When I first started out as a restaurant critic, I read a leading New York critic’s paragraph-long rhapsody about a “perfect” rendition of fresh spinach sautéed with lemon juice and pine nuts. At the time it struck me as utter hogwash. What could ever be so perfect, difficult, or noteworthy about something so simple? Now, I finally get it: Perfection in a food is so infrequently achieved that when it is it should stop you dead in your tracks so you can marvel and clap.
Of course, there are two very good reasons why perfection isn’t often achieved in food: One, we human beings get hungry every three or four hours or so, and good enough is so often good enough and gratefully received that there’s no great incentive to go the extra fussy mile to perfect. Two, perfection is different in food than it is in other things. It doesn’t mean flawless—one of the beauties of food is that it’s full of organic irregularities, just like people—so even defining perfection requires some work.
Here’s my working definition: A foodstuff is perfect when I can imagine it being done differently, but can’t fathom it being done any better. I have a personal canon of such foods in Minnesota: The turtle sundae at Liberty Custard, the roast-beef sandwich at Maverick’s, the chickpea-and-potato roti dhalpouri at Harry Singh’s, the Salty Dog chocolate bar from B.T. McElrath, and a few more.
If the idea of perfection intrigues you, pop open some champagne, because it’s been a very good season for that fussy extra mile in Minnesota, and I’ve got a few more to add to the list. Two are even to be found under the same roof: The new Rustica bakery and Bull Run coffee bar.
I’ve been singing the praises of Rustica ever since it opened in 2004, largely because Steve Horton, who owns and runs the business with his wife Barbara, is an exhaustive perfectionist. He founded Rustica on the idea that most modern baking techniques have destroyed bread’s flavor. The basic problem, says Horton, is that bakers have come to rely too heavily on machines, and so have accepted a series of compromises in flavor to accommodate the machines’ needs.
For instance, Horton explains, much of bread’s characteristic bready flavors come from something called carotenoid pigments, the things that give wheat its brown, yellow, and orange tones (they’re also found in plants like carrots). Mixing bread by machine puts lots of oxygen into the dough, which destroys these fragile carotenoid pigments. To combat this, Horton bakes largely the way your great-great-grandparents would have.
Because fresher flour retains more of its fragile carotenoid pigments, he uses only fresh, local flour, from Bay State Milling in Winona. Next, Horton does as little mixing as possible, using a painstaking “punch-and-fold” technique in which bakers stretch and fold the dough, manipulating it by hand on a work table. In order for punch-and-fold to work best, it has to be precisely timed so that the bakers are punching and folding the bread at the exact right moment of gluten development, so Horton bakes by timer. In addition, all the loaves are shaped by hand, because loaves shaped by machine have to be dryer and tougher, and Horton doesn’t like that.
All this hand-shaping and punch-and-turning takes time, which gets even more complicated because all of the various breads—the baguettes and natural levain loaves and olive loaves and nut loaves—all have to be scheduled to accommodate one another’s special rise and punch-and-fold and hand-forming and baking schedules so that they’re not competing for bakers’ attention or oven time. To make this work in a large bakery, Horton is the first baker on site, usually arriving at midnight or 1 a.m. and starting the first timer. By the time everything really gets humming, by 3 or 4 a.m., a dozen timers are ticking a dozen countdowns over a dozen different batches of bread in a dance of precision that’s something like a German train schedule overlaid upon a performance-art piece overlaid upon delicious.
I wouldn’t care that much about Rustica’s mad dance of hand-made precision if the results weren’t so spectacular. The baguettes, for instance, have a lovely, tender, airy internal crumb and a sturdy crust, and offer a scent that’s champagne-like and evocatively flowery. The levain loaves are earthy and smell alive and taste true, real, and profound.
The big news at Rustica right now is actually that the new big kitchen allows new big plans: Excellent sandwiches filled by the restaurant Corner Table with goodies like roast beets and mizuna greens with poblano aioli, or local free-range, nitrite-free ham that tastes like something worth bragging to Europeans about, as it’s all sweet and fat and mineral and smoky. (Though I hear that customers new to Rustica are sending letters demanding packets of chips with every sandwich and no aioli because it’s unhealthy? Please, direct all future complaints like this to me and we’ll just settle it with pistols at dawn.)
Rustica is also debuting a whole new line of desserts. For instance, last month it launched an airy gingerbread mousse cake and a Black Forest cake made with layers of chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, kirsch-soaked cherries, and kirsch-flavored whipped cream. This airy, tasty frivolity was well anchored to earth by the best latte I’ve ever had in Minnesota, provided by Bull Run’s coffee bar, inside the Rustica space.
It turns out that Bull Run’s owner, Greg Hoyt, and Rustica’s master of finicky precision, Steve Horton, go way back. Both were managers at Caribou Coffee in the early 1990s, when that coffee chain was in its infancy. (Hoyt joined when Caribou had only three stores, Horton when there were merely 10; both started behind the counter making coffee.) As manager-colleagues, Horton and Hoyt got to know one another, and found they had a lot in common, like the belief that craft and art are perfectible, and that no mountain is too tall to climb to get there.
When I had my first latte from Bull Run I was gobsmacked by the sheer balance of it, which doesn’t sound like something you could be gobsmacked by, but it is. It was energetic and lively, but powerful and deep. It was roasty and caramelized, but fruity and perky. It was creamy and thick, but tart and even. If you care at all about lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso, go there today.
In quizzing Hoyt about why his latte was so wonderful, I discovered a level of attention to detail that awed me. It starts with the espresso itself, made by roasting coffee beans from Brazil, Sumatra, Kenya, and Ethiopia separately, then combining them. The water is specially filtered (and filtered differently than the water for the drip coffee) so that it has a mineral content ideal for espresso. The Hydra espresso machines are handmade in Seattle by a company called Synesso; they are engineered to allow the barrista extra control over the resulting coffee. Finally, the coffee is combined with milk from a Wisconsin dairy, the Sassy Cow Creamery, specially selected for the way it harmonizes with the espresso.
Is this an insane amount of consideration to devote to a latte? Yes! But I endorse it heartily. It costs about the same as a latte from any of the big chains in town, but it’s worthy of building your afternoon around. I’d also point out that Rustica is next door to a Barnes & Noble with a good magazine selection. Zip into one, settle into the other, and you’re having bread and coffee to equal any in the world.
Across town, in St. Paul, another bit of quiet perfection is being conducted at Sweets Bakeshop in the field of cupcakes and macarons, those French filled egg-white cookies that confuse Americans because it seems like they should be the same thing as coconut macaroons, when they’re completely different. Sweets, a new venture by two bakers, Ly Lo and Krista Steinbach, is an exercise in adorable: The store itself is a powder-blue chamber inset with mirrors that create a sense of being inside a dollhouse jewel box. The cupcakes are cute as dollhouse furniture, too: plain, good cake topped with picture perfect buttery buttercream made in flavors both traditional (vanilla) and sassy (breakfast, in which sweet maple tops a vanilla cupcake filled with a sweet ganache into which minced bacon has been stirred).
I love that the cupcakes here are made with good local eggs and dairy, from Larry Schultz’s poultry farm, Hope Creamery, and Pride of Mainstreet Dairy—it makes them taste pure and substantial. But as much as I like the cupcakes’ taste, I’m even more impressed with Ly Lo’s remarkable decorating skills. Her shop is filled with extraordinary examples: work for weddings and cupcakes topped with lacy contemporary cutouts folded like chic butterflies, ladybugs that look just like cheerful toys, and a whole barnyard of carefully sculpted animals each enjoying a plate at a banquet—a pink pig eating a plate of peas, for instance. If you ever wondered where to get cupcakes that will stop crowds in their tracks, now you know.
However, as much as I like the cupcakes at Sweets, I think I like their macarons even better. When I’m in Paris I always make a point to stop at the ancient and venerable pastry shop Ladurée and have tea and macarons. The puffy meringue exterior, the exotic flavors like rose or lavender just seem so sophisticated in such a nice, old-fashioned, fun way. But I like the macarons at Sweets more. They’re fresher. The flavors, like mocha, chocolate mint-basil, and fresh banana, seem more vibrant, and the texture more delicate.
I’m a little shocked to think that the best macarons I’ve ever had are now in St. Paul, not France, and I’m saddened to have one of my favorite Paris traditions undone, but c’est la vie. Whether there’s great benefit to the Sweets crew to doing macarons perfectly in a place that has never before demonstrated a great understanding of or interest in macarons is an open question. But perhaps doing something perfectly is reward enough?
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.
Rustica & Bull Run
3224 W. Lake St., Mpls. (in Calhoun Village, between Barnes & Noble and Punch Pizza)
Open 6:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday–Thursday; 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Friday; 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Saturday; and 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Sunday
2042 Marshall Ave., St. Paul
Open 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday