Editor’s Note: In Season is now closed, but sister restaurant The Kenwood remains open.
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.
Before I use the Italian restaurant I Nonni as a convenient whipping boy, it’s only fair to offer a juicy morsel of praise. A recent meal there was not really a meal at all — it was a dining experience, in the classic sense. The serene patio — certainly one of the most tranquil and downright enchanting in the area — overlooks a series of small man-made waterfalls and a large but humble country-style garden. No traffic noise was audible; the only smell was that of summer. The food ranged from good (a Tuscan-style steak that was solid, but not of Manny’s caliber) to outstanding, including an ahi tuna pesce crudo with bell peppers and olive oil that must chart among the best dishes of its kind made within 250 miles.
Service was professional — unobtrusive, knowledgeable, friendly without fawning. The whole event lasted more than two hours, and was, in value terms, a super deal at about $60 a person including tip.
Now, on to the whipping.
For all the embrace of terroir and Midwestern pride that marks places like Corner Table, Red Stag, and Birchwood Cafe, there is an idea that lingers in the air around here like a mildew-covered ghost. It’s the idea that if you really want to live it up, you’d better import your food and drink from somewhere fashionable.
Sometimes, this isn’t a terrible thing. Certainly, the coasts have much to show us in terms of fish… and cold-hardy grapes notwithstanding, we’re not living in wine country. In the middle of winter, we’re not going to be eating much local produce, and much of our fruit will come from California, if not further away. Scotch comes from Scotland.
But here is something we do well in the Upper Midwest: beer. Stack the right Surly, or Summit, or Lift Bridge (above), or Furthermore, or any number of local craft brews against anything made anywhere in the country, and you will understand: These are good beers. Not simply good beers for the Midwest, but good beers in the sense that you can like them — love them, even — and defend your opinion empirically against the relentless tastemakers who judge this stuff professionally.
And local beer is something I Nonni doesn’t carry. You can get a Stella (boring), or a Peroni (mind-blowingly boring), or a Tetley’s English Ale, which is what I did. The Tetley’s also was boring, not even measuring up to the passably decent Boddington’s to which the waiter compared it. A Summit EPA or Lift Bridge Farm Girl would both have been equally genial and easy to drink, but with the additional virtue of being delicious and standing for something.
And, as noted earlier, locally made.
We make good artisan beer, right here in the Upper Midwest. There’s no excuse for not offering at least one solid local beer, regardless of how high-class your restaurant may be — in fact, the higher class your restaurant, the more you should grasp the marketing and moral appeal of supporting someone who’s laboring passionately — around the corner! — to make a world-class brew.
But there’s this ingrained idea that the meal isn’t special — it isn’t fancy — if you’re drinking locally. Somehow offering Stella Artois, one of the safest, dullest macro-craft brews available, is sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but taking advantage of the brilliant work going on right next door is a sign of slumming it.
I hit this same beer roadblock while dining at Fugaise, and also at its successor, The Butcher Block. No beer more local than Goose Island (Chicago)! (In defense of The Butcher Block, it was opening week. Hopefully they’ve dealt with the situation.)
A similar provincialism defined I Nonni’s cheese selection. I asked about the cheese plate, curious to hear whether Midwestern terroir might crop up. Our waiter listed three cheeses, without noting their place of origin or maker. Not a great sign.
“Is all of your cheese imported?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s all imported,” said the waiter, proud of the fact.
Fool! Damn fool! You’re living a gouda’s throw from Wisconsin — which regularly wins more international cheese medals than entire European cheese-producing nations — and you’re proud of the fact that you’re shipping stuff over from Italy at great cost!
Let’s pause for a moment.
I Nonni is a high-end Italian restaurant, and if they choose to serve imported Italian cheese, that certainly fits the mandate. But why not offer two imports… and a sweet, nutty, aged parmesan-style SarVecchio made in Antigo, Wisconsin? Or two imports and a creamy, tangy, almost buttermilk-like crescenza stracchino from BelGioioso, near Green Bay? Or an American Grana, by the same company? I’ve talked to Gianni Toffolon (right), the master cheesemaker at BelGioioso. He was born and raised in Italy, trained by Italian cheesemakers, and is incredibly serious and passionate about what he does. He, too, earns medals, and deserves them. Serve his cheese, and you honor Italy and the Upper Midwest, all at once.
Cheese, sausage, honey, beer — fresh produce in the summer, wild game, chickens, and beef and ice cream and butter — we are living in a gastronomic paradise. Sophistication isn’t defined by ignoring that fact — it’s defined by embracing it.
There’s a simple thing that all of us, as diners, can do. When we order a beer, or cheese, or sausage at a restaurant, we can ask where it’s from. And if it’s not from around here — ask why not. A couple years and a couple hundred evangelists should be all its takes to alert every high-end restaurant in the area to what true sophistication is all about.
The Butcher Block, operating out of the former Fugaise space at 308 E. Hennepin Ave., starts selling box lunches this coming Monday. The restaurant is slated to open in earnest on June 16. Two interesting things:
Their hours are going to be late — 5pm-2am Monday through Thursday, and 5pm-4am Friday through Sunday.
And they have 29 flavors of wings, including house, sweet or spicy BBQ, Frank’s RedHot buffalo, honey mustard, spicy mustard, volcano, maple brown sugar, lemon herb, bourbon, country-fried, teriyaki, szechuan hoisin / plum, hoisin BBQ, Thai peanut, Sambal chili, sesame, cacciatore, marsala, strawberry balsamic, caramelized onion balsamic, salsa verde, blackberry red wine, green coconut curry, mango curry yogurt, jerk, coriander cumin lime, harissa Hungarian paprika, cranberry chili, and “kitchen sink.”
If you count sweet and spicy BBQ as two different flavors, that’s actually 30. And sign me up for an order of maple brown sugar and an order of mango curry yogurt. Crazy!
As per a sign at the location, the former Fugaise space (308 E. Hennepin Ave.) will be opening as an Italian bistro called The Butcher Block. They’ll be serving box lunches as early as next week — full menu service commences in mid-June.
Dara is the latest (we’re apparently the last) to report on Steven Brown moving to Nick and Eddie, which she describes as a “foundling home for displaced chefs.” She also reports that Don Saunders of Fugaise apparently won’t find a home there, and revels in the opportunity to eat $8 bar plates cooked up by a master. The ongoing economic Ragnarök may provide plenty of future chances to enjoy masterfully cooked sliders and hot wings…