What's so important about important?

Porter & Frye is the most talked-about restaurant of the year. They serve dinner, too.

What’s so important about Porter & Frye? That’s the main question that people outside the world of the food-obsessed ask me about the new restaurant at the new Hotel Ivy, and it’s a good question.

Here’s my take: Why do we need our own senators, when the ones from California and New York are talented and ambitious enough to represent us? Why do we need local writers and writing teachers, when so few of us have read T. S. Eliot or Tolstoy as carefully as we could? Why do we have our own hockey team, when it would be so much cheaper just to buy every interested resident a good cable package?

Because Minnesota is different from everywhere else on earth, in food, in politics, in literature, in sport, and the experiences we have here, now, are important, relevant, and different than the experiences that anyone else on the planet is having, and we should be afforded the right to speak, as well as to be spoken to.

We get plenty of being spoken to in the contemporary world of food: New York, California, and Chicago are perfectly happy to tell us what we should eat (at, respectively, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Chambers Kitchen, Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21, and restaurants like the Twin City Grill and Maggiano’s Little Italy, which are run by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises). National food trends more or less trickle down from New York magazines and cookbook publishers. They only trickle up to the extent that we decide how much we will buy of what they offer. As to ingredients and local foodways, I assure you it’s a lot easier to find fresh Japanese yuzu in Minneapolis kitchens than it is to find walleye, morels, or lake-harvested wild rice in Tokyo. Call it taxation without representation, call it intellectual colonialism, call it what you will. But if you believe that food is an art (and, of course, I do), if you believe that food is worthy of any sort of intellectual, philosophical, or ethical consideration (again, of course, I believe that), then, Porter & Frye is important.

It’s also important because homegrown chef Steven Brown, formerly of Restaurant Levain, has assembled a dream-team atelier of other passionate chefs to assist him in creating a truly Minnesotan fine-dining restaurant, and while one great chef is wonderful, a workshop of them is nothing short of a cooking movement. His team includes: chef de cuisine Josh Habiger, who has worked at the restaurant named the world’s best, the Fat Duck in England, as well as Restaurant Levain and Auriga; Erik Anderson, formerly of the French Laundry and Auriga; Abraham Sanchez, formerly of Café Lurcat and Sapor; Mark McGraw, chef of Confluence in Prescott, Wisconsin; pastry chef Juliette Lelchuk, who has worked in the kitchen at San Francisco’s Gary Danko; and Landon Schoenfeld, the young firebrand who made his name opening the Bulldog NE.

When this dream team puts their minds together the results are often exhilarating: A simple arugula salad, for instance, becomes that rarest thing: a salad you will never forget for the rest of your life, and not just because it’s presented in an ingenious cylinder of crouton, made by an elaborate process of molding and cooking ultra-thin slices of partially baked French baguette, but because the flavors complementing the spicy arugula—kumquat, black pepper, yuzu, and golden beet—pull off the neat trick of seeming completely novel and electric and utterly natural. A Berkshire pork terrine (sized for sharing) stands a good chance of being the dish of the year: It’s a modern interpretation of a fairly obscure French-cooking technique called chaud-froid (hot-cold, referring to a cooked meat served chilled) in which a classic paté of spiced pork shoulder and liver is enrobed in a complex sauce based on cream, butter, Armagnac, and potato flour. However, when you get it, you don’t think, chaud-froid. You think, pork cupcake! Really, it looks for all the world like an iced cupcake, but—paired with the violet mustard, plump smoked raisins, thinly sliced radishes, watermelon pickles, and toast points—tastes as complex, rich, and nuanced as anything you’d find in any five-star restaurant: The sweetness of the “icing” plays beautifully off the fire of the mustard and radishes, and the pork terrine seems as warm, homey, and comforting as a night under a quilt.

But what’s the real secret of this dish? Chef Steven Brown explained it to me: “Deep down inside, it’s nothing but a cold meat-loaf sandwich. It’s butter, radishes, bread, watermelon pickles, and mustard. We do all the things your grandmother did but that you’re too busy to do except for one weekend a year,” like make pickles and meat loaf so you can have cold homemade pickle-meat-loaf sandwiches. Or make apple butter, which Porter & Frye pairs with swordfish. Or make the best wild-rice soup in the history of Minnesota, arrived at by a complex path of cooking and juicing various preparations of celery and celeriac, combining the broth with crispy grains of local hand-harvested wild rice (cooked at dangerously high temperatures so that they poof up like breakfast cereal), and garnishing it all with little squares of pork belly cooked until they’re as crunchy as the outside of a candy apple and as tender and creamy as the softest cheese. Each bite of celery, wild rice, and bacon brings to mind a thousand church basements, potlucks, and rural soup-of-the-day specials but—in the best way of fine dining—obliterate them, as if to say: The stuff of life may be carbon, but behold, a diamond.

And that, exactly, is why Porter & Frye is important: Because us Minnesotans mean something. We’re relevant to the culture of food, if only someone was capable and interested in articulating it. Porter & Frye’s wild rice soup, their cold meat-loaf sandwich (or rather, their celery bisque and Berkshire terrine) is that articulation.

Other dishes live up to this great promise, too: The Meyer Ranch beef tenderloin is cooked sous-vide (isolated within a water bath) so that it’s practically spoon-tender. It’s easily the best filet mignon preparation I’ve ever had. King crab, appealingly sold by the pound, is cooked at low temperatures in a butter emulsion until it becomes as delicate and vaporous as rose petals; again, it’s the best King crab I’ve had in my life, and its accompanying deeply browned butter sauce lifts the dish from perfect to indescribable. The French fries are staggeringly crisp, because the team at Porter & Frye spent a month tinkering with them and—using various thermometers, timers, and oil combinations—came up with a way of cooking them four separate times. Several of pastry chef Juliette Lelchuk’s desserts are astonishingly original and good, too: a sort of deconstructed cheesecake in which a sphere of cheesecake filling is paired with a Martian-landscape of poached pears resting on a thin skating-rink of chèvre dotted with thyme syrup is sweet, tangy, not too complicated, and has an appealing purity. Other desserts are less thrilling: A pairing of cooked apples and Cheddar-cheese ice cream, for instance, came off as starchy and bland.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only flaw I found at Porter & Frye: On my worst visit, I encountered Parmesan-crusted walleye as plain as porridge. The $49 bone-in rib eye was cooked unevenly and topped with spinach packed into a tight, peculiar sphere, as if ready to be launched with a slingshot. On that same bad visit, the service was oppressive, interrupting, and hovering. On other visits, though, the service was charming, accommodating, and intelligent, so I’m not comfortable making a blanket pronouncement about the place either way, except to say this: Porter & Frye is truly important—and flawed. But I don’t know that true greatness has ever been achieved starting out from any other place.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

Porter & Frye
1115 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily; late night menu.
Reservations recommended.
Parking available by valet or in nearby ramps or lots.
Prices for appetizers at dinner range from $7–$26, entrées $13–$49.

* Click here to watch our virtual tour of Porter & Frye.