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.
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 extento assemble himself in front of us.
The aioli is served with the crudités, which is beautifully and simply French, but the dusting of dill pollen on top of the aioli interjects a few quiet words about Nordic climates into the conversation. Next to the vegetables is a pot of smoked whitefish rillettes that points with beautiful subtlety both to Adam’s Eastern European Jewish roots (and the tradition of smoked fish in Jewish delis), and also, with its layer of creme fraiche over the top, to the French tradition of preserving pâtés and rillettes with a sealing layer of white animal fat. We spread the whitefish rillettes on the evening’s lighthearted bagel substitute—popovers.
And it all just keeps sort of coming together like that. The tartare’s Asian brightness takes some of the weight off of the sirloin and raw egg. Steelhead fillet en croûte stuffed with wild rice is North America, filtered through French technique, with a playful little artistic detail—the wild rice down the middle of the sliced dish looks like a spine, and half a hard-boiled quail egg looks like a head. So that the dish recreates the fish it was made from.
By the time Eaton serves us the Bolognese, it is evident we are all on the same team here, and the stern concentration that has veiled his face for most of the evening relaxes into a quiet kind of geniality as he prepares dessert. We too, quite obviously, love his children. His white short-sleeve button down with tiny red lobsters looks suddenly impish.
He conceived the Bolognese as an approachable alternative to some slightly more ambitious current menu items. But to be absolutely clear, this is not a nice little pasta dish to bribe the kids with. It is dark and deep and sticky, and it doesn’t mind breathing a little duck and chicken gizzard on you as it leans over to suggest something not quite comprehensible, sotto voce, into your left ear. It happens this evening to be paired with a perfectly dank and tannic Languedoc red, one of my favorites in the world, prickly with half-tamed syrah, that commiserates in its own rough language with the Bolognese’s uncivilized mutterings.
The noises coming from the table appear to offer our chef the final reassurance he needs to finally join us, and we all eat dessert together—a short stack of flapjacks doused in a Québécois poor man’s syrup called sauce chômeur.
Montreal makes more sense now.
In fact a lot of things make more sense. It has been a very North American meal, filled with French and Old World influences, with hints here and there of delis and Eastern Europe. It has been serious and playful and casual and intense. It has been a very Adam Eaton meal, it turns out, and he has managed to introduce himself as thoroughly, in the several languages of his cooking, as if he had been seated among us all evening.
There is a famous John McPhee story about the guy in Hershey, Pennsylvania, who single-handedly must decide, by tasting over and over, when a batch of chocolate is officially “Hershey’s Chocolate.” The mystery of Saint Dinette’s menu seems resolved tonight, by this story, and by what we’ve all been served. There are rules and guidelines and explicit geographical influences, but in the end, it’s not a Saint Dinette dish until it is—through whatever creative and technical channels a dish must pass on its way to the plate—an Adam Eaton dish. Something he recognizes as his. As done. As an extension of himself, ready to greet the world.
We are not quite done tonight, however. There is one more Adam Eaton creation in front of us, and it brings us back, as the rest of the night has, to who he is, to where he has come from, and to one of his favorite North American locations.
Early last century, Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in Montreal, and began making hand-formed woodfired bagels that were slightly denser and sweeter than New York bagels. They became known as Montreal bagels.
Before Saint Dinette opened, Eaton spent three months perfecting his “Best Burger in the Twin Cities,” that is still featured on their menu and always will be. More recently, he has spent months in the company of a wood stove, perfecting his version of a Montreal bagel.
As the last of the wine is emptied around Jon Wipfli’s dining room table, Eaton shows us a photo on his phone of an enormous, wall-sized woodfire oven, and announces that he and Saint Dinette’s co-founder, Tim Niver, plan to open a deli, featuring Montreal bagels, sometime early next year.
There is currently a sad and sizable hole in the middle of the Twin Cities food scene, where a really good Jewish deli should be. It is an inexcusable missing piece, in a place rightfully competing to be considered a national food destination. It turns out that our chef has been holding a puzzle piece exactly that size and shape all night. And he’s about to set it in place, at 901 West Lake Street, in Minneapolis.
It is, to put it mildly, kind of a big deal.