Was it a random moment, or an act of kismet? When a charity event drew Nick and Chenny Rancone and Thomas and Lori Boemer out to dinner, the two couples found themselves seated at the same table. Less than a year later, the Rancones were the proud new proprietors of Corner Table, and Thomas Boemer, the very definition of a rising star, was running the kitchen.
That was 14 months ago, and the restaurant, once the platform for local foods luminary Scott Pampuch, has undergone an admirable transformation. The fever-pitch devotion to Minnesota- and Wisconsin-sourced ingredients seems to have cooled slightly — “seasonal” seems to have edged out “local” as the preferred mantra — and the Pampuch era’s casual, drop-in aura has gained a small amount of intimidation-free formality.
The cooking is certainly different; more refined, more adventurous and obviously a reflection of Boemer’s varied résumé, which includes stints at Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington, at Alain Ducasse’s high-end Mix in Las Vegas, as part of Pampuch’s crew, and as a cabinet- and furniture-maker. Although Minnesota-born, Boemer grew up in North Carolina, a biographical nugget that explains his menu’s occasional Southern accent.
His near-reverential approach to rice is one such trait. Specifically, risotto, with firm Carnaroli grains swept up into an alluring creaminess, a one-two textural epiphany the likes of which can only come from finesse and patience. It looks as good as it tastes, its pale spring-green loveliness radiating from a purée of freshly foraged ramps, their assertive bite mellowed by a long, slow simmer.
The finishing touches are perfection: a disciplined splash of butter and extra-virgin olive oil — and a bit of salty, aged cow’s milk cheese — and Boemer follows them with a seasonally complementary addition of white and green asparagus. What better way to pay homage to this strange not-spring-yet-not-summer weather?
Boemer saves another of-the-moment ingredient — morels — to further demonstrate that he’s something of a starch savant. This time its gnocchi, subbing out the traditional potatoes for pâté à choux, crisping them on the stove until they achieve mouth-melting caramelization as the heat of the pan pumps them up, soufflé-style. Their pillowy qualities are deftly contrasted with the more grounded flavors of ham and those earthy mushrooms (confirmation, as if required, why the Canadian bacon-mushroom pizza is such a classic). The results? Sublime.
As for pasta, Boemer’s no slouch in that department, either. Right now he’s preparing ripple-edged, ricotta-fortified cavatelli, and their dumpling-like texture drinks in a bit of the rich braising juices from a deeply flavorful lamb shoulder ragu, right down to the subtle hints of preserved lemon. It is a brazenly delicious dish.
Tasty tasting menus
The dinner-only menu follows a simple, small-scaled (and what some might find somewhat limited) format: a few starters, mix-and-match charcuterie, the aforementioned starches and four entrees; right now it’s pork, halibut, chicken and duck.
Salads are paragons of delicacy and beauty. A clever, artfully composed vichyssoise reinforces the calendar by celebrating ramps, and preparing them several different ways. And Boemer’s classic charcuterie — silky pâtés, hearty sausages, smooth mortadella, all dazzlingly garnished — are reason enough to visit the restaurant.
Tasting menus account for roughly a third of the restaurant’s sales, proof positive that consumers recognize a good thing when they see it.
Prices aren’t out of bounds: $65 for five courses (with a $30 wine pairing), and $125 for a 12-course, kitchen-table revelry (wine pairings included) that was a popular holdover from the previous ownership. I splurged on the latter, and it was money well spent.
It was certainly a winning representation of Boemer’s creative chops and rigorous technical acumen. It doesn’t hurt that he and his skeletal crew — just two other cooks and a dishwasher — master so many details.
One minute, they were lavishing a criminal amount of nuance on the amuse-bouche, an airy gougère paired with a velvety, intensely flavorful duck liver mousse. A few hours later, the savory portion of our late-winter repast was capped by a superb, spring-is-on-its-way high note of Minnesota-raised lamb, the supremely succulent cuts crusted with garlic and trimmings from the animal. Rather than trying to one-up that glorious ruby, fork-tender meat, Boemer followed his instincts and went humble, adding toothy kettle beans.
Not that the evening’s in-between moments were disappointments. Sweet grassland notes came shining though in a cool, delicate beef tartare. Herb-crusted rabbit radiated a mouth-melting bliss.
Five-spice touches added a bit of mystery — and a crispy outer shell added more much-needed personality — to a shimmering pork belly, an ingredient which, in less agile hands, is rapidly sliding toward cliché status. It’s not every day that a person encounters such a bewitchingly browned, audaciously juicy scallop.
Desserts exude the kind of well-edited discipline that is the hallmark of much of Boemer’s cooking. The restaurant remains a cocktail-free zone, but Nick Rancone is demonstrating a knack for rooting out highly drinkable wines, and selling them at not-outrageous prices.
Turn down the volume
As for the restaurant’s setting, it has deficiencies that were more easily ignored during its earlier incarnation as an apple-cheeked locavore. But Corner Table 2.0 is aiming higher than its Spartan environment might otherwise suggest. Problems are more noticeable.
While there’s little to stimulate the visual senses, the auditory ones can suffer. Blame it on an ear-assaulting alchemy of tight quarters and acoustically unforgiving surfaces. It’s an all-too-common scenario: a vicious circle where the chatter from an overzealous foursome can drown out the surrounding conversations, forcing everyone seated nearby to raise their voices to compensate until a not-so-dull roar ensues.
One night the volume was so harsh that I distracted myself by making a game out of it, crafting as many polite euphemisms as possible for “What did you say?” Imagine my mood.
It’s not that the Rancones aren’t trying. In fact, if their highly personal, we’re-always-here level of service had a default setting, it would be Above and Beyond.
Exuding calm and sincerity, they both infuse their dining room with a level of grace and passion that remains, unfortunately, something of a rarity in this town. If they weren’t already so busy, the couple could probably have a lucrative side business teaching Front of House 101.
In the meantime, here’s hoping they can do something — anything — about the noise. The world needs to savor that risotto in relative peace.
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