Paul Berglund’s Fat Noodle pop-up in Rochester is a Tour de Force

Paul Berglund speaks to diners at his Fat Noodle pop-up dinner in Rochester, Minnesota // Photo by Tj Turner

A Chef on the Move

Any Minnesotan who loves fine food already knows chef Paul Berglund, whose work at The Bachelor Farmer was instrumental in putting that North Loop landmark on the map. Berglund spent some time working with Ann Kim’s restaurant group before moving this year down to Rochester where he worked with Fiddlehead Coffee Company and then kicked his new pop-up concept, Fat Noodle, into high gear.

These days, you can (and should) find Berglund cooking his tasting menu for small seatings, twice a night, three nights a week, in Rochester. We caught up with him at Benedict’s in Rochester’s Hilton, but he’ll be moving his pop-up to Marrow in December.

Fat Noodle costs $55 a person, with an optional $28 wine pairing. When we dined at the pop-up, we had a choice of two different four-item menus, one focused heavily on pasta and noodles, the other offering slightly less gluten-driven fare.

Photo by Tj Turner

With Tasting Menus, Smaller Can Be Better

If you’ve experienced tasting menus at other restaurants, you may be expecting (or bracing yourself for) excess: fancy ingredients for the sake of fancy ingredients, a dozen-plus courses that beat you into physical submission, a level of polish and pretense that is equal parts intimidating and just plain irritating.

None of that is the case with Fat Noodle, which makes its short menu count by presenting beautifully balanced, approachable plates of food. Service was warm and knowledgeable, and Berglund himself chatted happily with diners at the start and end of the meal to help introduce and explain his ideas.

Photo by Tj Turner

No Mere Spaghetti

When you’re kicking off a meal like Fat Noodle, you want to get people’s attention. Berglund’s durum wheat hand-cut spaghetti with toasted cauliflower did the job. The dish looked simple but was a veritable orchestra of texture and mild, mellow, enchanting flavor, with the cauliflower offering just a bit of tantalizing textural resistance and the noodles themselves having that gently chewy fullness typical of fresh pasta. The addition of kicky dried Calabrian chilis added just the right amount of fire and dynamism to the dish. We could have used a bolder dash of the fish sauce that the menu touted for this dish, but even without it as a real player, there was enough going on to make this dish a solid hit.

Photo by Tj Turner

A Gnocchi To Remember

Few dishes are more regularly mistreated in restaurants than gnocchi, which often appears on plates as gummy, grainy, sodden little nuggets of sadness. Berglund’s gnocchi, by contrast, couldn’t have been more joyful—they were pillowy with just a touch of springy resistance and bathed in a mildly funky, deeply flavorful Camembert sauce accented with roasted cremini mushrooms.

Photo by Tj Turner

Lamb and Company

Fat Noodle’s lamb dish was such a simple concept that it could only work with lovely ingredients and stellar execution: thin slices of roasted lamb leg were presented atop a bed of stone-ground polenta and topped with a light sprinkling of halved kalamata olives. Every element shone and supported everything else on the plate, with the rich brightness of the olives playing against the earthy, tender mellowness of the lamb and the comforting creaminess of the polenta.

Photo by Tj Turner

Lasagna of the Gods

Berglund’s take on lasagna involves a complex meat mixture (beef, mortadella, prosciutto, and more) and a beautifully browned top noodle that brings texture without toughness or carbon. It’s not sauced up in a typically tomato-forward way, but the texture and complexity of the meat filling and the toothsome tenderness of the impeccable noodles make this a dish to savor and remember.

Photo by Tj Turner

The Power of Wine

Berglund works with Rochester’s Tessa Leung of Tessa’s Office Wine Boutique to create Fat Noodle’s wine pairings, and the effort pays off. $28 at Fat Noodle gets you four nuanced, pleasing wines, a fine deal in absolute terms. That three of the four wines we tried were beautiful complements to the food makes their price a steal.

A 2017 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo by I Lauri brought a bright, clean, green apple tartness to the table that was utterly lovely with our winter squash served with shaved Parmesan-like Capra Nera cheese, toasted walnuts, and delicately fried dinosaur kale.

Another great pairing: the 2016 Kellerei Cantina from Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy, a red with an earthy pungency that played beautifully with the funky depth of the Bent River Camembert-enrobed gnocchi on our plate. And if you’d like to hear more about the third harmonious pairing, you need only read about what we had for dessert…

Photo by Tj Turner

Dessert in a Glass

Fat Noodle’s dessert course brought together poached apples, a little bit of maple syrup, and a lightly sweetened oat hominy that popped with chewy texture. It was minimalist, featuring gentle autumnal flavors barely touched by sweetness. The accompanying 2015 “Late Harvest” Royal Tokaji made the dish sing, however, and provided a sweet finish in keeping with all the tasteful splendor of the meal itself. Tokaji can veer into syrupy excess, but this wine had a crispness and sense of balance that made all the lovely liquid sugar shine.

Photo by Tj Turner

A Limited Time Offer

Berglund’s future path may lead him away from Minnesota, as his wife, neurologist Dr. Tia Chakraborty, finishes her Mayo medical school fellowship in mid-2020 and the couple contemplates their next move. And in that case, road-tripping from the metro (or elsewhere in the state) to Rochester to experience what he’s doing with Fat Noodle becomes an imperative.