In Season in Armatage, Minneapolis
If you’re looking for a model for how to do Upper Midwestern fine dining, look no further than In Season in South Minneapolis. Rising from the metaphorical ashes of the French-inspired Fugaise, Chef Don Saunders has taken his gift for deft execution of beautifully pared-down dishes in a new, soulful direction; the result is some of the best and most exciting dining in the state.
In Season sounds like a bit of a gimmick until you experience it. The front of your menu lists a bunch of ingredients that serve as inspiration (right now, they include baby turnips, chioggia beets, kale, oxtail, and sweet potato, among others) — the back features the actual food for the ordering. Prices are fair-to-cheap (particularly considering the quality of food served) — small plates hover around $10, larger dishes around $20. The menu is flexible enough that you can take a passed-plate tapas style approach to dining, or an appetizer + entree + dessert approach, or some hybrid of both.
Saunders is in tune with local food but not a slave to it; oysters, Rio Star grapefruit and Clementines are among his current winter inspirations, and the presence of seasonally appropriate tourists brings a sparkle of excitement to the mix. Dishes such as roasted monkfish with five-spice sweet potato gnocchi and roasted garlic ($24) may not be sourced next door, but the pairing of a mellow, tender ocean fish and hearty, deeply flavored winter staples like sweet potato and roasted garlic is a good one.
Similarly, In Season’s cheese plate ($14) is a masterwork of international diplomacy. Three-time American Cheese Society “Best of Show” winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve (from southern Wisconsin) shines even on a plate with French selles sur cher and Spanish manchego; tangy Castle Rock Bleu from Wisconsin rounds out the plate and holds its own just fine.
The best dish we sampled at In Season may have also been one of the most unusual. Our waiter informed us that the salmon for the blinis appetizer was still in the process of being cured, but, as a completely non-similar substitute, we could order a portion of their elk goulash. It arrived with velvet-tender pieces of elk wrapped in sensuous blankets of creamy paprika flavor, floating above finely mashed potatoes at the base of stew’s urn-like white bowl. A perfectly seasoned and executed dish, it had plenty of well-balanced flavor (from both meat and spice) with no unpleasant texture or gameyness, and you couldn’t do better for an entree on a subzero night.
The thing really worth noting about In Season — beyond even the service (gracious and well-informed) and the atmosphere (classy but not stuffy; killer music selection) — is that without exception, everything we ordered was at least “good.”
“Good” was really as bad as it got. Some dishes were merely tasty and clever, rather than blowing the collective table away. Most of our orders, however, wowed. The charcuterie plate ($14) was stellar, recalling the glory days of The Craftsman. This is a charcuterie plate where all the meat tastes both deeply flavorful and light on its feet — the flavors are clean and fresh.
It also comes with a couple terrific extras: a house-ground mustard that was good enough to impress the serious amateur mustard collector we were dining with, and a honey-dipped preserved walnut (soft enough to be able to divide up into four portions with a knife) that was a surprising but truly pleasing accent to the rest of the plate.
Via email, Chef Saunders laid out the particulars of the plate: “We are always going to try to have a few house-made items on the charcuterie and a few sourced out items. [Your version] had a pork terrine and chicken liver mousse (house made) and serrano from Spain and sopressata from Italy (sourced). The walnuts are sourced as well and a Russian product that my friend bought at a Russian grocery store.”
The charcuterie plate was a dish to savor — other starters didn’t last as long. The cured salmon on blinis with a chioggia beet and horseradish creme fraiche ($10) was obscenely good. Three blinis come in a standard order; I would have eaten 12 if given the opportunity. Possibly 15. People talk about “inhaling” good food; these were like whippets.
This review could easily go on for another 400 words just listing and praising various items of food. A lentil and sausage soup ($8 / 14 for appetizer / entree) was surprisingly delicate and well balanced; the spiced oxtail (below, $16) had a well-controlled burn complemented by its accompanying uber-creamy polenta and lively kale; the espresso semi-freddo terrine with “Toblerone” sauce ($8) was luxe and sophisticated etc., etc., and so forth.
It’s more productive, however, to urge you to go out and sample this stuff for yourself — and to fire up public excitement about what spring might bring.
BEST BET: Right now (winter 2010/11) the elk goulash is a real show stopper, but the charcuterie is a best bet for the long haul.
Upper Midwestern fine dining in Armatage, Minneapolis
5416 Penn Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55419
Tue-Thu and Sun 5-10pm
CHEF / OWNER: Don Saunders
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes/Yes on weekends
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE PRICE: $16-24