Saturday, July 31, 2010

Haute (pronounced “hot” not “oat” or “hottie”) Dish

My friend Kathleen is a committed foodie. In fact, she was a foodie before there was even a term for serious food lovers. She was pretty influential in my own embrace of cooking. I will always treasure the meal she cooked for Hambone and me when she was our houseguest—pasta with an olive oil, walnut, and anchovy sauce and a salad dressed with a vinaigrette at the heart of which was an orange juice reduction. All of which she seemed to just whip up. When I asked about the pasta, she mentioned casually that it was a favorite dish from a NYC restaurant. She and her friends were trying to re-create at home, and Kathleen, apparently, had nearly perfected her proportions and technique.

Kathleen was in town last week for a conference. We hadn’t seen each other in five years and needed to catch up in a way that is best done over a major cocktail and a delicious meal. I called 112 Eatery, which seemed like an obvious choice for food quality and ambience, but couldn’t get a reservation. Sitting at the bar after a long wait for seat didn’t seem right, plus, while the food is good, it does not trump the discomfort of a few hours on a barstool. And, I wasn’t up for the trek over to Alma, so then what? I am so out of the restaurant scene.

Then I remembered a friend’s recent interest in Haute Dish, which has a bad-boy chef known as Colonel Mustard. Awareness of Landon Schoenfeld’s antics coupled with his scarcity—Chef’s track record made him impossible to find—piqued my curiosity.

First impressions were strong. The restaurant’s design takes full advantage of the vast physical space, formerly CafĂ© Havana. High ceilings support oversized chandeliers. The textured tobacco-colored walls mimic dark wood paneling. Tables have generous space cushions around them. The vibe is great. Our server was attentive. No complaints, so far.

I appreciated the humor and playfulness of the menu. Among other things, the paper menu is affixed to a piece of plywood, which let’s you know attention has been paid to presentation. Food is divided into three sections: first (starters), middle (small plates), last (entrees). As I looked closely, the arrangement seemed a little unfocused and possibly even slightly confusing. It seems as if you’re meant to select a dish from each section, as you were at Alma, customizing your prix fixe. What is the middle section? The prices are too high to be sides. To some extent, the middle dishes feel like upscale pub grub—mac and cheese with crab, tallegio, and truffles; a gussied-up pork and beans; General Tso’s Sweetbreads. All a little over the top.

Kathleen and I split the House Salad—iceberg wedges with tomatoes and crumbled bacon, drizzled with blue cheese and French dressings, a much fancier version of what you would get in any South Dakota steakhouse. For my main, I chose the signature dish, Tater Tot Hautedish. A divine take on a Midwestern classic,* the Hautedish featured a succulent beef short rib perched atop baby green beans and adorned with potato croquettes the size and shape of an Ore-Ida tater tot. 

Kathleen had the fried chicken, which had been marinated in buttermilk, then double fried in lard. Under the super-crispy exterior, the chicken was silky.

So here are my main complaints:
1. That perplexing, disjoined menu
2. The cocktails were totally watered down. Also, the Pimm’s Cups tasted more like gin than Pimm’s liqueur.
3. The entrees were utterly unseasonable. All were stewy, hearty, and rich—perfect for the darkest winter days.  None were very appealing on a hot (87 degrees) and humid July evening. The only exception was the fried chicken, which was served with pickled watermelon rinds and a cooling pressed watermelon and felt like a summer picnic.
4. My “tater tots” smelled and tasted funky. I couldn’t figure out what was off, and that was a little disconcerting. But I had no problem eating all of these crispy/creamy morsels.
5. Everything is so clever, which is both the high and low point of Haute Dish.

I’m also feeling a little fussed over all the slathery reviews. I know Twin Cities foodies are desparate for exciting new places to eat. But, unless the restaurant has taken a precipitous downturn in quality since May, then a bunch of reviewers lost major credibility in my book.

That said, the short rib was impeccable. Velvety and unctuous, it was ideal in a way that I’ve never been able to achieve at home. I will return to Haute Dish because I'm curious about the duck in a can, which may be the most unique menu item in town. I'm looking forward to chef Schoenfeld and his all-star staff working out their kinks with food quality and service—I’d like to see him succeed here.

*The hot dish—typically meat, noodles, and veg bound by a canned cream-based soup— is a staple of many Midwestern family meals as well as church dinners and potlucks. It’s salty and tasty and, I’m sure, very simple to make. As best as I can figure, never having made it, you brown a pound of ground beef, thaw a bag of mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, green beans), mix with a can or two of cream of mushroom soup, and top with a bag of tater tots, then bake. Tater tot hot dish never graced my family’s dinner table. I always felt a little ripped off by that, though now I’m thankful for a mother who had the good sense not to pollute our bodies with processed foods.