its easy confidence.
Yes, I'm talking about the food at the Napa Valley Grille. I know, I know—a lot of you don't want to hear it because it's in that mall, that mall that every out-state tourist thinks is Minnesota's claim to fame when we just wish it was any other thing. And yes, I know it's a chain. But I have to call them as I see them, and there really is some marvelous cooking going on betwixt log flume and parking area P-3 West.
Of course, it was love that done it. The NVG got a new chef about seven months ago, a chef who built his career in kitchens up and down the West Coast and moved here with his Iowa-raised wife and their bouncing newborn boy. As of this writing, the family was closing on a house in Lakeville, making the situation appealingly permanent. Welcome, chef Matthew Fogarty, we're glad you're here!
What I like most about Fogarty's cooking is that he builds dishes that leave an easy, approachable, almost comfort-food impression on the palate but are in fact complexly built using classic techniques. His roasted-pumpkin bisque, for instance, is made not with canned pumpkin but by combining a trio of orange vegetables: roasted kabocha, the delicate Japanese pumpkin; roasted sweet potatoes; and sautéed carrots. The combination results in a single taste that's sweet, light, nutty, earthy, and strangely expansive. Once an island of cinnamon crème fraîche is floated in the center, it's as if the whole holiday season had been lassoed and poured into a single cup ($4.50) or bowl ($6).
Similarly, Fogarty's wild mushroom and Gorgonzola tagliatelle ($24) shows the gorgeous results that can be teased from simple ingredients through lots of work. First, he combines dried porcini mushrooms with all sorts of fresh mushrooms, including oyster, yellow-foot chanterelle, crimini, portabella, button, and, when he can get them, lobster mushrooms, and cooks them down with lots of marjoram, rosemary, and red wine. Once the mushrooms become thick, meaty, and concentrated, he lets them cool. When someone orders the tagliatelle, he takes a generous panful and freshens them up with shallots, garlic, Marsala wine, cream, and more fresh marjoram, serving it on fresh, al dente noodles accented with nubs of good blue Gorgonzola and a few thick papers of Parmesan cheese.
Food writers talk a lot about umami, a taste that ranks along with salty, sweet, sour, and spicy as one of the elemental big ones. Umami is the sensation of meatiness, the thing that makes ham and salami so hard for carnivores to give up. The mushroom pasta dish has umami to burn. The weighty, concentrated mushrooms, the lilting marjoram, the salty, funky cheese all combine to wallop your senses in a sensuous, gratifying way. If you're a vegetarian who has been wondering, Why exactly did I decide I can't have a porterhouse steak?, well, now you can, in a way. It's certainly the most delicious vegetarian dish I've had this year. I called Fogarty to tease out the details of his cooking, and learned that he has also taken over the kitchen at the Napa Valley Grille's sister restaurant, the California Café. He said that if I liked his mushroom pasta, I have to try the California Café's mushroom sloppy joe with smoked paprika and white-cheddar tater tots. I think I will.
Not that Fogarty only works well in winter vegetables. We don't often see blue crab cakes ($11.50) in this town, but the NVG's version is reason for Chesapeake Bay transplants to rejoice. Here the sweet, briny meat of those Atlantic sea-floor dwellers is beautifully showcased in two plain, confident, pan-seared discs. The lemony fennel salad with mint basil vinaigrette that accompanies them shows off the fresh minerality of the crab without any excess fireworks. A frito misto ($10.75) of semolina-crumb-coated rock shrimp, calamari, and slices of fennel, all deep fried and served piping hot, is an elemental bit of Italian bar food that is just plain and good but also cries out to be paired with a glass of bubbly—or three, available in one of the restaurant's many wine flights. Order the $16 bubbly flight of vintage Schramsberg 2002 Blanc de Noirs, Scharffenberger non-vintage brut, and Kenwood Yulupa brut, and your server will bring three glasses, each numbered with a silvery little tag that hangs on the stem, and a printed card with a few lines of information on each wine. It's certainly a spectacular way to start a meal, or a charming consolation prize when you're stuck on holiday shopping errands.
Which leads me to the only things I don't like about the Napa Valley Grille, all of them very mall-ish. Televisions over the bar, for instance, were all going all the time, even though the bar had no patrons. I think during my lovely meals here I watched that taco commercial where people take ecstasy and eat silly-string about 19 times. If hunger is the best seasoning, I'd call forced televised taco ads the worst.
The decor at the NVG needs freshening, immediately. A poster of hot-air balloons in one alcove brings to mind nothing so much as inexpensive transmission shops and failure.
Desserts were pretty good. A cheesecake made with goat cheese ($7), for instance, was sweet, tidy, and had just enough tang with the Chèvre to give it character. Service, in my experience, was excellent, though I was never there when more than 10 tables were occupied, so I can't vouch for how things might be on a busy night. While the food has been uniformly strong on my visits, there has been a sloppy edge to the dining room. I'm particularly thinking of dinner one night when a server's assistant dragged a huge garbage bin back and forth through the dining room in the middle of service. This, I thought, is why you need one of those classic French chefs storming around with the vein in his forehead about to pop.
I take comfort in the fact that there's probably some sweet native daughter (or son!) out there falling in love with him right this very second.Ê
NAPA VALLEY GRILLE
Mall of America, 2nd Floor, Bloomington
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