Chef Joshua Hedquist reached his hand up, and with it, pulled one end of a pliant white rope. It stretched like chewing gum, getting longer and stringier as his hand stretched farther up toward the soaring coffered ceiling in the drop-dead-gorgeous former bank lobby that’s now the northern Italian restaurant Giulia.
When his left arm had gone as high as it could, Hedquist drew the right one out in the other direction, so that the rope lengthened across his body to a wingspan of 6 feet.
That would be 6 feet of cheese.
At Giulia (215 S. 4th St., Mpls., 612-215-5450, dinegiulia.com), Hedquist is bringing tableside service to new lengths — er, heights. The Minneapolis restaurant’s “Mozzarella a Mano” is the latest over-the-top food to be featured in the Star Tribune’s Outta Control video series. (Watch past videos about Juicy Lucy pizza and a deep-fried burger.)
Hedquist’s scratch-made mozzarella, stretched in front of diners’ eyes, is a modern update on the steakhouse Caesar salad and New Orleans’ bananas Foster carts of another time.
The Minnesotan spent years working at Italian restaurants in South Florida that were all about opulence and excess. While a chef at Todd English’s Da Campo Osteria, he borrowed a flambé cart and tried out his idea, making cheese fresh from curd that’s been soaked in boiling water. Paula Deen once tried it at a Miami food festival and “the cheese was so good, she pinched me in the butt,” Hedquist said.
Upon opening Giulia last month, he knew the shareable $16 appetizer would be a mainstay on the menu. He was right; it’s by far the most popular item, with about 30 orders a night.
It helps that it’s an attention-grabber.
Hedquist starts with about 8 ounces of raw Minnesota cheese curd.
“It’s not what you get at the State Fair,” he explained. The curd is “unhomogenized and unmanipulated.”
He then dunks the craggy clumps into a bowl of heavily salted water that’s about 190 degrees. (While he’s doing this, he wears two pairs of gloves, though anyone who treasures their fingerprints should probably wear another pair or two.)
In the salty water, the curd begins to emulsify, and Hedquist taps, rolls and squeezes it in his hands like it’s Play-Doh, until it becomes stretchy enough to turn into the world’s longest dairy-based rubber band.
“It’s like the anaconda of cheese,” he said.
He slowly coils the rope of cheese around his hands and puts it back in the cloudy water. Then he holds both hands together and pushes up egg-sized spheres of what is now glossy mozzarella Bocconcini.
Drizzled with olive oil, a rich and thick condiment made from balsamic grape must and a sprinkle of what he calls “sexy salt,” the cheese is served still warm with a variety of fixings.
It’s buttery, it’s creamy, it’s salty. And it’s a show-stopper.
“Tableside is very popular right now,” Hedquist said.
Why? “Because of Instagram, because of social media. People like to be visually stimulated, and this is like bringing Food Network to the table. Something happened that changed the way we dine.”
But there’s something more to the mozzarella than a tableside mashing of avocados, said diner Laura Wiering, who was in the restaurant on a recent afternoon and tried the dish.
“Guacamole is not chemistry,” she said. “This is science.”