Piccolo VII

Piccolo: Black cod with sesame seed, crispy garlic, wasabi, and green juice
Five months after my last Piccolo review, here I am with a write-up of our second dinner there this year and our seventh overall. Not that we need any excuse to go back to Piccolo—we have to make a concerted effort to not just go there every time we plan a dinner out in the Twin Cities—but this visit was sparked by the intriguing news that Chef Flicker will be overseeing a new restaurant at the Walker Center that will be opening this winter. We look forward to eating there once it’s open and on its feet but the news was a good reminder that we’d planned to eat at Piccolo more often this year. Well, I am glad to say that the meal did not disappoint. Unfortunately, with the busy season at work about to start, and travel plans in October (to Montreal, if things hold) and December (to Delhi and Calcutta via Hong Kong again), I’m not sure we’ll be able to go back again this year but this meal will do nicely to tide us over to our next. 

We booked just a day in advance for dinner on a Friday and had a 9.15 seating. The restaurant was full, which is always nice to see, and it was also nice to see some tables occupied by younger folk (I can say this sort of thing now that I am closer to 50 than to 40). It was just the two of us and we got the five-course meal as per usual. As per not usual there were also a couple of supplementary courses listed on the menu (this is not reflected on the website). The first, sandwiched between the second and third listed course, featured salmon crudo, and the second was a cheese course at the end. We opted to add on the first and pass on the second. (As to whether supplementary courses are a very recent development, I’m not sure.)

What did we eat? As I forgot to grab a copy of the menu we had, or to photograph it, I am listing the dishes as currently presented on the website. A couple of the dishes were a little different on the night and I’ve made that clear in the descriptions.

The bread was as good as always. The spread was new to us: butter whipped with parmesan and infused with lemon juice. The lemon juice was applied with too heavy a hand, I thought, but the missus disagreed.

First Course

Charred corn soup with burrata cheese and summer truffle: This was the missus’ and it was excellent. I can’t say either of us remarked much evidence of the summer truffle but this was a wonderfully composed soup, rich and light at the same time, presenting the essence of sweet corn without being the slightest bit cloying.

Blue shrimp crudo with tomato water, sour grape gelee, and bronze fennel: This was mine. It was very good but it was barely there, even by Piccolo’s standard of small portions. This aspect was particularly conspicuous across the table from a much fuller bowl of soup. But as it was it was wonderfully put together. On the night there was a shoyu gelee in place of the sour grape gelee and it worked really well with the blue shrimp, and the interplay between the tomato water and the Calabrian pepper oil lightly drizzled over it all was very good.

Second Course

Salted butter raviolini with lobster, corn pudding, and cape gooseberry: This was the missus’ as well and she liked it as much as the corn soup. Heirloom tomatoes took the place of the listed cape gooseberry on the night and it all added up to an interesting mix of textures and perfectly balanced flavours.

Fava bean tart with fennel jam, époisses cheese, and shaved radish: I have to confess that right after ordering this I had a moment of doubt and wondered if I should switch to the scrambled brown eggs that are always on the menu and that are always excellent. But I was well pleased with it when it showed up. Under the shaved radish was a bit of fennel “jam” (confit?) over fava bean puree and finally a layer of stinky cheese that did not overwhelm everything else (a problem I’ve had before with a dish incorporating époisses here). It all worked really well together.

Third Course (Supplementary)

Salmon crudo with goat cheese pannacotta, lemon marmalade and beet juice infused roe: This was not listed on the menu and my apologies to the restaurant if I am misremembering how it was described. Anyway, it was a much larger portion than the blue shrimp crudo and in every other way was as good. I did note with dismay as it was put down that the salmon roe was pink/red in colour and when our server said, “the roe is infused with beet juice” my inner response was “why did they mess with the roe, man?”—but when I ate it I quite appreciated that they’d messed with the roe. The beet influence was very low key and rounded off the briny salmon roe nicely. Everything else worked really well too. It cost an additional $7.

Fourth Course

Black cod with sesame seed, crispy garlic, wasabi, and green juice: This was the missus. There was some confusion about how the fish was prepared (see below) but it was very good. As with the summer truffle in the first course, the wasabi influence was all but imperceptible but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Olive oil poached swordfish belly with black olive, broccolini, and fresno peppers: The fish was perfectly cooked as was the broccolini. Alas, the black olive was a little too overpowering: there were little bits of dehydrated olive over the top which were fine and added a nice accent but the dabs of black olive puree were too cloying and despite all the technique a little too redolent of basic olive tapenade.

Fifth Course

Lamb with merguez-stuffed agnolotti, sweet harissa, and charred kohlrabi: This was mine and it was bloody good. My only regret is that I took a particularly crappy picture of it (by this point in the meal I was just taking single shots of everything). The lamb was just excellent, the merguez didn’t overwhelm the agnolotti, the sweet harissa I would buy jars of and eat by the spoon, and Piccolo remains the world champion in making kohlrabi interesting.

Peterson Farms skirt steak with caramelized onion romesco, jumbo asparagus, and black fig jus: This was dynamite as well and I took an even worse picture of it. The beef was cooked perfectly as was the asparagus, the onion romesco was wonderful and the secret stars of the dish were the unlisted huckleberries that dotted the plate. The black fig jus got a bit lost, but that’s a minor complaint.

Sixth Course

Foie gras mousse with maple ice cream, toasted brioche, and spiced cherries: This is my second foie gras-bothered dessert at Piccolo in as many meals and this one was even better than the previous. It sounds odd, I know, but the foie gras (which you will not mistake for anything else) worked really well, and unlike the foie gras component in the dessert at our last meal, it did not announce its presence strongly to the nose.

Caramel custard with crème fraîche ice cream and pine nut cookies: I didn’t get but a small swipe of this, which I liked. The missus liked it too but said she was hoping it might be closer to a classic caramel custard in flavour than it turned out to be.

We also really liked a number of the ceramic pieces used for the service. Some really pretty bowls and plates.

For pictures of the dishes please click on an image below to launch a slideshow.

All of this plus three glasses of wine, tax and tip came to about $110/head. Without the supplementary course it would probably have been just below $100/head.

Service at our table was fine, on the whole, but I must report that our immediate neighbours had a bit of trouble, finding themselves without silverware for two courses—in both cases they had to flag down a server after waiting for a while. And our server, who seems to have started since our last meal (or perhaps we’ve just never seen him before), improvised unnecessarily and incorrectly when we asked him how the cod had been prepared. “It’s pan-seared,” he said and it neither looked nor tasted like it was. We asked again when he came to clear the plates and this time he went back to check, and, hey presto, it had been poached at a very low temperature. It would be good if he’d known but no big deal that he didn’t—but why not just say you’ll ask the kitchen instead of guessing? And if you did guess, maybe go ask the kitchen to confirm before the guest asks again?

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that this marred our meal. I harp on it only because the occasional service hiccup here is so much at odds with the focus and attention that is manifest in what’s on the plates and so stands out more. Also it’s a bit of a bête noire that service at the Twin Cities’ finest restaurants in general continues to lag behind their kitchens. Jason DeRusha recently posted a list of the restaurants that he believes would deserve Michelin stars if Michelin came to the Twin Cities. My list would be quite a bit shorter than his but I was glad to see him say that on the basis of its food Piccolo might qualify for a second star. I’d agree with that; I just wish the service could consistently keep up. Still, they probably offer the best service in the Cities.

The above notwithstanding, I continue to recommend Piccolo highly and without reservation (though you really should make reservations). If you haven’t been you really should go.

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