The first thing that comes to mind about the Twin Cities may be its notoriously frigid winters, the Twins, the Vikings, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, or, sadly, the Mall of America – but not haute cuisine. Au contraire. While perhaps not haute, I found very fine food in Minneapolis. Thus, this review debuts my dining experiences in the city that gave birth to Wheaties, Target and the Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
(visited October, 2004)
Tucked away on an unassuming neighborhood street just off “the main road” in the “back room” of the Turtle Bread Company is Levain. Coming out of the wintry blistery wet streets, the restaurant’s rich buttery dining space welcomed me like a warm inviting bath. The expansive farm-house-rustic room offered of the kitchen – everything from the line chefs to the “pass” where servers lined up to retrieve their orders.The receptionist took my umbrella and led me to my seat. Levain smells good, it smells of fresh bread – as well it should. You can actually see the sister shop next door through the kitchen where fresh bread and other baked goods are sold. The Turtle Bread Company even serves freshly fired pizzas.What I loved about Levain’s staff is that it’s not overly-attentive. In fact, the service had a “diner-esque” quality. The servers were friendly in their charming and casual Minnesotan way while maintaining a respectful and professional level of service. I even forgave the few times throughout the evening when silverware was not replaced (my pet peeve). Chef de cuisine, Peter Boulcher, created a special seven course dinner for me.
He greeted me with an amuse bouche of saffron cumin carrot broth with a lime-cilantro froth. I love cumin. I love curries. While both have a great way of “teasing” and “awakening” one’s appetite, they also have a tendency of lingering on the palate – well into the first few courses… Thankfully, the tart-fresh lime-cilantro froth acted as a “chaser” for my shot of fancy V-8.
My first course was the chef’s “yellowtail crudo.” A Minnesotan “ode to sushi,” I was presented with sashimi of yellowtail paired with pickled onions, shiso, ginger, scallions, and shoyu vinaigrette. You might think that these flavors would overwhelm the delicate sashimi… but somehow they didn’t. The pickled onions and shoyu vinaigrette gave a welcomed zing, while the shiso, ginger and scallions countered with refreshing mint-like cooling.
Next, the chef sent me into orbit with a stellar “rocket salad.” A modest bundle of rocket bedded generously with shaved slabs of Spanish Manchengo cheese and crispy prosciutto. Quartered macerated Mission figs and a rich buckwheat honey vinaigrette added the perfect sweetness to the otherwise bitter herb and salty accompaniments. My only complaint: like most restaurant salads, it was too small.
Third coarse weighed in decadently with a generous helping of Minnesota’s own ABC Farms foie gras. The liver was seared and served atop a hill of apple slaw and stewed figs. I polished off the sweet-tart slaw and tender figs, but left nearly half of the feature item uneaten. It was very good, but just a tad more than a bit of seared foie is too rich for me.
Fourth course, featuring a chive butter-poached halibut, stole my heart. The thick cut of fish mounted a gigantic fresh water prawn, which in turn sat amidst a mélange of clams and uniformly diced celery and potato cubes. All of this glistened with a sheen of tarragon-lemon butter sauce. Neither does my description, nor (sadly) my memory, do justice to this dish. Think: all the flavors of the best clam chowder you’ll ever have, minus the heaviness of the cream.Poaching fish in fat is genius – especially when you have a particularly thick cut of meat. Not only can you maintain the temperature for even and controlled cooking, but the fish takes on the richness of the fat, heightening the butteriness of the delicate flesh. The texture was wonderful – the entire piece consistently just-on-this side-of-“cooked” from raw, yet hot, rather than cold like the middle of a barely seared piece of tuna.
Following this tough act was loin of lamb with chanterelles, butternut squash flan and daikon sprouts. The lamb was good, if not a bit unmemorable. The flan was excellent – a little sweet, a little nutty and fascinatingly light. My fork parted the golden yellow silkiness without resistance. The flan was so light that I could barely feel its texture against my tongue – as if evaporating into essence of butternut squash in my mouth. Although I love daikon sprouts, I horseradish-like power overwhelmed the delicate flan and lovely flavor of the lamb. Sixth course wins the vote for the most creative dish of the evening (and perhaps one of the most creative I’ve ever encountered). My server announced it as “bacon and eggs.”
The visual: This course was served on a large, perfectly circular plate. In the middle was a perfectly round pool of butter-yellow coloured cream. A small matchbox rectangle of pork belly sat off to one side next to an equally sized cut of brioche toast topped with a sprouting of micro-greens. While at first it looked nothing like bacon and eggs, I realized half-way through eating (which didn’t take long), that the entire dish looked like an egg sunny-side up with a dwarf “rasher” of bacon and toast on it.
The eating: I was instructed to stack the bacon on the toast and micro-greens and slather it with the cream sauce. My knife and fork were too clumsy to properly maneuver the miniature portions. Fearing that I would lose elements in haphazard “swim” through the cream, I jumped in with my ten digits. The bacon hopped aboard the micro-greens and toast, and the happy company sailed through the cream without losing a member.
The taste: I’ll be darned if it wasn’t bacon and eggs. If I were blindfolded and served this course, I would immediately identify it as such. The server explained that the pork-belly had been poached for seven ours in its own fat and then rendered until crispy in a pan. The cream was an emulsion of pureed cooked egg yolks, olive oil and salt. Splendid. It’s like haute Jelly Bellies candy!
Dessert featured three elements. It was simply entitled “chocolate, figs and custard.” The “chocolate” was an otherwise pedestrian “flourless” cake made notable by a painterly schmear of salted molasses caramel on the plate. “Figs,” this time stewed in port wine, made its third showing of the evening beneath “chocolate paper.” (Was it fig season in Minnesota?) And, finally, my favorite of the sweet trio was the “custard” – or, egg gelato. Think barely frozen (very good) eggnog.
Three hours after beginning my meal, I happily paid the $70 bill without batting an eye. Any diner, of course, could spend much less if ordering a la carte. Most of the entrees were in the twenties. Appetizers and salads ranged from high singles to low teens.
Fortified, I was ready to face the Minneapolis winter that awaited me outside. But, before leaving, I stepped through the kitchen (literally) into the Turtle Bread Company for some baked goods… for the road, just in case I got stuck in a snow bank somewhere between there and the hotel…
4762 Chicago Ave South
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
***** Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong…
****** Speechless: ‘nough said.