To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.
When Doug Flicker garnishes a plate, he does not mess around. A tray to his left is piled with yellow flowers and tiny greens, and one by one he's meticulously putting each stem, leaf, and petal in place. He works quickly yet carefully, creating mini works of art. For him, no detail is too minor. Because when you deal exclusively in small plates, everything is big.
Flicker has been around the Twin Cities for years, playing the role of head chef at D'Amico Cucina, Mission, Porter and Frye, and his very own Auriga. In 2010 he opened Piccolo, and the following year the James Beard Foundation named both Flicker and the restaurant to short lists--for its Best Chef: Midwest and Best New Restaurant awards.
At Piccolo, Flicker gives diners the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure menu. Now featuring 16 items, "It's designed to be mixed and matched," he says. "And you can go back and forth." Nothing is labeled appetizer, main course, or dessert because everything can be anything. And with over half the options at $12 or less, we have an array of choices.[jump]
But before we dive in, let's talk logistics. Flicker's philosophy on small plates--or "fractional dining" as he sometimes refers to it--isn't simply about size. This is not just big plates made small. It's small plates made great. When he creates a dish, he consciously constructs it in a way that will maximize its portion, whatever that may be.
Ultimately, he believes in quality over quantity, and he uses an intense focus on seasonal ingredients--as well as a bold brand of creativity--to achieve it. Never one to play it safe, he's constantly trying to "utilize ingredients and foodstuffs in a new way."
"Over the summer, we were talking about fish we hadn't used yet," Flicker tells us. When someone mentioned swordfish, he said, "I like swordfish but we'd have to get the whole loins in, so you've got all that trim--not to mention the belly flap..." And then, a moment of inspiration: Why not only use the belly flaps?
"The toro!" he exclaims. "On a tuna, it's the most prized. On a pig, it's fantastic. Why then would a swordfish belly not be out of this world? And it was." Everyday, he made the trek to Coastal Seafoods to pick up two to three pounds of swordfish belly, but it was worth it.
"I've never cooked with swordfish belly, and you've never seen swordfish belly on a menu," he explains. "So I'm really excited to cook it for you, and you're really excited to eat it. That's part of the magic of our cuisine."
Piccolo changes its menu frequently, so like the sweltering days of August, the swordfish belly is now just a memory. But there are more than enough candidates for our $12-and-under list in season, starting with the Celery Root Soup.
A poured soup, we are first introduced to its star performers: Benton's bacon, pickled herring, and a round saltine cracker croquette--made by deep-frying a mix of crushed saltines and béchamel. When the soup is added to the bowl, it drowns the colorful trio. But hiding below the surface, they infuse the liquid with a smoky, briny, salty character. It's an unexpected twist on a simple veggie puree, and you can get it for just $8.
If you're craving carbs, Flicker's Porcini-Flavored Pasta is an absolute must. The brown, almost purple-colored pasta is packed with a filling that Flicker makes by brining and braising veal tongue, and mixing it with porcini powder, Parmigiano-Reggiano, bread, and milk.
He then tops it with a little crispy sage and an outstanding pine needle brown butter. Piccolo purchases its own pine needles, which they toast and break apart. And when they're combined with the brown butter, a nutty, sappy, almost burnt sugar quality emerges. Listed for $10, it's savory and sweet and extremely unique.
There are other candidates also worthy of our top $12-and-under designation: the Roasted Pumpkin and Golden Beets are served with fresh ricotta and persimmons for $9, and the Foie Gras Torchon comes with a surprising mix of smoked cipollini onions, escargot, jalapenos, and chervil for $12.
But our minds are made up. We're choosing a $9 stunner--the one that started it all: the Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet.
"It's been on the menu since day one and will never come off," says Flicker. "It's the first dish that I conceived of for Piccolo, and I think it embodies us perfectly."
The eggs are given a delicate scramble, so they're soft and melt in your mouth. And the pig's feet--which are pickled by Flicker and his team--impart just the right amount of pork happiness. Everything is covered in truffle butter and finally finished off with some Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's earthy and rich, and the flavors blend effortlessly in an oh-so-comforting symphony of awesome.
As we savor every last morsel, we're reminded of one of Flicker's earlier comments: "First and foremost, I want guests to have a memorable meal. It's all too common to have a forgettable meal."
No need to worry. This is one dish we'll be thinking about for a very long time.
Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat