Piccolo IV: Fifth Anniversary Dinner

Piccolo: Escargot
No, not our fifth anniversary, the restaurant’s. Piccolo turned five this month. We only ate there for the first time last March but it has quickly become our favourite fine dining restaurant in the Twin Cities. So when I saw a reference to a fifth anniversary dinner in a glowing piece on Chef Doug Flicker on Eater in December it took only a few minutes for me to find a phone and call the restaurant about reservations. As far as I can tell, they didn’t really advertise this dinner—I didn’t see anything on their website nor did I see any tweets from the restaurant touting it in the weeks preceding. From this I conclude that most of the tables were set aside for regulars and friends of the house*, and as we are neither (this would be “only” our fourth visit—see here, here and here for reviews of our prior meals) I felt we were very fortunate to get a table. And even more fortunate that due to a cancellation the evening prior we managed to get our reservation moved from 9.30 pm to 8.45 pm.

And no, none of this is building to my saying that our good fortune ended before the meal began. It was an outstanding dinner, perhaps the best we’ve had there. In place of their usual optional five course dinner for $56, they offered only a set seven courses for $85 (and in reality it was nine courses, with two amuse-sized courses to begin, and two dessert courses to end).There were four of us—our companions were friends who we’d aimed at Piccolo for a birthday dinner last summer (a dinner they’d enjoyed tremendously). They offered a wine pairing (for $50 more per head, I believe) but we opted to just get a bottle for the table—I did note both that the wines on the pairing were not from the “value” portion of their list and that those who did the pairing seemed to be receiving quite generous pours. Also, unlike their regular menus, there were no choices for the courses. Which is really a very good thing as I would have been deeply unhappy if I’d not eaten everything the kitchen was making that night (well, almost everything).

As you will see from the slideshow below, the kitchen sent out a few platings that were far more whimsical than anything we’ve encountered there before—but at no point did the flourishes distract from, let alone overshadow the flavours. It was a perfectly conceived progression of courses (though we didn’t get it all as conceived—more on this and some other service issues below) and more evidence that when Doug Flicker’s kitchen is firing on all cylinders it is probably the best in the Twin Cities.

For larger pictures with far more detail on what we ate and what we thought of what we ate please click to launch the slideshow.

We’re curious to see if the more whimsical platings will continue and perhaps become more of the norm (it was only the escargot and hamachi that received the treatment this time) or if this was a playful one-off. But as you can see, even without the whimsy it was a lovely meal to look at (even with my hurried, non-dslr photography). But it was also, as usual, even better to eat. The progression of flavours and textures was spot-on. And if there were occasional courses where there did seem to be something that did not really need to be on the plate (the raviolo with the squab; the prawn crudo with the beef—I assume it was a play on surf-and-turf), and the occasional issue with execution (the raviolo again), there was never anything that didn’t work per se. And, as always, there were through lines—the little leaves of chard (fetal chard, as one of our friends described it), nasturtium, apple in various forms. A composed meal in all senses of the term with technique both evident and somehow organic-seeming.

The unanimous pick at our table for the best single thing we ate was the piece of squab itself. But our consensus pick for best dish as a whole was a tie between the veal tartare and the lobster with hearts of palm. I thought the scrambled eggs were divine as well, but two of the others thought it was a bit too salty. And I’m not sure that any of us loved the desserts—I think the malt shortbread with the caramel custard was my favourite part of the dessert courses. I should also note that there was a screw-up at the end which resulted in our being served the caramel custard before the mandarinquat dessert. If we’d just ended with the caramel custard that would have been okay, but when we got the mandarinquat it seemed very much like it had been intended as a palate-cleansing course between the meat dishes and the heavier dessert, and left us with a somewhat incongruous taste in our mouths.

Service, on the whole, was not as calm as has been the norm on all our previous visits. I will say first that the restaurant was packed and in general the staff seemed like they were being pushed much harder than on any other night we’d been there. This was a much busier evening than we’ve ever seen there. We usually do 9 pm reservations and, in the usual Minnesota manner, the restaurant generally begins to clear out by the time we’re halfway through our meal. On this evening, our 8.45 reservation wasn’t ready till well after 9, and people were being seated well after our meal was underway. The delay in being seated didn’t really bother us but once we did sit down it took a really long time for us to get bread and then to get our wine order in—by the time we managed to order our wine the couple next to us, who’d been seated five minutes after us, were on their second course. So it seems there was some dropping of front-of-house batons. But these were relatively minor concerns.

Alas, the crush may have been the cause of some other more unfortunate aspects of our service. First of all, our server—who was perfectly personable and knew the food quite well—bustled around the restaurant and our table all evening in a manner more befitting a busy diner. And in the process, she splashed water and wine all over the place each time she refilled our glasses (and no, she didn’t ask if anyone wanted their glasses topped up). At various points in the meal, and there is no exaggeration here, water and/or wine ended up on the table, on our menus, on the floor, on our cutlery, in the butter dish, and on one particularly egregious occasion, on one of our friends’ plates. At no point did she acknowledge this, and indeed I’m not sure she even noticed. And speaking of cutlery, at one point while approaching our table between courses she dropped some of the knives and forks she was carrying on the floor, picked them up, came to our table and laid them out! I’d hope she didn’t give us any of the dropped cutlery but it was hard to be confident on that score at that point. We couldn’t remember having seen her before—perhaps she’s new, or perhaps she was drafted to help out on a busier than usual night.

I’m sorry if I’m harping on this stuff at the end of the review but, frankly, it was hard not to notice it—though it did eventually become a bit of a joke at the table. It may seem churlish to complain about the service at the restaurant’s celebratory dinner (and is unlikely to endear me to the restaurant), but it was part of our experience. Still, the food was so good that these miscues did not finally mar the meal. We will, of course, be back—though we do still need to hit up Corner Table, and also to try the new sensation, Spoon and Stable, and also to go back at some point to our previous favourite, Alma, who we’ve spurned so coldly for Piccolo. And we hope to be back for Piccolo’s 10th, 15th and 20th anniversaries as well.

*I spotted local maven Lorin Zinter, late of Heyday. I only recognized him from our meal at Heyday which had been right when his face was plastered all over the p.r—I don’t actually know what all the industry mavens in town look like.

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