By Adam Estrem
My favorite movie, The Big Lebowski, starts out with a humorous narrative. As the narrator sets up the movie, he says this memorable quote: “sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there — and that’s the Dude.
While Don Saunders, chef/owner of In Season in Minneapolis may not have any of the qualities of Jeff Bridge’s character in The Big Lebowski, I can’t help but think of that quote from the great movie as I eat Saunders’ food. Saunders is the “dude” for his time and place.
I took a Wednesday afternoon, and visited Saunders and his kitchen staff to taste his new fall menu.
“It’s all about taking a list of seasonal ingredients, things that are at their peak, and basing a menu around that,” Saunders said, while prepping root vegetables for a coleslaw component of a dish.
His kitchen is small — big enough only for him, his sous chef and one other cook — very modest for the caliber of dishes pumping out of his sanctuary.
“Stylistically, a lot of my cooking is based in classic French (technique), spilling over into European ingredient combinations,” he said.
His small dining room seats at the most 45 people. The ambiance is chic yet simple with local artist’s work hanging on the walls. The brown leather chairs and hardwood floors make for a cozy, almost intimate dining experience, but the food from In Season will transport you to another universe.
Some of what Saunders creates is admittedly not always “in season” here in Minnesota, but every dish on the menu is inspired directly from ingredients that, for the most part, can be found at your local farmers’ markets. The new fall menu is influenced by things such as beets, apples, chanterelles, kale, leeks, sweet corn and wild game — all of which can be found on many Minnesotan’s kitchen tables.
But Saunders, in his own way, takes those ingredients to new levels. The menu is split up into three sections — in progression of size, starting with small plates and working up to dinner-size portions.
Saunders started us with a flatbread with pork belly, apple chutney, cipollini onions and chevere. The dish was simple, yet elegant. Though airing on the sweet side for me, the dish had loads of apple flavor and subtle salty pork flavor. We moved on to a dish, created by one of his cooks, Joel Debilzan — snow crab with ricotta cannelloni, heirloom tomato confiture and lobster bisque. Though the dish sounds complicated, it was basically a pasta filled dish soaking in bisque. I was surprised with this dish. It was rich and creamy, yet the acidity from the tomatoes and the freshness of the crab left my palette felling clean. The sea flavor from the crab comes through with some punch, showcasing the main ingredient.
The next dish, one that I have truly come to love, was crispy oysters and glazed pork belly with sweet-n-sour cabbage and mustard. Again, the salty fat from the pork belly was cleaned away by the tangy bite of the cabbage “coleslaw” leaving room for the delicate flavor of the oysters. The dish reminded me of a tapas dish from a trip to Spain, and embodied the “try and get it in my mouth in one bite” philosophy of Spain’s bar culture, though one could easily make a whole meal from this dish.
Barramundi, renowned for its sustainability, and still somewhat unknown to the public was showcased in the next course — barramundi with truffled root vegetables, honey crisp apples and porcini mushrooms. The fish is served with one side, skin on, which (and I have no idea why) many people shy away from. I eat the skin, and the skin was amazing.
A slightly fishy, yet crumbly bacon-type flavor, the skin of the Barramundi was extraordinary. The rest of the dish complemented the fish with that tangy acid from the apples, giving great structure to the dish. The next dish, venison meatballs with lentils, braised kale, butternut squash and Benton’s bacon, was decidedly the most Minnesotan dish on the menu. Mild gamey flavor, lentils cooked perfectly al dente, the creamy butternut squash cut in cubes and drizzled with an almost bacon gravy, the dished screamed Minnesota, but with a French twist.
The meatballs were moist, the kale had a slight crunch and the squash gave the sweetness to the dish — a winner in my book. The flavors brought me back to my childhood, eating grandma’s Swedish meatballs, yet more elegant and refined.
As the photographers and reporters that I brought along left, my friend and food mentor Gary Dietz and I sat quietly with Saunders, reflecting on our experience. Filled with great food, wine and cheese, we decided we needed a bit more, just so we could over do it and walk away in a great food coma.
One last course was in order, duck breast with celery root gratin, spinach, garlic confit and madeira. Duck has long been my favorite bird to eat, and Saunders didn’t disappoint. Simple dishes are often the hardest to make, yet the simplicity of this dish was its selling point. The duck was cooked perfectly medium rare, with nicely seasoned crispy skin, the duck almost popped in my mouth.
The gratin made from celery root was slightly bitter, but rich and the confit garlic melted in my mouth. It’s hard to summarize a gastronomic experience, or a philosophy of a great chef. But I think what it all comes down to is love.
You can taste love. That’s why mom’s food tastes so great, and why Saunders’ restaurant is still going strong after a year in business. It is obvious to me that Saunders takes great pride in his ingredients, and truly loves all of his dishes. Saunders is, after all, the Dude.
Saunders is pairing with the Hughes Foundation the weekend of Nov. 18-19 for the Fine Art & Dining for HIV/AIDS event. During that time, a special tasting menu will be offered and 20 percent of the proceeds will go to the Hughes Foundation. This will be a great opportunity to taste the same dishes I did, as well as some favorites from past menus.
Adam Estrem is a writer, photographer, foodie and cook. After traveling the world and tasting the cuisines and wines of Mexico, Spain, France and much of Europe and the middle east, he has gone local and focused on restaurants and food producers of Minnesota. When he isn’t working you can find him in his kitchen, creating recipes and entertaining friends. You can follow him on Twitter (@mspfoodie) or email him (email@example.com).