One trend worth embracing is the movement toward small restaurants. Diminutive in their scale and the size of the staff, anyway. Their culinary ambition is writ large.
Take In Season. The seat count hovers around 40, and the staff consists of five servers, a cook, sous chef Pete Thillen and chef/owner Don Saunders. That's it. There isn't even a dishwasher on the payroll.
The beauty of this kind of modest setup is that there's almost no filter between Saunders and his diners. Drop in most nights, and chances are that Saunders is working the line -- the tiny kitchen is visible from the dining room, so it's impossible to miss him at work -- preparing dinner, being a literal hands-on owner. And for diners, that is a very good thing.
It's been almost two years since Saunders shuttered his formally minded Fugaise, and since then he's overseen a swank Wisconsin lake resort and a private St. Paul club. Those experiences come through in this latest venture. In Season isn't a Fugaise reboot, although of course it reflects Saunders' confident cooking style. But the differences are clear: This time around, Saunders is keeping it far more casual -- with prices to match -- demonstrating that he is more than able at putting a gloss on more middlebrow ingredients. Truffles, no; truffle salt, yes.
Despite having said that he's always dismissed the idea of signature dishes, Saunders has inadvertently landed himself one, and it's a doozy. It starts with plump Quilcene oysters, plucked from the cool waters of Washington state's Puget Sound. Saunders dusts them in semolina, gently deep-fries them and then pairs these delicate oceanic pillows with robust cuts of slow-braised pork belly glazed with honey. The combination couldn't be more delicious, particularly when a crunchy, sweet-sour cabbage slaw mingles between the two. It's a textbook Saunders moment, a mind-meld of textures, flavors and colors. Even better: It's just $12.
Here's a chef who has a knack for turning what reads on paper like the definition of "disparate" into juxtapositions that make perfect flavor sense. At first glance, sea scallops and grapefruit reads all wrong, but Saunders proved otherwise, searing the juicy scallops in butter until they are slightly caramelized, the golden color riffing beautifully off the deep ruby citrus, the acid of the fruit balancing out the bivalve's natural sweetness. It's downtown cooking -- if such a concept still even exists -- without leaving the neighborhood.
Seafood is definitely a strong suit. I loved the plush ocean trout, an exotic Thai-style opah and most especially a roasted monkfish, the flesh fall-apart succulent and served with fabulous gnocchi scented with cinnamon, allspice and clove. A scallop ceviche boasted clean, bright flavors, and mouth-melting slices of cured salmon were rolled around beets the exact color of the fish and served on tender buckwheat blini.
The soups are brilliantly conceived and executed. An earlier menu featured a puréed butternut squash soup that perfectly captured the winter gourd's essence, minus the usual overbearing cream base. Even better was a more recent ode to the root cellar, with the added bite of spicy house-made pork sausage popping with fennel and cumin; its hearty broth was brimming with lentils and dark green kale, and with every fortifying slurp I could feel my snow-addled immune system being fortified.
A few dishes are no-holds-barred comfort food, aimed at developing a frequent walk-in clientele in search of a midpriced meal. I'd happily part with $15 for another crack at the rich rabbit ragoût spooned over tender house-made pappardelle, or $16 for the nicely spicy oxtail, served with a lavishly creamy risotto and strips of crispy fried serrano ham, or $17 for a crispy-skinned chicken, roasted to perfection and sharing the plate with an outrageously cheesy sunchoke gratin. A meal-sized serving of that root veggie stew was $14; toss in the superb bread basket (from Rustica) and a pleasant California cabernet sauvignon, and it's very good eating for 20 bucks.
Saunders' foray into meat-and-potatoes-land boasted the menu's steepest price, $28, and it was worth every penny. A few velvety slices of ultra-lean beef -- culled from a family farm in Osceola, Wis. -- are quickly seared and barely roasted, just until the meat is a kiss away from medium-rare. The starch side of the equation was filled with sweet potatoes and baby turnips, and the results were spectacularly good.
An occasional outburst of restraint would be welcome, whether the dish in question is an overproduced Peking duck or a discombobulated veal sweetbreads presentation. A dullard (a snoozer of ricotta-filled ravioli, for instance) also pops up now and then, and in a menu of six starters and six entrees, there's little room for error. I started my meals with both the lovingly arranged cheese and charcuterie platters, and my only disappointment was in the price tag. The underwhelming desserts are similarly overpriced.
Simple but serviceable
The setting is an unremarkable shoebox-shaped storefront capped by windows to the sidewalk in the front and a view into the kitchen in the rear. Cozy intimacy aside, it's something of a blank slate, enlivened by an eclectic, they-grow-on-you collection of paintings by Twin Cities artist Paige Dansinger. Beware the occasionally drafty conditions. One night, when the kitchen's pace slowed to a crawl, my feet became so cold that I was daydreaming about a hot water bottle, and I don't know that I've ever owned one. On my next visit, there was no problem.
The menu's seasonal aspect -- Saunders plans to completely overhaul it four times a year, injecting tweaks every few weeks -- has a whiff of being dated, or gimmicky. It would be more of a surprise if a chef of his caliber weren't fashioning his work on peak-season ingredients. That said, he's also tying cooking techniques to the calendar -- braises when the snow flies, grilling during the summer months -- but again, this is hardly a revolutionary business plan.
Still, it's a slight twist on the omnipresent all-local-all-the-time drumbeat -- Minnesota and Wisconsin farms are tapped when the connection makes sense, but when inspiration calls outside the region, In Season answers. If that's the hook that has lured Saunders back into a Twin Cities restaurant, then I'm all for it.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757