We somehow managed to go four and a half years between dinner at Alma in the fall of 2017 and our dinner there this past April; but now we’ve already eaten three dinners there this year and I think that makes us even. Yes, we went back this weekend for a second dinner in two months. And no, it wasn’t to eat once again the menu we’d liked so much in August. Social media is to blame. The restaurant posted a lovely picture on Instagram of locally foraged mushrooms that they said were on the current menu and I went to look at what else was on there and a few minutes later we had a reservation. What can I say? I am very impressionable. Anyway, I am very glad we did make the reservation because this was one of our best dinners there (I know I say this after every meal at Alma) and one of the best dinners we’ve eaten anywhere recently. Herewith the details.
After struggling a bit with rush hour traffic, we arrived a bit late for our 6 pm reservation on Friday and found the restaurant not yet very busy. As the evening went on, however, they filled up and by the time we left a little after 8 it was completely a-bustle. As at our dinner in August, small pours of prosecco showed up just after we sat down, along with the marinated olives and spiced almonds that are a constant at every meal. As the meal itself continues to be a fixed menu (you pay $95/head and get everything on it) the only choices we needed to make were for drinks. The missus got the Sherry Cobbler from the “Low Proof” side of the cocktails menu and I got the Sorghum Old Fashioned once again. Later I added on a glass of red, a 2019 Rosso di Montalcino, to go with the mains.
And so the food. This is the current menu:
- Marinated olives with orange zest and thyme / Spiced almonds with star anise and pimenton / Hearth breads with Hope butter and fleur de sel / Crispy pork belly with melon-kimchi broth / Pleasant Ridge Reserve cow’s milk cheese with honeycrisp apple mostarda / Pac choi fritter with buttermilk sauce and chaat spice
The olives/almonds and bread and butter were as good as usual. But it was the other three dishes that really shone. For two of them it was the supporting component that really put them over: the melon-kimchi broth that the crispy pork belly was sitting on; and the apple mostarda that accompanied the cow’s milk cheese. For the third it was the lead that was the star: the pac choi fritter was a pakora in all but name—right down to the use of chickpea flour for the batter—and it was the best pakora I’ve had all year, including in Delhi in March. I can’t say I could pick the chaat masala but the buttermilk sauce was an inspired pairing.
- FIRST COURSE
- CHILLED SWEET CORN SOUP Gravlax, smoked roe, chili oil
- MARINATED FIG BRUSCHETTA Aged goat’s milk cheese, ‘nduja vinaigrette, basil
These two dishes demonstrated Alma’s composition skills. The interplay of crisp and soft textures and the sweet-sour-salty-spicy mix of flavours in the bruschetta was wonderful but the chilled sweet corn soup sent us into raptures. It’s apparently a 20 year old recipe that’s been a regular presence on their menus but somehow it was our first time eating it. The bowl showed up with gravlax, smoked roe, kernels of sweet corn and a smear of chilli oil in it: the cold sweet corn soup is poured over. You give it a bit of a swirl with your spoon and mainline heaven. I don’t recommend mixing the whole up completely—you want to have some spoonfuls with more of the chilli oil, some with less; some with more of the roe popping on your tongue, some where it’s a faint accent. One of the very best things I’ve eaten in a while.
It’s been a while since we’ve had scallops at Alma and these were just great. And yes, this was the plate that included foraged (sauteed) hen of the woods and (crisp-fried ) chicken of the woods mushrooms. Again, a lovely mix of textures and a marriage of the scallop’s sweetness with the earthiness of the mushrooms. The steak was served with coconut-braised chard and it may have been my favourite part of the dish—and I’m not just saying that because a couple of slices of the steak were closer to medium than medium-rare than I would have liked (we were told it was roasted in the oven and then reverse-seared). The summer squash & king crab was excellent, all-around, however and my only complaint is that there wasn’t more of it. It also felt a bit like a side-dish next to the other two dishes in this course.
- LEMON SOUFFLÉ CAKE Blueberry compote, caramel tuile, lemon cream
The menu on the website said dessert was going to be a tres leches corn cake. I’m sure that’s very good too but we were very pleased with this one. As this meal was part of an extended birthday celebration for the missus (it’s a significant birthday) they stuck a candle one one of the plates. Before the dessert proper Chef Whelan also very kindly brought us out two slices of a Wisconsin cheese they’re about to put on the menu: a bandaged cheddar. It was rather excellent as well.
For a look at everything we ate, launch the slideshow below. For a change I managed to take decent photographs even though it got pretty dark halfway through our meal. Scroll down to see how much it cost and for a few more thoughts about the meal.
Service was again very good—there when needed, knowledgeable about the menu in most cases, quick to check with the kitchen when in doubt. With drinks, tax and the automatically added 21% “wellness surcharge” the total came to just about $150/head. Yes, that’s a lot to spend for dinner. But if you’re in the market for a celebratory dinner right around now, I’d be surprised if you could do better in the Twin Cities for the price. When you consider the range of dishes you get (again: everything on the menu is served to you), the range of ingredients, the range of flavours and, of course, the quality of the execution, it begins to almost look like a value.
I also want to stress something that I’m not sure Alma gets enough credit for: their curiosity over the years about food across the globe and the deft manner in which they incorporate flavours, components and dishes from various cuisines into their menus without mutilating them, and without any of the juxtapositions seeming gimmicky. The pac choi fritter/pakora, for example, was both an excellent pakora and made complete sense alongside the other dishes it was served with. This is imaginative, inventive, intellectual cooking and it somehow also hits like comfort food. Which is another way of saying that there’s a pretty good chance we’ll eat at Alma again before the year is out. And also another way of saying that you should really try to eat this menu if you can—though I’m sure the next one will be great as well.
Okay, up next from the Twin Cities: probably a Thai report from St. Paul. And this weekend I’ll finally have my first meal report from my work trip to Ireland in July.