Since its closing in the spring of 2016, Piccolo, chef Doug Flicker’s outstanding small plates restaurant, has been mourned as if it were a beloved relative.
But from its ashes comes Tenant, a charming New American joint brought to you by former Piccolo employees. This tiny dining room nestled in the East Harriet neighborhood of south Minneapolis is once again serving up inventive, satisfying food with a uniquely relaxed approach that just might define a new era of fine dining in the Twin Cities.
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Robbinsdale’s crown jewel, Travail, and Tenant. There are strict seating times and a fixed multi-course tasting menu. The lines between front-of-house and back-of-house are similarly blurred so that chefs in the kitchen also act as servers in the dining room. Both restaurants impress with technique-driven food and the kind of “everyone’s a VIP” treatment that make for destination dining.
But the similarities end there. Where Travail is flashy and extensive, Tenant is more homey and edited. There are no plates buried under a dome of smoke, nothing is served to you dangling from a hook, and there’s not a tank of liquid nitrogen in sight. The intention, says co-owner Cameron Cecchini, which existed long before the actual restaurant space became available, is to feed people well, seasonably, and casually, at a reasonable $50 price point, without sacrificing quality. It’s a tall order, but sometimes tight parameters make for the most inspired meals.
Indeed, the Tenant crew manages to do a lot with relatively humble ingredients. Weeknight dinner staples like broccoli, ham (okay, it’s speck in this case, so, fancy ham), and cabbage are transformed into a gorgeous pasta course of salty, robiola-filled cappelletti (little hats!) in a complex and concentrated charred broth. Teeny pickled beech mushrooms and the smoky bits of speck give a little texture to the dish and keep the flavors balanced and vaguely Teutonic.
A Scandinavian-influenced dish of grilled salmon with warm potato salad and smoked trout roe sounds sort of “been-there, ate-that” in description, but tastes, somehow, totally fresh. The cornmeal-fried oyster topping off the dish should be saved for last, and used to trap any of the remaining silky, citrusy sauce.
Considering they are making about 30 portions of each of these dishes at a time, the execution of all of this is no easy feat. The staff creates and rotates in new dishes in every Tuesday, so as you read this, the menu may have completely changed. Even in the course of a week, or day to day, preparation on some dishes is altered according to what is available and pristine from Tenant’s micro-scale suppliers.
We noticed delicate stalks of asparagus were replaced with pearly Tokyo turnips in the first course. Fat English peas once nestled among strands of extruded pasta, tender glazed lamb shoulder, and Pecorino cheese were swapped for sweet rattlesnake beans, which are much less intense than they sound. No dish was diminished because of any of these changes; it was just a reminder that the menu here is very much a living, breathing thing.
Dinner generally starts lightly: for instance, a delicate cube of almost translucent hamachi glazed with XO sauce (a suddenly everywhere Cantonese condiment made from dried scallops with a kick of chili), juiced spring herbs, and the same peppery nasturtium leaves featured on our server’s forearm tattoo. The plates then build to a crescendo with heartier offerings, such as doppio—essentially a two-sided raviolo—striped with black garlic dough and filled with housemade ricotta and fennel-flecked Italian sausage. Pasta pops up quite a bit in these courses, but considering what you get for $50 at Tenant, both in terms of food and overall experience, it’s an absolute steal.
For context, here are some things I have spent roughly $50 on in the last month that I wish I had spent on dinner at Tenant instead: a toast board, glass of wine, and slice of lemon cake at Bachelor Farmer; a serviceable mani-pedi plus tip; a fancy taco, an unfancy beer, and an underwhelming scallop dish at Baja Haus; a very dumb ergonomic neck pillow, a stack of trashy magazines, and a bag of Cheetos at the airport. Scratch that; I’d keep the Cheetos.
You can’t do a la carte here, but what is served is carefully planned. Cecchini has worked out that a complete dinner is about 25 bites, so over the arc of your six courses, that’s about what you’ll get. We were delighted to leave without having to walk off that pop-a-button feeling nor immediately head to another nearby establishment for a supplementary burger.
From the minute you enter Tenant’s intimate dining room, it’s clear how much the staff emphasizes overall guest experience—and how many roles they all must juggle, seamlessly, in order to create the kind of evening they want their guests to enjoy.
“I was about to start my whole spiel about the wine pairings, but this song is going to end in three seconds so… excuse me,” co-owner Grisha Hammes says before he darts to the turntable in the corner to change the record from Queen to Jay-Z. He then returns to pour us a palate-prepping glass of cava. Now that’s just good hosting. There’s a real sense that someone is thinking about every aspect of your experience, right down to the amenities in the bathroom.
And those with dietary restrictions and food sensitivities need not worry they’ll be excluded. Cecchini says that one of the benefits to their model, aside from producing very little waste and having some predictability in the dinner rush, is that the kitchen can accommodate almost any ingredient issues. Let them know in advance (they’ll ask you when they call to confirm your reservation), and any gluten, nuts, and cheeses can be omitted or substituted easily. “The only thing I’d say we can’t offer is a full vegan tasting menu. Based on our style and the ingredients we use, it just wouldn’t be satisfying or fair to the person eating that dinner.” See? They’re thinking about you even if you can’t eat at their restaurant. Hospitality!
On the very brief, hand-written menus, there’s only one other line item, and that’s the option to pair your meal with three wines: a white, a red, and something sparkling for $25. Surprised by the offering of a sweet red with a reputation for being about as sophisticated as a Funyun, I asked Hammes if he thinks it’s going to be the new rosé.
“So, are you trying to bring back Lambrusco?”
“No,” he shakes his head, smiling. “It’s not like that. We aren’t trying to do anything.” Then he catches himself and adds, thoughtfully, “Except make sure everyone has a really good time.”
Consider that goal achieved.
See photos from our Tenant slideshow here
4300 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis;