Piccolo VIII

Piccolo: Black cod with kohlrabi dashi, nori, and charred cippolini onions
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone: the best restaurant in the Twin Cities, and one of the best in the country, is closing. Yes, Piccolo will serve its last meal on March 11. Read Chef Doug Flicker’s announcement here. Why they’re closing is not entirely clear. My best guess would be some combination of the (not-so) slow death of the market for serious food for adults, a desire to go out on his own terms, and a desire to do something else after seven years of Piccolo. The good news is we are not losing Doug Flicker: his stamp will be on the new Esker Grove at the Walker Art Center; Sandcastle will still be around at Lake Nokomis for people who want lakeside food that raises the bar for the genre; and he will doubtless surface soon elsewhere (though if it’s at the helm of a burger and ramen shop I will not be happy). The bad news, again, is that Piccolo is closing. 

Still, we in the Twin Cities have almost three months to eat there for the first, seventh or seventieth time. Our own thought after our meal there in August had been to give more of our monthly fine dining custom to other Twin Cities establishments for a while (I have already reviewed Piccolo seven times); but after this news broke I made a reservation right away, and we will not be spending our fine dining dollar anywhere else till after March 11.

I am also happy to be able to say that even though the end of the road is in sight and Chef Flicker is still more present at Esker Grove than Piccolo, the kitchen is not slacking in the slightest. Our dinner there this past Saturday was one of the best meals we’ve eaten there, and one of our best meals anywhere this year. It certainly vindicated our perhaps questionable decision to drive 40 miles on the highway on the evening after a snow storm, with temperatures at implausibly low levels.

What we ate:

First Course

Chestnut soup with black garlic puree, pecorino romano, and crispy shallots: This was maybe a touch over-salted but was otherwise excellent. The texture of the soup was excellent and it would have been excellent even without all the other stuff mixed in.

Cured trout with smoked roe, whey, and golden beets: This was mine. Wonderfully composed, my only complaint is that, as at our last dinner here, a plate with a tiny portion of crudo, no matter how delicious, is hard to countenance while the person across the table is working on a much larger bowl of soup.

Second Course

Epoisses capaletti with crispy speck, quince, and scallions: This is on the short list of the best pasta dishes we’ve had at Piccolo, and we’ve had a number of excellent ones. The filling was warm liquid (almost a la XLB) and the epoisses did not overwhelm. The speck and the quince sauce were excellent as well.

Duck liver terrine with apple aspic, celery root, and foie gras vinaigrette: This was mine and was also excellent. The terrine was topped with a little bit of foie gras and was complemented perfectly by the little cubes of earthy celeriac and the acidic bite of the apple.

Third Course

Black cod with kohlrabi dashi, nori, and charred cippolini onions: Fish is almost always excellent at Piccolo and this was as good a piece of fish as we’ve ever had here. The cod was cooked perfectly but I thought the dashi was the real star.

Smoked sturgeon with butternut squash jus and pepitas: My sturgeon was also very good—with a little crisp squash cake and squash “jus”—but suffered slightly in juxtaposition with the cod.

Fourth Course

Duck breast with offal sausage, caramelized parsnip raviolino, and pickled mustard seeds: This was mine and was dynamite. Perfectly crisp skin on the duck and a nice, toothsome layer of fat between it and the very ducky duck. The parsnip raviolino could have been a star dish in its own right, and the offal sausage was excellent too, the richness cut nicely by the pickled mustard seed.

Sumac ice cream with rice pudding, dried fruit, and candied pistachios: Another wonderfully composed dish: slightly tart ice cream, rich rice pudding and lots of textural and flavour contrast from the dried fruit and nut.

Foie gras mousse with cranberry jus, vanilla, and chestnuts: This is the third foie gras-based dessert I’ve had at Piccolo in as many meals and I almost laughed when it came out. This because the previous two iterations (both of which I liked a lot) had involved inserting foie gras more or less discreetly into more or less traditional desserts. But at this point Chef Flicker has obviously said, fuck it, it’s just going to be foie gras mousse. And so it was, over a nice chestnut wafer with a nice, tart cranberry sauce. And it was excellent.

For pictures of the above, click on an image below to launch a slideshow. You’ll see that the kitchen also sent out an extra course on the house—another stuffed pasta with excellent chicken sausage and a sauce whose particulars neither of us can remember except that it was very good. Please factor this comped course into your assessment of my enthusiasm for this meal.

All of this plus three glasses of wine, tax and tip came to $190 or thereabouts. The service was solid, friendly, professional—hopefully some of the front of house staff will reappear wherever Chef Flicker does later next year.

As our dessert was served I quipped on Twitter that if our car broke down on the way home we’d freeze to death on the side of the road but at least our last meal would have been at Piccolo. Luckily, our car did not break down, we did not die, and this was not our last meal at Piccolo. Our last restaurant meal of 2016 will be at Piccolo, however. We return on Friday the 30th for the first night of their rather excellent-looking New Year’s Weekend menu (I’m not a fan of driving on New Year’s Eve). Chef Flicker will be in the kitchen on both nights and I expect it will be glorious.

And considering how good the execution on this meal was despite Chef Flicker not being in the house, odds are good that Piccolo’s successor in the same space will be very good as well. That restaurant will be named Tenant and will be helmed by two key members of Piccolo’s kitchen. I very much hope Tenant will bear the clear genetic imprint of Piccolo. In the meantime, however, there is more eating at Piccolo to come!

5 thoughts on “Piccolo VIII

  1. Yes. I never did get around to reviewing Heartland on the blog. We ate there a number of times before I started reviewing restaurants here. Truth be told, it was a place I respected more than loved. Still, that’s another big loss—and probably felt more by more people.

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    • We ate at Heartland last night and had excellent food. I think I feel the same way about respecting vs love for both Heartland and Piccolo. I loved Auriga but the couple of times I ate at Piccolo didn’t leave me itching to come back. Perhaps we ordered wrong or were in too big a rush.

      I’m guessing that I am part of the problem with the Twin Cities dining scene because I have the interest level and the money to spend on dining like this but choose to fritter it away on even more downscale places. I think this is a hard market for chefs wanting to serve serious food and the upper middle price point.

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