Billy Tserenbat arrives at our house with the odds stacked against him.
We are here to create a kind of Baja California beach party as a way of getting to know Billy’s new Wayzata restaurant, a beach-centric, Mexican-influenced, fish and seafood celebration called Baja Haus.
Except that a sunny May sky has turned suddenly woolen and gray.
And there is a mid-60s nip in the air.
And the backdrop, as Billy and his head chef, Zach Schugel, emerge from their car, is a green curtain of Upper Midwestern woodland that contains no flavor of sea air or clean ocean vista. Chef Zach is an earnest and apple-cheeked Teuton from New Ulm, and Billy is a stout and smiling-eyed Minnesotan by way of Mongolia and San Francisco. Both of them, I think to myself, would be pegged at first sight, anywhere along the Baja coast, for tourists.
As Billy and Zach start unloading stainless trays and plastic tubs—the bright contents of which emit a wan sort of cheerfulness against the grayness of the day—a flock of crows somewhere in the woods begins a raucous shouted chorus, announcing the presence of the neighborhood barred owl.
And as if on cue, the sky finally lets loose, and it begins to pour.
Ask a Minnesotan what food they really crave—as in, “What would you pick for your last meal?”—and you’re going to hear a lot about red meat. I know because I just asked this question of a hundred or so clients and friends. I heard about cheeseburgers and pot roasts. About wienerschnitzel and stroganoff. About ribeyes and porterhouses and tenderloins and T-bones.
You know what I did not hear about? Not once? Walleye.
And here’s my theory. We love to love walleye. And we love to love Grandpa Gene in his Lund at the cabin, back trolling into a drizzly walleye chop. And we love walleye for what it says about us as a people of lakes. And we occasionally even love actual walleye fillets on a plate in front of us. But enough of us have had enough bad walleye, and by extension enough bad fish—frozen and defrosted, vaguely glutinous, heavily battered—that our lifetime ratio of transcendent fish to barely okay fish is maybe, what? 1:1? 1:2? Whatever the ratio is, you probably wouldn’t place a bet at those odds.
Billy puts it another way, as he helps Chef Zach unpack a tray of whole squid onto our kitchen counter.
“Sure we got 10,000 lakes. But really, we’re the land of 10,000 burgers.”
He pronounces the word “BOOR-gers.” Billy’s accent is familiar, but hard to trace. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
What Billy is proposing with Baja Haus is something a little more quietly revolutionary than just another Mexican restaurant in a suburban mall. He’s proposing that the Twin Cities, in the middle of the continent, with a busy international airport at its disposal, stop thinking of itself as isolated from two oceans, but rather linked to them, with hours-old seafood available from almost anywhere in coastal North America.
He’d like us to start thinking of fish, not as a virtuous, inoffensively bland protein, but as something so simple and reliably fresh, that we come to crave it in the way many of us currently crave a salted, seared, and slightly bloody beefsteak. To crave it in the way much of the world not settled by Anglo-Saxon farmers craves fish. The way you crave fish at the end of a hot day on a Pacific beach, with the smell of grill smoke and chilis and lime in the air.
I have to say I’m on his side.
But as I watch Billy begin to saute a whole squid in butter and coconut milk on our stovetop, while the rain hammers down on the kitchen skylight, I wonder if Billy’s chances of turning Minnesotans into fish cravers isn’t about as likely as our turning this day into a sunny celebration of Baja beach life.
But then Zach snaps the covers off of a couple of sauces—a charred pepper salsa, and a bright orange habanero salsa. On their heels come two mole sauces, one a traditional melted chocolate color, and the other a pasilla mole the color of tanned leather. A basket of delicately puffy tortilla chips appears from somewhere.
The sauces are like pots of cheerful paint. The tortilla chips shatter satisfyingly in our mouths. It’s just the right kind of food to ward off a pang of mid-afternoon hunger.
Then the squid are slapped onto a cutting board, giving off tendrils of steam, and leaking a shallow puddle of melted coconut butter. Billy has spent the last three minutes manipulating his wok so that the foaming butter in the pan could find its way inside the cone-shaped bodies, and cook them both inside and out.
The squid are sliced into rings but kept in the original shape of the body, so that, when they are served on elongated ceramic dishes, they look like somebody made squid collages.
Zach plates the tuna ceviche, arranging it into an elegant arc, and then adding bright peach colored papayas, and lime green kiwis, and thin magenta slices of watermelon radish. He pours over an oil, flavored with flecks of burned chili skin, and garnishes with slivers of scallion.
He has lost his deferential politeness and is full of confidence and certainty, earned in part, I have to believe, by working with Billy, a master sushi maker with a deep knowledge of fish and its uses. Billy looks on approvingly at his protege.
“If you don’t share what you know, then you are just a lonely tree,” he says. “You need to be a forest!”
The dish is so fresh and bright, so infused with hot sunshine, it appears to give off light. Or maybe it’s the rain, which is now backing off to a drizzle, under a lightening sky.
Then, while Billy slices a fat fillet of snook—snook!—crosswise for crudo, Zach asks politely for a cast iron pan, and unwraps four Baja snapper, butterflied and scaled, with lipstick-colored tails. He dusts them with salt and powdered red chili pepper, and sautes them, skin side down, in spicy-flavored butter, crushing citrus fruit over the fillets one wedge at a time, before giving the snapper a touch of golden crust in a 400 degree oven.
We are all getting warm. The burners have been running on high. The oven door has released a breath of sea-scented, humid heat into the kitchen. Outside, the sun has re-emerged, with definitive storm-front swiftness, chasing away all but a few lingering puffs that trail eastward across a Pacific blue sky. We decide to eat outside.
Billy, whose other restaurant is Sushi Fix, also in Wayzata, talks about the Global Sushi Challenge, which he competed in as one of the nine best sushi chefs in America.
“I said I was from Wayzata. They said, ‘What’s Wayzata? You speaking English?’ I said it’s in Minnesota. They said, ‘What’s Minnesota? You speaking English?’”
The rain has left a sheen on the deck, and eventually we stop fussing with shoes as we come and go, and just wipe our bare feet instead. A pile of tossed sneakers and sandals and flip-flops accumulates just outside the patio door.
Our deck looks out over a bed of cattails, and eventually onto Turtle Lake, in Shoreview. Two boats are already back out on the water, leaving short white wakes behind them.
The table fills steadily with platters of fish and squid and tropical colors. The sun raises vapor from the wet deck and our shirts stick to our skin.
Glasses clink. And we start in.
Over the course of the meal, new chapters of Billy’s story keep coming out. He does a good job of playing the approachable, good-timey restaurant impresario. Oh, except that he has a geology degree from UC San Francisco. Oh, except that he speaks three languages fluently. Oh, except that he grew up speaking Russian in Soviet Mongolia, and came to Minnesota as a Russian interpreter (THAT’s where that accent is from).
We fill our plates again, and empty them again, and eventually start forking squid rings and cubes of ceviche right from the platters.
Billy talks about his three separate, month-long trips to Baja, and about getting drunk, and making friends, and teaching himself about what made that food work—its simplicity, its flavorfulness, its freshness, its coherence as a distinct cuisine.
We are popping crudo into our mouths like popcorn, and tearing the last of the snapper from the backbone with our fingers. The food is seasoned with a fullness that stays—I want to say, modest. The seasoning is the understudy. It knows that the freshness of the fish and squid are the main attraction, and it doesn’t jump on stage and begin belting out a big distracting aria.
In a shockingly brief amount of time, everything on every platter is gone, except the backbones and tailfins of the snapper.
We are leaning back, talking, and laughing—a modest beach party of Minnesotans, barefoot, sweaty, sleeves rolled, sitting in steamy heat, looking out over water.
It will be a long time, I think to myself, before I bet against Billy Tserenbat again.
In the distance, out over the sun-spattered surface of Turtle Lake, a tern dives into the shallows with a splash, and I believe I hear a gull cry.