On Friday, 11 people gathered in a Whittier neighborhood home for a chef-driven dinner in an ad hoc, unassuming, and intimate setting. To some, the idea of “underground” dining in Minneapolis could seem a bit premature. So maybe it’s fitting that, like the gophers that represent our state, Nick Schneider has made his habitat known above ground (Cafe Brenda) but shows off his depth in an ever-expanding set of gustatory burrows. On the heels of his work with Mixed Precipitation’s Picnic Operetta and last summer’s Tavola Fresca series comes the Sub Rosa series – four dinners pairing food, wine, and music, designed to lift the spirits and warm the February frost. Ironically named after a kind of medieval meeting that should be kept confidential, opportunists be aware: There are still seats available (at $75 a head) for the final dinner this Sunday, Feb. 20.
The evening was designed to stimulate all of the senses. “I’ve begun to conceive the idea of pairing music and food at dinners,” said Schneider. “Not only am I a fan of classical music but since I started on the Picnic Operetta, it seems like a natural way to provide two mediums of entertainment that really complement each other.” Cellist Jeff Erbland, a U of M Masters student and member of the Mill City Quartet, provided the inaugural dinner’s auditory courses. He deftly navigated selections from Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, beginning with the Sarabande, Bourrée, and Gigue from Suite No. 3. The other dinners in the series also plan to feature piano and operatic selections.
Reliance on local ingredients is obviously tough in February, but the chestnut soup starter made it seem effortless. Schneider sourced the nuts from Badgersett Farm and complemented them with La Quercia prosciutto and porcini mushrooms. “Chestnuts are one of my favorite things to make in the wintertime,” said Schneider. “I love chestnuts and I love the agricultural importance of this kind of crop. American chestnut production is making a resurgence. They’re sweeter than Italian chestnuts but they take quite a while to work with.” A prominent celery taste was a wonderful herbal high note in the mellow, earthy soup. The Picpoul de Pinet that accompanied the soup was a revelation for this author – a longtime hater of the Picpoul grape. The 2009 Felines Jourdan version was light, lemony, and a perfect lively contrast to the rustic chestnut flavor.
The gloomier Prelude and Minuet of the minor-key Suite No. 2 were paired with Schneider’s “queen’s course” of Dungeness Crab and Avocado. Plated with a tomato and citrus salad with local mache, it was dressed with quality balsamic vinegar that nicely pulled the dish together. The night’s wine pairings were perhaps a bit by the book for oenophiles, but were nonetheless successful. There is a reason Chardonnay and crab is slightly cliché – the Duboeuf Macon-Villages helped temper the acidity of the citrus and melded with the rich avocado. Pickled shallot was a great touch that added nuance to the crab.
The smell of venison wafted in from the kitchen over the famous Prelude to Suite No. 1, a piece recognizable to anyone who has seen a diamond commercial in the last 10 years. The melancholy Sarabande and more optimistic Minuets from the same suite finished the night’s music as the “king’s course” was served. “This is what I would consider a great local dish,” said Schneider. “It’s a Denver leg of venison from Wisconsin, seared medium-rare, served over a beet and spelt risotto. I’m using local spelt grains and a homemade horseradish crème fraiche as well underneath.” The spelt, toothsome like a heartier quinoa, was bathed in beet color to where they resembled pomegranate arils. The crème fraiche mixed with the spelt completed the “risotto” illusion, with just enough horseradish to offer a distinguishing bite. The widely available Jaboulet “Parallele 45” Cotes du Rhone was an exceptional match – fruity and rich while not overpowering the venison.
Ending the meal with what Schneider called “a very classic Spoonriver dessert” was a sliver of flourless chocolate cake drizzled with a passion fruit reduction and topped with a citrus sorbet. It was a little rich for this diner, but the tart sauce and sorbet did a nice job cutting the dish’s weight. The evening overall was a successful local showcase, from the ingredients and talents to the intriguing dinner conversation. Dispersing into a positively mild February evening, the diners left unlikely to keep the night’s enjoyments a secret.