REVIEW: New owners, a new chef and a new sensibility make nine-year-old Corner Table a new restaurant.
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