I'm fairly certain that the tomato, a thin slice demurely tucked beneath a dainty pile of meticulously diced vegetables, was intended to be nothing more than a quiet grace note. But to my taste buds it was a triumphal fanfare.
Finally, here it was, the tomato that I impatiently wait for every summer, the one that spends weeks being pampered and coddled by sunshine and showers until it fairly bursts with a ripe, juicy shimmer, the one that puts all greenhouse wannabes to shame. That I was enjoying it at Corner Table came as no surprise, because chef/owner Scott Pampuch has a nose like a truffle-sniffing sow when it comes to finding worthy local ingredients. When Midwestern farms are harvesting like crazy, this is one place this diner definitely wants to be: front and center.
Like that night. We took a perch at the restaurant's short bar, ordered the tasting menu and watched chef de cuisine Lisa Hanson calmly work her considerable magic at the stove. Hiring her was the smartest move Pampuch has made, at least since he made the decision to go out on his own four years ago. She's got the goods -- and the big-league New York City résumé -- and together she and Pampuch are cooking with discernment and grace.
I'm also thinking -- OK, hoping -- that relying upon Hanson's considerable prowess will give Pampuch more time for another passion of his: talking. Specifically, chatting up the importance of locally produced foods. It is a subject that can never have too many advocates. He already treats his kitchen as a bully pulpit, using his first-name-basis relationships with farmers far and wide to nail down ingredients and then treat them with the deference they deserve but rarely enjoy.
A meal to remember
Hanson follows suit. What a meal we had that evening. After that tomato, I knew that we were in good hands, and I was not proven wrong. Much of our dinner was inspired by dishes already on the menu, but Hanson seemed to be inserting just enough spontaneity to keep us guessing.
First came chicken two ways, with sumptuous livers over brioche, and then a smooth, mellow rillette topped with sprightly microgreens. Spears of what are probably the last of the year's asparagus were nicely grilled and seasoned with a smoky bacon vinaigrette.
That was followed by one of Team Pampuch-Hanson's great standouts: shredded pork, slow-cooked in fat so that it rather luxuriously melts in your mouth. That night, Hanson was serving it over creamy grilled polenta and finished her thought with just the right tang, a handful of skinny sweet-and sour pickles. I'm hardly a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club, but I didn't miss a morsel of that meal.
That pork! On the regular menu its richness is deftly balanced by splashes of citrus and it's served inside semolina crêpes with wilted greens and a teasingly sweet sugar snap-pea relish. Quite honestly, I couldn't tire of it, not for a second, and I can't be the only one. No wonder the kitchen goes through a hog from Eric and Lisa Klein's Elgin, Minn., farm every week.
Celebrating the everyday
With almost every dish, Pampuch and Hanson remind their customers that workaday ingredients can and should be celebrated with as much gusto as the caviars and foie gras of the world. A crackling piece of pan-roasted chicken, a crispy-skinned salmon fillet with a mellow garlic broth, a house-made fettuccine adorned with fennel and chunks of hearty pork-garlic sausage (one of the many examples of Pampuch's inner butcher, yearning to break free), a sizzling steak exploding with deep beef flavor. Disarmingly simple, abundantly delicious.
Another plus: the pro-vegetarian mindset. The lovingly composed salads are little victories of fresh, just-picked bounty. Soups pop with garden-fresh flavor, and the ever-changing menu always features a few meat-free lovelies, from earthy morel- and chèvre-filled buckwheat crêpes to a creamy risotto flecked with peas and asparagus. There's joy in the daily specials as well, whether it was delicate little pillows of semolina-dried mushroom gnocchi or a luscious sweet-pea flan, the exact color of a freshly mowed lawn and just as fragrant.
While I admire Pampuch's abiding commitment to regional flavors, I'm also happy to see that he will occasionally look elsewhere for inspiration. For example, a steamed artichoke -- chopped in half and finished with bits of soft-cooked egg -- is an artful reworking of a clunker I wish would take a permanent hike, the ubiquitous artichoke dip. Or succulent scallops, lovingly caramelized and paired with spinach and mushrooms. Or a terra cotta-tinted wild salmon, chopped and formed into a drum, its supple texture and cool flavor playing well against pistachios and little peppercorn jabs.
There are inconsistencies. The restaurant's neighborly aspirations get yanked a bit when an open-face burger (delicious, by the way), goes for an eyebrow-raising $16, a rare misstep on an otherwise get-what-you-pay-for menu. Seasonings can occasionally fall off kilter: a miso-glazed tofu over soba noodles was teasingly spicy one night, alarmingly four-alarm on another, and saffron wrestled a berry compote right to the ground. Desserts aren't always up to their savory counterparts; for every ingenious chocolate/cheese plate and voluptuous custard there's a bland fruit crisp or a drab poundcake. And I occasionally found myself looking around the modest setting and playing a little mental What If, as in, What if Corner Table had more square footage and a no-limit Room & Board gift card?
The restaurant doesn't serve lunch, but Pampuch partners with nearby Rustica (816 W. 46th St., Minneapolis, 612-822-1119, rusticabakery.com), using its phenomenal breads as foundations for first-rate grab-and-go sandwiches. The selection isn't huge, but Pampuch culls from the same locally raised proteins he uses at the restaurant (beautiful pink, salt-rubbed beef shoulder, a rich rillette in the guise of a chicken salad) and keeps the final results simple, so their bred-for-maximum-flavor qualities come shining through. It's a swell demonstration that eating locally doesn't have to require a reservation.
"We have all this great product," Pampuch told me. "Why not utilize it in different ways at a lower price point and make it visible to a whole new audience?" I'm all over that idea, but you're preaching to the choir here. You had me at the tomato, remember?