Developing the dishes for a new restaurant menu is a little bit like giving birth. There is the initial joyful conception. There is a long and sometimes painful gestation period, and there is the final delivery into the world of something that is both part of its creator, and that will ultimately have to interact with the world and be judged on its own merits.
Tonight, Adam Eaton, head chef at Saint Dinette, is introducing us to a few of his children, and, like most new fathers, he looks just a little bit nervous. It’s one thing to send your beloved little ones out into a crowded dining room to be discussed, if at all, at mostly anonymous dinner tables. It’s another to watch the expressions on the faces of an intimate gathering, as, before your eyes, they consume and form opinions about what you have so carefully conceived.
A half dozen of us have gathered in Jon Wipfli’s kitchen, called here tonight by the prospect of Adam’s cooking, and by the fact that there are so few other places in the Twin Cities where you can find a freezer full of moose. Wipfli’s recent return from Alaska means that the venison and wild boar Bolognese about to make its appearance on the Saint Dinette dinner menu will this evening, for one night only, feature wild Alaskan moose, rather than farmed Canadian deer.
Eaton, wrapped in a dark apron, is assembling a plate of sirloin tartare. He is dark-haired, compact and restrained, with a shadow of black beard that makes him look as if he could be sitting around a table in St. Petersburg, throwing back shots of vodka. He is cracking eggs into his hand, letting the egg whites drool out from between his fingers, and sliding the unbroken yolks carefully on top of the raw beef, one plate at a time.
I’m leaning on the counter, trying not to look too greedy, when I notice a platter at my elbow filled with what look like puffed pork rinds. I pick one up.
“Oh yeah, those are deep fried beef tendon,” Eaton says. “Go ahead.”
They are, I swear to God, so delicate. Like palm-sized Rice Krispies. They are the opposite of whatever you think of when you hear the word “beef tendon.”
“I boil those until they’re tender,” he says, “then dehydrate them, then deep fry them.”
“And they puff up like that?” I ask.
“Just like that,” Eaton says, and he looks up from his work with the first smile of the evening, pleased with this little magic trick.
He proceeds to dress the tartare with mint and Thai basil and cilantro, and sliced jalapenos. Then he leans in and carefully distributes a pinch of black and white sesame seeds over the garnished dish.
“See,” he says. “It’s tartare, but more like Vietnamese tartare. And those beef tendon puffs are like the oyster crackers you’d normally serve with it.”
It’s a neat trick. Tradition with a twist. And it partly answers a question I’ve long had about Saint Dinette, namely, how that eclectic yet somehow themed menu gets assembled. It’s not always obvious how, for instance, shrimp and grits, chilaquiles, a bologna sandwich, and poutine all end up on the menu of a restaurant whose name implies classic American food with perhaps a certain French inflection.
Sure, the menu items above could be explained by the restaurant’s focus on North American locations where French influence is most obvious—Montreal, New Orleans, and parts of northern Mexico settled primarily by the French rather than the Spanish.
But that still leaves Vietnamese tartare, for example—or for that matter Italian Bolognese—appearing a little bit untethered, floating somewhere out past the gravitational pull of the restaurant’s stated intentions.
Photos by Wing Ta
And in fact, even in this kitchen, it is not yet clear how all of this is going to come together. From where I stand, I can see a mound of handmade fettuccine alla chitarra, dusty with semolina, on the far side of the counter, which is surely destined to join the Bolognese sauce smelling pleasantly liverish over on the stove top. But that smell is mingled with the toasted croissant smell of popovers rising in the oven. Behind me on the dining room table sits an arrangement of oblong boxes filled with mixed crudités, looking like overflowing miniature farmers market baskets. There is beurre blanc straining through a tamis in the sink, and what smells like an aioli in a set of little glass yogurt pots on the counter next to the homemade pasta, and, I will admit, the thought that too many unlike things are being attempted here drifts quietly across the horizon of my mind.
Until we sit down that is, when Adam Eaton begins not just to serve us a meal, but to some extent assemble himself in front of us.
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