Don Saunders has always been among the Twin Cities’ most technically proficient chefs. When he makes skate in brown butter, it’s like clouds within a crisp, thin-as-ice shell, perched upon a sauce that’s all nutty froth and caramel butter, just like you see in French cooking textbooks, but far tastier. His technical skills were evident when Saunders cooked at Fugaise, the first restaurant he owned; it was so at Au Rebours, the briefly brilliant St. Paul restaurant where he had his first job as head chef; and I presume it was true when he worked at La Belle Vie and Vincent, where Saunders got his start. It’s certainly true at In Season, his newest restaurant, which opened just before Christmas across the street from Café Maude in south Minneapolis, close to Edina. ¶ There, I’ve had Quilecene oysters dusted with semolina flour and fried till they’re fat and brown as little sparrows, then deftly paired with crisply shellacked little hunks of pork belly: delicious. The yin and yang of the sea and pork in the dish chase one another around in a fascinating game of different-but-oddly-similar texture (the tremble of the oyster, the wriggle of the pork), different-but-oddly-similar interior/exterior juxtaposition (the nubby crisp of the oyster, the sweet crispness of the pork), and then wildly different flavor (the gamey mineral oyster, the sweet fruity pork). That’s good cooking! I’ve also had rings of oxtail so exquisitely cooked that they looked to the eye like brownies but melted at the touch of a fork, and turned in the mouth into something of such velvety intensity that it felt like a conjurer’s trick. I’ve had perfectly prepared chicken confit, admirable sea scallops paired with red grapefruit, and very nice squash ravioli.
And I didn’t pay very much to get these things. The menu at In Season staggers its way from things priced at $7 to things in the mid $20 range, and the service staff will encourage you to believe that nothing is particularly an entrée or an appetizer, though you will naturally conclude that some things are (the plain but good beef tenderloin with beautiful braised baby turnips is an obvious entrée; a hungry man would need about 10 orders of the salmon blini to fill up). The wine list is stocked with plenty of nice options under $40. The dining room, a single largish rectangle with some paintings of bumblebees on the walls and an open kitchen at one end, is serviceable and human sized—you can see everyone at every table from every seat, and that’s sort of nice, in the way of homes with modern floor plans that let Mom can keep an eye on the kids while she cooks. It’s a good restaurant with good food at a good price in a good neighborhood. This dog can hunt.
In Season is unlike Saunders’s last spot, Fugaise, which had better food, more luxe ingredients, like truffles, and more intriguing constructions on every plate. (I remember once puzzling over the various elements that made up the border of a salad at Fugaise: precisely cut little boxes, squirts and microscopic fronds, powders or gratings or I don’t know what. I never did figure it all out.) Fugaise also had a dining room like a prison cell, a front door that many people never could find, and prices that made it the most expensive places in town. When the restaurant closed in 2009, it was sad but unsurprising news: it was a great dog, but it never could hunt. Of course we all learn from our failures. Saunders is only 35 and he seems to have learned enough from losing Fugaise to keep him mindful of the rules of restaurant success forevermore.
What are some of those rules? The menu has to accommodate people not just on big occasions but on small ones, too, which is why servers at In Season will encourage you to have a cheese plate and a glass of wine and not go farther than that—it’s the strategy of the undersell. Though if you have a big occasion, please know that there are off-the-menu indulgences hidden in this neighborhood space. There’s a by-request, special, bigger-ticket wine list, and, also only by request, a dazzling tasting menu.
The other thing Saunders learned is that you really have to address the locavore thing. The name In Season, according to the menu, the chef, and the servers, refers to, and I’ll quote the menu here, “the best ingredients available right now. Therefore, our menu is based on the freshest, most seasonally appropriate items.” Saunders told me that everyone who comes in the door wants to know if that means local products, which it often does. He estimated that, on my spring visits, the menu was about 40 percent local, and in the summer, it would grow to something like 70 percent local.
I suspect, however, that the real reason people are asking if In Season means “local” is because the definition of “in season,” as given by the menu, chef, and servers, is so perplexing. Saunders told me, “It’s not tied to local ingredients. You’ll see tons of citrus on the menu. It’s tied to cooking techniques—braises and confits being more prevalent in the winter [though salads and pan-fried items dominate the menu]—and to things that are available. [“In Season”] is to tell people how I come up with the menu, how I brainstorm what I want to be cooking at a time of year.”
And this is different from how you developed menus at Fugaise? I asked. “This hasn’t changed from how I’ve always written menus,” Saunders replied, “but part of the idea of In Season is to overtly market the idea, the story of how I write menus. Not that tons of other chefs don’t write menus like that, but I think it’s a cool interaction between the menu and server. You learn about what’s appropriate to cook at a certain time of year.”
Got it? In Season means: things the chef wants to cook, in the way he wants to cook them.
All in all, I wish Saunders had named the place Fugaise 2 or Chez Don. Because the question the In Season name inevitably leads you to is, what’s in season? And does it matter if it’s “in season” here or in Florida or in New Zealand when you eat it? Should eating local trump eating what you want?
To which I think: Whoa, who would get to decide? Let’s put it another way. If Citizen A is from Thailand and craves galangal and the connection it provides to her grandmother, Citizen B keeps her plasma TV on all night to keep her anxiety at bay, and Citizen C flies her far-flung extended family to Disney World every Christmas, who gets to say what’s a waste and what’s not? Not me, I don’t want that job at all.
Most important, Saunders has no reason to get bogged down in complicated moral and ethical quandaries. It’s unnecessary, and it’s not really his thing. He’s a great chef with a great new restaurant, and that’s always in season.
Fugaise Two: sometimes the sequel is better than the original, as it is here at the second restaurant of highly accomplished French-influenced chef Don Saunders
Ideal Meal: Salmon blini, any scallop or seafood dish, chocolate chestnut cake, and a glass of Pineau des Charentes. Tip: Call ahead for a pull-out-all-the-stops $70 tasting menu. Hours: Tuesday–Thursday and Sunday 5–10 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 5–11 p.m. Prices: Appetizers from $7, entrées from $15 Address: 5416 Penn Ave. S., Mpls., 612-926-0105, inseasonrestaurant.com
THE PERFECT DISH
Chef Don Saunders makes gravlax ingeniously. By adding fresh grated red beets to the traditional salt-sugar cure for salmon, he not only achieves a visually striking crimson edge to the fish, but adds a faint bracing earthiness to the rich fish. The caviar finishing the dish and carefully trimmed blini only add to the posh, indulgent, accomplished sense the dish creates. Add a flute of something sparkling, and prepare to delight.