The halibut was fantastic.
The dense, malleable fish had been brushed with an emulsified butter-onion sauce before being carefully nurtured over hot charcoals, the intense heat miraculously not clouding the fish’s pearly color. Although it was topped with crisp, quietly sweet shallots and an oil-packed preserved tomato that brimmed with basil accents, the halibut remained the starring attraction in a deep, spouted bowl, which was quickly filled with a steaming broth perfumed with fennel, saffron and roasted lobster.
I closed my eyes, inhaled and sighed. The prospect of bouillabaisse was shimmering in the air, but this was cleaner, lighter, more pristine. And darned near perfect.
The next course was completely different, and equally impressive.
Ropes of a freshly extruded, just-cooked pasta called bigoli (it resembles spaghetti that needs to go on a diet) is made using heritage wheat that’s stone-ground at Sunrise Flour Mill in North Branch, Minn. It was tossed with a robust pork sausage brazenly seasoned with Calabrian chiles and finished with buttery breadcrumbs and tiny Parmesan shavings. Cutting through all that fresh-faced richness was juiced-up kernels of a not-too-sugary heritage sweet corn.
Yeah, a guy could get used to this.
Then came the chicken. Oh, that chicken. Brined overnight and cooked with a watchful eye on that same charcoal stove, it boasted that can’t-fail combination of prodigiously juicy meat and cracklingly crisped-up skin. The plate was finished with intensely concentrated pan juices and expertly roasted root vegetables.
I was dining at Tenant, the remarkable newcomer from a pair of rising star talents, Cameron Cecchini and Grisha Hammes. They met at Borough and later worked together at Piccolo. When Piccolo chef/owner Doug Flicker decided to move on, he leased the space to his employees. Hence, Tenant. Get it?
Here’s how it works: The six-course, $50 dinner is served in three staggered sessions, at 6, 7 and 8 p.m., with eight to 12 diners per session. There’s a bit of overlap — the average meal clocks in around 75 minutes — and on Saturday the crew occasionally tosses in a 9 p.m. seating, as well.
If the experience has a dinner party feel, that’s no accident. The menu is a surprise, which is half the fun. No decisions required, just enjoy what’s placed in front of you. Static, it’s not; every week, a dish is rotated off and replaced, with all six courses collaboratively turning over every six weeks.
It’s a fascinating business model, with Cecchini and Hammes and their colleagues Reed Evavold and Jim Pfeffer (who replaced the just-departed Alex Dayton) doing all the cooking and the serving, and every other task. Yes, just four sets of hands. Exactly how does a four-man operation make any money?
“Anyone who walks in knows we’re not getting rich,” said Cecchini with a laugh. “The trade-off is that we’re cooking our food, and having fun, and working with friends.”
Works for me. The reservations-only format requires that they have the economics nailed down before diners even walk in the door. Smart.
“We’re not rolling 100 orders of pasta because we don’t know what’s going to sell,” said Cecchini. “We know we’ll have 24 orders, so we’ll make 24 orders. There’s very little food or labor waste.”
What there is is an abundance of inspired, honest and exacting cooking.
Guessing what’s next is a treat. It might be sublime gnocchi, seasoned with charred onions and made from a potato-rich formula that calls upon as little wheat flour as possible.
Or coin-shaped slices of hearty, house-cured salamis, served with a gutsy, grainy mustard. Or a velvety chicken liver mousse scooped up with crisp, salty potato chips. Or tender ravioli, some dyed with squid ink, others with carrots, all cleverly filled with shrimp and polenta.
Sadly, the restaurant’s fixed-price format has a built-in character flaw. There’s no a la carte option.
I could have made a meal of the carrots that were served with that chicken. They hail, as much of the kitchen’s produce does, from rebelSoil (a chefs’ favorite in Litchfield, Minn.), and they were beyond glorious. The color of blazing autumn leaves, they radiated a profound essence-of-carrot flavor that comes from being cooked in their own juices, then grilled until they attain a slight, sugars-releasing char.
I’d like a platter, please. Such is the danger of falling head-over-heels for a specific item on a tasting menu. As the kitchen continues its march forward, there are no pauses, no asking for seconds.
Forget about dropping in for a big-old plate of that bigoli, and nothing else, or making a plain-old Tuesday special with a glass of chenin blanc and that sublime halibut and calling it a night. At Tenant, it’s all, or nothing.
I’ll get over it. You will, too. But it’s not easy, because the restaurant’s palatable portion sizes are a brilliant marketing ploy. Think about it. Craving what isn’t available — and then idealizing what you can’t have — are two very powerful forces.
Dessert is ice cream, always.
“Ice cream is the best dessert of all time,” said Cecchini. “Everyone knows that.”
OK, sure. And there’s no denying that this crew can turn out beautifully tempered and skillfully flavored frozen lusciousness, garnishing it with happy thoughts toward texture (nuts, often roasted, or candied) and acidity (colorful berry or fruit compotes), without showing signs of going sundae overboard.
Given the laudable cooking that precedes it, ice cream feels like a bit of a cop-out, a sheepish way of saying “We don’t — or won’t — bake” (ice cream is not an ideal cold-weather solution, either). That’s underscored by the notable lack of bread (a bread salutation could easily bridge the gap between the guests’ arrival and the first course’s debut) since Cecchini and Hammes admirably refuse to serve anything that isn’t produced on the premises.
Other quibbles: Did I encounter too much pasta? Yes, a painful admission, as pasta-making totally falls into this kitchen’s skill set. But encountering three instances in a single meal — plus gnocchi — might be too much of a good thing. Some dishes can also tiptoe into hyper-seasoned territory, and that’s an observation from someone who can never get enough salt.
Cecchini and Hammes have given tiny Piccolo a cursory makeover, most notably removing the wall that once separated the kitchen from the dining room and adding an L-shaped, eight-seat counter. The white color palette helps make the modest space feel larger, and provides a neutral backdrop for the cooking quartet’s fast-paced floor show.
This is one tasting menu that moves at a fairly steady clip; these four chefs obviously know a thing or two about getting a move on. And in the process, a number of service niceties are left unobserved. Are they missed? Not really.
But more finesse wouldn’t hurt. For starters, don’t mop the kitchen floor with a harshly scented cleaner when guests, just a few feet away, are trying to enjoy their dessert. It’s the kind of brusque “It’s Time to Leave” equivalent of an exhausted dinner party hostess suddenly appearing in a peignoir, toothbrush in hand.
Acoustics can be an issue. When it’s going full-tilt, the room’s volume can be headache-inducingly loud, an issue exacerbated by Hammes’ enviably vast LP collection. He spins those records on a fabulously Rat Pack-ish turntable console, and there were times when I longed for someone to turn down the volume.
One particularly memorable touch — in a good way — is the collection of distinctive, hand-carved dishes created specifically for the restaurant by Ogilvie, Minn., potter Jedd Peters. His artistry is one of many reasons why I can’t wait to return. The feeling, it turns out, is somewhat mutual.
“Every once in a while I’ll walk out into the dining room and have this realization,” said Cecchini. “You know, ‘Who gave us this restaurant?’ This is the best job in the world.”
Info: 4300 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., 612-827-8111, tenantmpls.com
Hours: Dinner served Tue.-Sat. Reservations required.
Service: Earnest, enthusiastic and no-nonsense.
Price ranges: $50 for six courses.
Recommended dishes: Menu changes frequently.
Beverage program: Just four (well-chosen) wines — a lambrusco, a Spanish cava, an American chenin blanc and a Rhone valley red blend — at delightfully reasonable prices ($9-$11/glass, $36-$44 bottle), with three selected for a $25 pairing option. Two beers, a rotating house-made soda and a world-class cider ($8) from Milk & Honey in St. Joseph, Minn., round out the options.
Special menus: Dietary restrictions — vegetarian, but not vegan — are noted at the time of the reservation.