Piccolo VI & Some Complaining about the James Beard Awards

Piccolo: Arctic Char Mousse
At the risk of turning into Piccolo’s house blogger here is my sixth review of dinner at Piccolo. But before I get to it allow me to complain a little bit about the James Beard awards, specifically the category for Best Chef: Midwest, which Doug Flicker of Piccolo has not only never won, he’s also never been a finalist for. You’ll say I should know better than to complain about the James Beard awards which, like most industry awards, are mostly a matter of who knows whom, who worked with whom and who has the hardest working p.r team. But I’ve never let knowing better stop me from complaining before so why start now?  

Now I recognize that when it comes to the “Best Chef” category in most markets, the award seems to work by rotation: stick around long enough and you’ll probably get one. It’s true that Piccolo has only been open for six years; it’s also true that the Twin Cities don’t have a regional award to themselves (and don’t have enough quality restaurants yet to justify it), which means that two or three finalists every year is the most we could hope for. So maybe Flicker’s turn just hasn’t come around yet?

But in the time that Piccolo has been open Paul Berglund of The Bachelor Farmer, which opened in 2011, has been a finalist thrice (in 2014, 2015 and again this year) and Jack Riebel of Butcher & the Boar, which opened in 2011/2012, has been nominated once (in 2013). Lenny Russo of Heartland, who is also a finalist this year, should get his speech ready by the way: he’s been a finalist five times before in the last six years without winning (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) and it’s probably his turn. In case you’re wondering: among other Twin Cities luminaries, Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma, Lucia Watson of Lucia’s (who has since sold the restaurant) and Tim McKee, of the now-shuttered La Belle Vie, have each won Best Chef: Midwest. (Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable won the Rising Star award during his New York days.)*

Given that Russell Klein of Meritage and Steven Brown of Tilia, two other long-tenured, Twin Cities luminaries, have also never been finalists perhaps it’s not such a big deal that Flicker hasn’t yet made it to the finalist round. And if Russo does win this year a slot will probably open up for another Twin Cities chef—and so maybe I should just wait. But even if a slot becomes available for another Twin Cities chef it doesn’t seem likely that Flicker will be in the running for it. I say this because this year, after being a semi-finalist five years in a row, he wasn’t even on the far longer list of semi-finalists—a list that included Klein and also the chefs from Corner Table, Heyday, Travail and even Surly Brewing Co. (!) (At least the James Beard committee has stopped nominating Michelle Gayer of Salty Tart for this category: she’s great but she’s a baker/pastry chef—she’s appropriately up for Outstanding Baker this year.)

This is when you will remind me of the following points: 1) Alfred Hitchcock never won a Best Director Oscar; 2) the Nobel literature committees in their wisdom passed over Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Rilke, Brecht, Borges, Proust, Kafka, Auden, Narayan, Nabokov, Bishop, Rich, Achebe, Ngugi etc. etc.; 3) I’ve already expressed my own low opinion of the actual substance of the James Beard Awards. And having reminded me of these excellent points you will ask me why I care so much about the James Beard Awards’ failure to recognize Piccolo. Well, first of all, I don’t really care that much: it only bugs me once a year when these lists come out. But to be less flippant, it worries me a little because even though I don’t think the greatness of a chef or a writer or film-maker rests on the awards they win, chefs, unlike writers and even film-makers, are far more dependent on market recognition for their restaurants to survive and thrive.

I don’t need the James Beard award to validate my conviction that Doug Flicker and Piccolo are the best fine dining restaurant in the Twin Cities by some distance (only Spoon and Stable are in the conversation with them in my opinion) and that there are few restaurants anywhere in the US that can match Doug Flicker’s combination of modernist technique and soul. But Piccolo may need more recognition and more hype in order to do the business that lesser restaurants that are better at making noise manage to do. I enjoy not finding it difficult to get a table at Piccolo on short notice but given how much I love eating there I would be fine if I had to plan ahead a little bit more, if that meant more of a guarantee that I’d be able to continue eating there year after year.

The excitement here is about those who are on trend, those who confuse spectacle and substance, those who come here from New York, those who are well-networked, those who are just new etc. etc. Piccolo is just excellent. It would be great if those whose voices have far greater reach than that of a minor, idiot blogger like myself could help make it harder for people, not just outside Minnesota but also within it, to overlook Piccolo.

And on that note, let’s finally turn to this meal!

It was the two of us and as usual we chose to eat five courses each, which works out to 2/3 of the menu. Unfortunately, given how quickly Piccolo’s menu changes (every six weeks or so) this review will be of limited utility in the narrow sense. But even if the menu has turned over by the time you read this hopefully it’ll give you a sense of why I believe you should go eat whatever their current menu is.

What did we eat? (Pictures follow in the slideshow below.)

First Course

Shrimp bisque with fingerling potatoes and fresno peppers: This was the missus’s and it was dynamite. Concentrated shrimp flavour (like biting into the juicy head of a large shrimp, she said, and she was right). One of the better soups I’ve had in a while.

Lamb tartare with fennel, pecorino, Calabria peppers, and grapefruit jam: This was mine and while not at the level of the bisque for pure elemental pleasure it was very good indeed. The gelee made from lamb jus (I think) and draped over the cylinder of tartare (very lamby) was interesting but it was everything else, from the pecorino crisp to the grapefruit jam, which really showcased Chef Flicker’s approach to composing textures and flavours.

Second Course

Sweetbread scarpinocc with escarole, smoked bread crumbs, and onion caramel: This was the missus’. The sweetbreads got a little lost in the pasta (very well made) but it was the sauce (onion caramel with brown butter) that was the star. Very good indeed.

Artic char mousse with crème fraiche, apples, brioche, and trout roe: I ordered this with some trepidation as the last time we had a seafood mousse at Piccolo it was a little metallic, but I was very glad I did. The fish mousse was at the bottom with a big layer of créme fraiche in the middle, then a thin layer of a dill gelee and trout roe on top. I really should have spread it on the brioche but instead I just ate it straight out of the cup and made sure to leave nothing behind.

Third Course

Spanish mackerel with pickled hearts of palm, guanciale, smoked mussels, and lovage: This was mine and it was dynamite. The pan-seared fish was perfectly cooked but again it was set off by the perfect combination of flavours, textures and temperatures elsewhere on the plate. A perfectly composed dish in every sense of the term.

Monkfish with fingerling potato confit, seaweed, and foie de mar: The monkfish, also pan-seared, was also cooked perfectly. The liver, in mousse form, was a bit intense on its own but very good in combination with the other elements.

Fourth Course

Moulard duck breast with turnip puree, garlic, and king trumpet mushroom: This was mine; it was recommended by our server and I’m not sure I thanked her enough. The duck was ducky and it was cooked just right; the turnip puree, black garlic and mushroom gave it an earthy anchor.

Porcelet with celery root gnudi, roasted cauliflower, and potato yogurt: This was the one course on the night that didn’t work for us. The gnudi was a little blah but it was the pork that was the main culprit. Or rather it was the sous vide preparation that was the chief culprit: it rendered the meat too spongy. Disappointment amplified by memories of a similar but far more perfectly cooked piece of pork at a previous meal.

Fifth Course

Grapefruit tart with meringue, cashew streusel, and grapefruit curd: This was the missus’ and it was just excellent.

Yeast cake with dark chocolate, foie gras caramel, and almond gelato: This was mine and it was as mad scientisty as the tart was classic. Admittedly, the mad scientist part was limited to the foie gras caramel: it’s not every day you get to eat liver as part of your dessert. How was it? Well, I really liked it. I will say though that the aroma was quite livery, in a way that the flavour wasn’t, and that might put some people off (me, I make liver curry). Not sure what the response to the dish was from other patrons but putting the foie gras caramel inside the cake and letting it be discovered by the tongue before the nose might be more discreet.

As you will have seen from the slideshow the kitchen also sent us out a couple of small bites on the house. This was a first: I guess once you’ve eaten at a restaurant six times you begin to approach “regular” status. These were things, or parts of things the kitchen is working on for future menus and since they’re not on the menu now for public consumption I’ve not described them. Still, I wanted to make sure to note these; you can decide for yourselves if my enthusiasm for the restaurant may be coloured by special treatment (though do keep in mind that I’ve already posted five very enthusiastic reports).

Service was excellent, as is the norm here: friendly but entirely professional. We appreciated as well our server’s helping out with a wine conundrum. I was starting out with the lamb tartare, followed by two courses of fish and then a return to meat and wasn’t sure what to do wine-wise: given the small course sizes, a glass of wine usually lasts two courses here. She recommended a half-pour of an Italian red, followed by a glass of riesling from an open bottle from the wine pairing menu and then the rest of the red. I wish I could tell you what the wines were but in their quite attractive website reboot they seem to have jettisoned the online wine list. All of the wine (three glasses) and food came to $198 with tax and tip.

Other changes: since our last meal there (back in the summer) there seems to have been some staff overhaul as well, with some familiar faces in the front of the house replaced by new friendly faces. I’m not sure when that happened but the restaurant hasn’t lost a beat.

After spending a lot of time googling James Beard finalists year by year I discovered that the Star Tribune helpfully crunched the numbers last year.

4 thoughts on “Piccolo VI & Some Complaining about the James Beard Awards

    • I’m inclined to say it probably does. Piccolo seems to fly under the radar in the Cities and some noise around a finalist nod, leave alone a win can go some distance in reminding people they should go there as often as they go to the trendier places. Also, a James Beard nod can put them on the radar of business travelers and foodies with money outside the Cities. As a small restaurant every little bit probably helps.

      I should note, of course, that I have no idea what the economics of Piccolo are: for all I know they are doing perfectly well with the business they’re doing and don’t really need very much extra business. Their rent I’m sure is much lower than it is in the trendier locations.

      I guess it’s also the case that I’d like to see the Twin Cities represented in the food world by a restaurant like Piccolo which is far more unique and to see Doug Flicker get more recognition for his cerebral/soulful cooking (whether he cares about that I have no idea).

      Like

  1. We’ve been blown away both times we’ve dined at Piccolo. I think it would qualify for a Michelin star, but I don’t know if they come here.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s