Last week my place of work hosted a rather famous art critic and his partner; he was the chief guest (as we say in India) at our end of year festivities (and a beautiful, moving speech he delivered too). In past years people in his role have been fed dismal dinners on campus the evening before the main event; but on this occasion the person in charge was one of my more gastronomically oriented colleagues who decided to take a smaller number of people up to a fine restaurant in the Cities instead. And she invited the missus and me to join. I asked where we were going and she said she had her eye on Bachelor Farmer, never having been there before. I asked if she’d been to Piccolo and when she said she hadn’t I said that in my opinion Piccolo was both the best and most striking Twin Cities meal we could showcase for our big city guests.
She was readily persuaded and as the budget was not small I suggested she see if we could get the smaller dining room in the back to ourselves for the entire evening. This too came to pass and, after a little menu adjustment, we sat down last Friday to what proved to be, taken as a whole, perhaps the best dinner we’ve had at Piccolo so far (this was our fifth in just over a year).
There was a set charge for the room (inclusive of food and wine) for the evening—that is to say, we would pay that amount even if we didn’t eat and drink up to that number. The manager suggested a menu and some bottles of rather fancy wine. We discussed and decided that since we didn’t have very many drinkers in the party (only five, and two of those driving) that we’d get fewer (though not less fancy) bottles of wine and an extra course or two. We ended up with an extended version of their current menu: five savoury courses, cheese and dessert. Each course presented two options; the exception was the third course, which saw everyone eating their signature scrambled eggs.
What we ate (see pictures below):
(The missus and I alternated selections in each course so that we could taste the entire menu.)
Chilled cucumber soup with grapes, smoked yogurt and garlic. This was mine. As is the style these days, the bowl came out with the grapes, smoked yogurt and garlic in it and then the soup was poured over. And it was very nice. It was reminiscent of naeng-myun, I thought, but the actual Korean in the marriage was scornful of the notion. She did agree that the soup was very good though.
Tuna crudo with cured egg yolk, mojama, summer truffles and petite herbs. We also agreed that her tuna crudo was superior. I’ve said before that when I eat crudo at most European/American fine dining restaurants I usually wish I was eating sashimi at a good sushi counter instead but I didn’t think that of this. Also: I have no idea what mojama is.
Fried fig tart with fennel, pistachio and Epoisse cheese. This was mine and it was dynamite. The fig was fried tempura style and yes, it was a “tart” (as revealed when I removed the micro-greens on top). And the cheese was very deliberately deployed—it did not overpower the other flavours.
Hearts of palm agnolotti with razor clams, merguez sausage and chervil. This was very good too but I was not as covetous as I’d been during the first course.
Scrambled brown eggs with pickled pig’s feet, truffle butter and parmigiano-reggiano. Everyone got this and, as always, this rendition of their signature scrambled eggs with pig’s feet was transcendentally good.
Chicken confit with fava bean puree, preserved lemons, nicoise olives and harissa. This was mine. The chicken confit by itself, I thought, was just okay, but as a whole the dish came together very nicely indeed.
Trout with breakfast radishes, asparagus, brown butter and lobster stock . Perfectly roasted (?) trout with perfect accompaniments. The missus won this round as well.
Moulard duck breast with pate, morel mushrooms, huckleberries and cress. This was mine. The duck was a tad chewier than I would have liked (though the others who got it had no complaints). The morels and the huckleberries were ace. The dish as a whole was excellent, chewy duck and all.
Grilled lamb with porcini mushrooms, fried cauliflower and Marcona almonds. Indeed, I think I preferred it to this; though the lamb was perfect, and the other components were good too, the whole was not quite as good as the duck dish.
Um, I just looked at the menu I brought back and realized it doesn’t have the name of the cheese on it. I had consumed an alarming amount of wine by this point and so I’m afraid I have little recollection of the name—at the time I figured it would be on the menu when time came to write up the meal. I do remember that there was a mustard seed coating on the cheese and that it was quite good even though the mustard was a bit overbearing. I’ll try to call the restaurant later today and see if they remember.
Dessert is the one area in which I’ve not always been convinced by Piccolo but both options on the night were excellent.
Pedro Ximenez vinegar sorbet with gjetost custard, huckleberry compote and almond milk. This was mine and man, it was great. Gjetost, in case you’re wondering, as we all were, is a caramelized Norwegian cheese. The huckleberry compote was dynamite as well.
Chamomile sponge cake with mango sorbet, macerated blackberries and carrot. This was very good as well but I preferred mine.
In case you’re wondering, my dining companions were fine with my taking photographs. Still, I didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it and so took quick single shots of each dish. As a result, most of these photos are not very good; or more not very good than usual.
And now for the wine. I think the three bottles we drank may have cost as much as the rest of the meal. We started with a bottle of champagne, then proceeded to a white from Rhone for the first few courses and came home with a rather excellent Brunello. All way above my usual pay grade when drinking at a restaurant and all very, very good. What were they?
Gaston Chiquet, Cuvée Tradition Champagne, Dizy France, NV
Chave Hermitage Blanc, Marsanne Blend, 2008
Lisini, Brunello di Montalcino, Sangiovese,Tuscany Italy, 2006
The Chave took a while to open up—it had to warm up a bit—but was very good once it did, with the newly expansive fruit rounding out the oaky entry. The Brunello, however, was great from the first sniff on (our server had smartly decanted it a course or two before we started on it): blackberries, leather, beef stock, cinnamon, smoke; truly a wine for a whisky drinker. Despite having consumed the lion’s share of the wine I also got a very nice madeira to end (Savannah Verdelho).
Our service on this occasion was impeccable: friendly and solicitous without being obtrusive, overfamiliar or overbearing. As I was not paying or arranging payment I’m not entirely sure what the charge for the room, inclusive of everything was. I want to say $1500 but don’t quote me. You can, however, take this review as a wholehearted recommendation of their current menu (which adds on a third option for most courses). It’s probably going to change soon, and history suggests that whatever comes next will also be very good, but this is really very, very good. If you haven’t been in a while or haven’t been at all, this is a menu that will not disappoint. And really on any night Piccolo is as close as you can come these days to a guarantee that you will eat a meal that will stimulate both your mouth and your mind.