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The first time I dined at HauteDish, I nearly had to be carried out on a stretcher.
"They ought to call this place RichDish," said my friend. No kidding. After a single bite of chef Landon Schoenefeld's insanely fatty -- and insanely delicious -- mortadella, one of five glorious entries on his charcuterie platter, I probably should have programmed my cardiologist's number into my cell phone, just as a precaution.
That charcuterie! Jalapeño- and tequila-kissed head cheese. The creamiest chicken liver pâté imaginable, with a hint of Madeira. A rustic ham-chicken terrine topped with snappy, cinnamon-laced pickled watermelon. Each element radiated an impressive amount of legwork and imagination, and served as a precursor for the technical fireworks that were headed our way. And, although we didn't realize it at the time, they signaled Schoenefeld's passionate love affair with rich foods.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know how to order right, emphasizing a few lighter dishes before going in for one of the cholesterol-killing courses. One potential problem is the menu, which is purposefully less than descriptive.
"Writing a menu is like writing a poem," Schoenefeld told me. "The words you use are very important. I like to keep it vague, to set low expectations and then wow someone when the food arrives." Though I like that idea too, it can make ordering challenging. Not that Schoenefeld doesn't know how to cook with a light touch. He can, beautifully.
Case in point: A colorful Crenshaw melon soup, finished with berries and radicchio, was as refreshing as a jump in the lake, and, true to Schoenefeld's cerebral cooking style, each spoonful yielded nuanced hints of salt and heat. It might have been the most coolly restorative thing I've eaten this summer.
The vast majority of the menu finds Schoenefeld twisting a familiar dish, each seemingly culled from a retro church cookbook or a vintage food magazine. The danger in this kind of cooking is the temptation to veer into kitsch, or parody, or mad-scientist territory, or arrogant self-aggrandizement, all at the expense of creating delicious food.
Not here. For starters, I don't know that there's a better fried chicken in the Twin Cities. It starts with a well-raised bird (from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn.), brined overnight in buttermilk and tarragon, then gently poached before being fried in lard -- I said it was good, not good for you -- until the skin is absurdly crisp and the meat is beyond succulent. It's served with a sort-of failed soufflé of heirloom grits and sharp Minnesota-made Cheddar, as well as watermelon that's been vacuum-compressed (Schoenefeld's kitchen must possess some fun culinary toys) with a bit of mustard oil until it becomes indecently ripe and juicy but not overtly sweet.
Then there's the ode to the Nicoise, modestly billed as "tuna salad," but this is no StarKist-Miracle Whip concoction. Instead, we get all the proper components (and a few happy surprises: hello, pickled fennel), each treated with copious amounts of tender loving care -- the tuna alone gets more hands-on treatment than Kim Kardashian on a spa weekend -- and then artfully composed into a memorable salad. Or "Steak & Eggs," which turns out to be a gently cooked egg inside buttery toasted brioche paired with a clean-tasting beef tartare and a shooter with a raw oyster floating in a sublime version of V8 juice. Or "Mac & Cheese," a half-dozen giant pasta sleeves stuffed with crab and Tallegio and arranged like a sculpture, each bite pure pleasure.
Tater-tot haute dish
The kitchen's namesake dish turns meat and potatoes on its ear, marinating, braising and then basting short ribs in various red wine reductions until they take on a luxe, lacquered sheen, then pairing them with ultra-creamy mashed potato croquettes and a modern version of green bean casserole. It's marvelous, a shining example of Schoenefeld's fascination with presenting competing yet complementary textures, but it's not a summertime dish. Schoenefeld's bar food is closer to the mark, from a tall stack of a burger and a killer Cubano sandwich to a thoughtful vegetable-cheese grazing plate. Still, the overall sense of the menu is one of heaviness.
One reason why: Outside the pleasure palace that is La Belle Vie, I doubt that any other kitchen finds so many extravagant uses for foie gras. It's stuffed inside a duck breast, turned into a mousse for a skillet-style smoked-chicken pot pie, and poached and then inserted into an already over-the-top version of fried rice topped with hoisin- and mirin-glazed sweetbreads (another admirable trait: Schoenefeld's admiration for variety meats). The dish -- a witty, tasty remake on a Chinese restaurant cliché -- already teetered on overkill without the liver; sometimes, a little restraint can have a larger impact.
Pastry chef Christian Aldrich's brief dessert menu is notable on two counts: his sharply rendered daily sorbet and a swoon-worthy plate of sweet, bite-sized empanadas, filled with a ginger-laced blueberry compote, glistening with sugar and finished with a spectacular corn bread ice cream. The bar shakes up all manner of elaborate, smartly rendered cocktails.
Confusion among diners
I get the feeling that the HauteDish-ers haven't quite figured out where their business falls on the restaurant-bar continuum. Perhaps a keener attention to detail might push the needle in the right direction. Three tiny examples: a lingering stale beer smell (is it the ghost of Mollie Malone's, a long-gone previous tenant?), a vase filled with dead flowers and the sound system's loud, conversation-snuffing guitar rock all transmit "booze hall" and not "culinary playground."
Then there's the HauteDish name. Graphically, it's got pizazz, and I get the inside joke -- French-ified comfort food -- but the restaurant business is tough enough; why hamper yourself with a Google-unfriendly spelling? Besides, Midwesterners -- present company included -- have a long, troubled history with the French language (Mr. Nicollet's surname, for instance), and I've heard oat, hote, hot and even, lord help us, a hot-ey.
So I asked Schoenefeld about it. "Yeah, I know," he said, explaining that a friend had pulled him aside and basically said the same thing: It's Minnesota, and everyone is going to butcher it and say hot, so why not pronounce it that way?
"It made sense to me," he said with a laugh. "So that's what we're doing."
Oh, and that bad-boy-chef narrative, the one that will probably follow Schoenefeld to his obituary? I'm officially over it. What is the expiration date on an isolated, stress-induced hissy fit, anyway? Here's a guy, all of 29 years of age, who has clearly absorbed every experience from his incredibly varied résumé -- he's worked for, and learned from, a veritable who's who of Twin Cities chefs, as well as punched a time clock in some less-than-starry joints -- and has adroitly forged that high-low career path into his own inimitable point of view. Schoenefeld's cooking demonstrates maturity and ingenuity. That's the rep that he deserves.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757