NorthCoast restaurant is in a suburban office park on Lake Minnetonka, not far from Cargill headquarters. It's decorated like a hotel lobby—smart yet unassuming—and boasts a clientele of boaters, businessmen, and ladies who lunch. In the summer months, its roof deck is so popular that the restaurant sometimes serves 700 guests in a night. The best-selling entree is the walleye.
It was also one of the last restaurants in town where I expected to be served an ersatz egg lounging sunny-side up in a soup spoon, like a misplaced piece from a child's kitchenette set. The egg's curvaceous white was as springy as a marshmallow, its yolk a flat yellow disc topped with a curl of candied ginger.
The "egg" was the midpoint of my five-course tasting meal, a dish designed to refresh my taste buds and prime them for the remainder of the meal. Later, I would learn that the yolk was not Play-Doh, as it appeared, but actual raw egg yolk that had been buried in a sugar-salt mixture and cured to a dough-like consistency. The white was similar to panna cotta, stiffened with agar-agar, the seaweed-derived gelling agent. It had been dunked in a pectin bath (pectin is used to gel jellies and jams), which reacted with the fructose in the custard to create its rubbery skin. This egg's production was far more complicated than simply heating a burner and cracking a shell—and to what ends? My fork pricked the white and milky goo oozed out like a runny, over-easy yolk, the inverse of the real thing. I swallowed a cool, creamy bite and chased it with a sip of hot, medicinal-tasting tea. My palate felt more crazed than cleansed.
Chef Ryan Aberle started serving tasting menus a few years ago as a way to get more diners into the restaurant during the winter months, when numbers might dwindle to 50 guests a night. "In the summer months, I don't get to cook," he says, giving two metaphors for his seasonal role: culinary air-traffic controller and the guy in the cartoon submarine plugging leaks with every part of his body.
To keep his workload consistent, Aberle seems to compensate for the reduced number of guests by cooking them considerably more complex meals. Each course in the tasting menu has several components, all with elaborate preps. A couple of years ago, Aberle started experimenting with techniques of scientific cooking—using lab-like equipment and additives to transform the chemical makeup of his ingredients—such as those pioneered by Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain. Drawing inspiration from various cookbooks as well as pilgrimages to Grant Achatz's restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago, Aberle and his team began creating such far-out foods as foie gras pop rocks and flash-frozen meringues.
Other local chefs have dabbled with this so-called molecular gastronomy, but Aberle has remained among the most enthralled. And his $35 tasting menu—the price of a steak dinner—is perhaps the area's most affordable introduction to this sort of avant-garde dining.
Though Aberle has more than a decade of restaurant experience under his belt, when he serves his creations to guests he seems almost like a kid showing off a new chemistry set. He rattles off times and temperatures for foods cooked sous vide (vacuum-sealed in plastic bags and cooked in a water-bath machine called an immersion circulator), grinning and waving his hands, tossing off terms like "anaerobic" and "amino acids" as if he's a walking textbook. "I'm kind of a science nerd at heart," he admits.
In the tasting menu I recently sampled (Aberle changes them every two weeks), sous vide played a key role in a dish that paired tuna with a pork belly dumpling and sweet corn chowder. Cooking the proteins in their shrink-wrapped jackets sealed in both flavor and moisture so that the fish took on a soft, buttery texture and the fatty pork melted on the tongue almost like bone marrow. In a subsequent course, Aberle mixed osso buco meat with transglutaminase, an enzyme that helps bond proteins, and pressed the mixture into a spherical mold surrounding a frozen cherry-jelly center. The result was a crispy meatball that was something like a Scotch egg, except with a fruity middle. But the most curious part of the dish was a translucent brown strip of dehydrated French onion soup. My first bite was a sensory trip: It tasted just like the broth—the same deep, briny, caramel flavors—but chewed like a Fruit Roll-Up. Bringing leftovers home had never been easier, I thought, as I slipped the rest of the soup into my pocket.
Another course was created with whole birds from Au Bon Canard in Caledonia, Minnesota, and served as duck four ways: seared breast meat, a clove-tinged demi-glace, and a cake of confit leg and thigh meat containing a foie gras center. The dish had so many components that Aberle designed an intra-course palate cleanser to break up its uniformity. (Yeah, you heard me right, and no, I'd never had an intra-course palate cleanser, either.) The cleanser, a tiny dumpling filled with pomegranate-mint juice, was meant to be popped whole into the mouth. Its tart shock cut the salty richness of the course that followed, the confit meat and a pellet of foie gras, hidden inside like a nut in a Christmas pudding.
To keep the foie gras from melting into the confit meat when the cake was cooked, Aberle added a plant-based cellulose, which has the property of gelling or hardening when heated and melting when cooled. This methylcellulose, Aberle later told me, is the same ingredient that has allowed him to make hot ice cream. By mixing the cellulose into the ice-cream base, Aberle was able to poach scoops of the thick cream in boiling water, where they stiffened instead of melting. As the warm, dumpling-like scoops cooled to body temperature in the mouth, they melted on the palate just as cold ice cream would. And you thought astronaut ice cream was weird.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to try the hot ice cream, but I did sample four mini-scoops that had been cooled with liquid nitrogen. The rapid freezing—it takes just a few minutes—creates smaller ice crystals, which results in a creamier texture. Aberle created his sweet quartet to pair with a dessert wine he likes, Merryvale Vineyard's Antigua, which is made from muscat and pot-still brandy. To bring out the flavors of the wine's oak-barrel aging, Aberle made a smoked coconut ice cream topped with a curl of lime zest. For the wine's rich, nutty notes, he concocted a frozen custard flavored with butter and sea salt and coated with crushed hazelnuts—a refined version of the Drumstick. Two more cones, an orange sorbet and a caramel gelato topped with a piece of popcorn, picked up the wine's sweet, citrus flavors. The initial anticipation of the mini-cones, which were served on what looked like a cribbage paddle, made me feel like a kid at a candy counter with a pocketful of money. But the dessert didn't uniformly thrill: The wonton cones had a distracting greasy flavor, and the smoke in the coconut ice cream was as intense as a four-alarm fire when perhaps it should have been as subtle as a backyard barbecue.
There were other minor missteps among the courses. A Camembert crisp—a dehydrated chip of the creamy French cheese—was supposed to add texture to a seared diver scallop with savory bread pudding and blood orange gastrique. Instead, even Aberle admits, the result wasn't quite right: "It was more like a stale potato chip." When chem lab meets kitchen, these inventive dishes—the deep-fried hollandaise or squid-ink caviar—must provide more than just whimsy. They should express something new about the original ingredient, and, most importantly, they should also taste good. "It's a new interpretation of what we think of classic flavors and how they could be presented," Aberle says of avant-cooking. "It's not just, 'Hey, is this cool.' Just because we can do it doesn't mean it's better."
Ironically, the curiosity of these futuristic dishes brought the modern meal back to its traditional roots: Our dinner was a social, engaging, and communal endeavor. With all the labor involved, the margin on the tasting menus is certainly lower than what's typical—particularly when NorthCoast donates $5 from the cost of each to the March of Dimes—but Aberle stressed that he wanted to keep the meals accessible to people looking for a dining experience, not just dinner.
His sentiments certainly rang true at my table, where we'd tried several new things and had a lot of fun. "This would make a great date," my friend remarked as she licked one of her mini-cones. "It would give you something to talk about, to experience together." But because the courses take so long to serve, she warned, "it would be horribly awkward if only one of the twosome ordered it."