On Saturday night, roughly two dozen diners stepped out of the four-degree evening and filed into a studio space in Northeast Minneapolis. Inside was the makings of a feast — more bottles of wine than guests, empty bowls waiting to be filled with soup, and stuffed rabbit loins ready to roast. Out back, the chef was assembling an outdoor oven. Its components: one cardboard box lined with foil, and a disposable aluminum pan full of glowing coals. It’s in this box that the stuffed loins will roast to perfection.
Back in the studio, as guests mingle and drink wine, kinetic sculptures — adorable but Frankenstein-like creations sewn together from old coats, fabric remnants, stuffed animals and boxing gloves — stare blankly at the assembling group.
This patchwork menegerie is more than window dressing; it’s the inspiration for the evening’s $40, four-course menu. Artist Asia Ward built the motor- and sensor-driven monsters; Chef Chris Olson created the menu that complemented the plush, eerily believable beasts. Together, the two were the focal points of this third edition of Paired, an ongoing underground dining/art project launched by Olson in late 2008.
Paired presents guests with art, assorted random dining companions, and a menu inspired by the works on display. Of Ward’s creations, Olson says:
“They look so familiar — that’s a bear, that’s an elephant — but at the same time, they’re grotesque. It’s this weird separation… I wanted to play with that.”
Olson’s menu for the evening, therefore, echoed the familiar-made-strange of Ward’s shaking, squeaking, vibrating lobster/birds and fuzzy scorpion/slugs. The opening shot was, in some ways, the most dramatic: a chicken consomme with rabbit kidneys and livers floating in the broth, dark with menace.
“Everybody knows chicken soup,” says Olson. “But you add these sort of pungent, scary rabbit kidneys and livers… God bless Minnesota, I love this place, but I think people around here are a little wary of things like that.”
The soup is austere but sensuous, the liver breaking up in the broth, dragging a lovely pungent plume of flavor along with each tiny piece.
As guests slurp their soup, Olson plates the next course, a salad with red wine vinaigrette, pickled egg, chicken fricasse and duck “truffles” made from a confit of gizzards. The “truffles” taste like duck confit boiled down and rendered more flavorful; there’s no unpleasant aftertaste or texture to them. Their central shock value is how good they taste.
Olson, not surprisingly, knows his way around food. A lean, bearded man who drinks cans of PBR while dispatching flights of sweetbreads from the back of the room, he combines a native Milwaukeean’s bluff affability with a crystal clear focus regarding all things culinary. Beyond “Paired,” Olson is a full-time chef — after opening Uptown’s Moto-i, he bounced over to Barbette, where he currently cooks. His inspiration for “Paired” comes from an underground dining club in his previous city of Portland, Oregon.
“It was in a vacant warehouse, everybody eating off of paper plates,” he recalls. “But for that night, it was the best restaurant in the city. A totally underground, foodie, nerdy kind of scene. And I wanted to see that happen here.”
Olson works with a regular team of three people to produce Paired: Peter and Brooke Hajinian, who coordinate the events, and Lauren Ignaut, who acts as host and greeter. In the real world, Brooke and Ignaut work in the management office of the Guthrie Theater; Peter is an advertising copywriter.
Two more dishes come down the pike: a rabbit loin stuffed with a tender chive and cornbread mixture served on a mound of mashed potatos with mustard hollandaise, and, for dessert, a slighly bitter orange soup with dried apricots and raisins. Paired with a cinnamon cookie, the soup is part of a harmonious duo; by itself, it’s a little too cool and refreshing for the frigid weather outside.
No matter: The meal ends with applause and guests begin to leave their seats and mingle. Some guests begin to wander out as others attack the remaining bottles of wine with gusto. Ward is asked how Olson did in terms of rendering a gastronomic vision of his art.
“I think he did really well,” she says. “When I looked at the menu, I really liked the small animal aspect of it. I feel like that one detail reflects a lot of what I’m doing. He’s working with little rabbits, and you imagine them as little bunnies, but… they’re also meat.”
Olson has at least two future collaborations on his schedule: Paired dinners are slated for April 18 and May 16. In the meantime, he’s working to get the word out about the dinners… in a limited way.
“We had a big debate the other day about whether or not we were going to invite you,” he says to this writer. “We’re trying to find ways to get the word out there without… you know, taking out an ad in City Pages, or getting a story on KARE11.”
That said, he’s keeping a firm lid on the numbers: 24 people per dinner.
“I think 24 is going to be our max,” he says. “As it is, it’s really compact, and everyone is really in here with each other. Once you get past 25, 50 people, it’s just like… set up the buffet tables and line people up. I’m not that kind of cook, and I don’t want to be that kind of cook.”
For Olson, the fact that the evening is relatively intimate and impossible to duplicate accounts for much of its charm.
“What we’re doing here, it’s a one-off shot,” says Olson. “I don’t write down my recipes… this meal is never going to happen again. That’s a really special thing.”
If you’d like to learn more about Paired: firstname.lastname@example.org
More photos from this event are available on the Heavy Table’s Flickr group.