Octopus is a hot menu item everywhere right now. Around the Twin Cities you can get it grilled (Nightingale), braised (Rincón 38), and heck, even as a pizza topping (Burch). It takes a real pinch of ingenuity and a dash of daring to execute a trendy dish that is delicious without being redundant. At the recently reopened Mill Northeast, née Mill City Cafe (née Porky’s), chefs Matt Kempf and Tommy Begnaud have risen to the challenge with the Octopus Confit.
The octopus arrives to the table on a thin, white, rectangular dish. The maroon tentacles, a stark contrast of color, are crisp bites of salty char near the thin tips, then become tender and buttery near the thicker ends — so unlike the rubbery reputation octopus has made for itself. The inky sea creature owes its velvety composition to an olive oil confit bath with a good dose of lemon and mirepoix.
On either side of the twisting tentacles rest hearty slivers of fennel, caramelized to a deep brown and speckled with blackened edges that are just the right sort of singed. The fennel tops are sprinkled over the entire dish, bringing a pop of bright green freshness to the plate.
The additional vegetable sides that accompany this $12 “small plate” are complete opposites, but when a bite of each is crowded onto a fork with a morsel of that rich, salty octopus, the vision of the chef becomes clear. The first side, poi, is a creamy taro puree with purple potato. This colorful Polynesian staple is smooth and sweet with a hint of nutty richness. The purple mash is offset by a small scoop of tiny cauliflower florets. These nuggets are tender but not overdone, their outsides dusted in a bright curry yogurt sauce with bursts of all the usual Indian heavy-hitters — ginger, garlic, tumeric, and caraway.
The recipe is a complicated web, more random than refined, with each element bringing something wonderful. The confit treatment, inventive sides, and shake up in the spice rack have us craving even more octopi in the already saturated scene.
The Mill Northeast, 1851 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418; 612.315.2340