Small Wonder

Doug Flicker’s tiny Piccolo halves portion sizes and doubles the pleasure

The difference between Piccolo and every other restaurant in Minnesota can be more or less summed up in two words: jellied celeriac. Jellied celeriac, of course, sounds like the sort of food that would be meted out as punishment to heroic young orphans in a Lemony Snicket book—not like a preparation that enchants the senses and engages the intellect. But at Piccolo, the new restaurant of celebrated Minneapolis chef Doug Flicker, jellied celeriac is a dish that does just that.

First, the senses: This particular celeriac arrives at the table in a single slice, the ghostly, subterranean-pale segments of the root arranged like ivory piano keys in a sunbeam of sparkling jelly. On one side lies an open-rose swirl of Speck dell’ Alto Adige, the intense prosciutto-like ham from northern Italy; on the other, a bit of allspice-touched apple butter. Take a forkful of this jellied celeriac and it tastes open and light, like a Midwestern kitchen garden, though if you pair it with the speck, it suddenly becomes European, reminiscent of Michelin-starred cooking of the most elevated hotels. And then, if you pair it with the simple apple butter, the dish becomes American again: The hearty, homey, licorice notes of the celeriac suddenly shine through, making you wonder why jellied celeriac isn’t as popular as baloney sandwiches!

Now, for the intellect: This jellied celeriac announces the return of Flicker, formerly of Auriga, and before that a top cook at D’Amico Cucina and the Loring Café. It also functions as the rough equivalent of road flares in announcing that this is the restaurant of a chef who has stopped cooking for the madding crowd, and now cooks for himself —as well as the two- or three-dozen people who can fit into this vest-pocket-sized restaurant.

Of course, jellied celeriac is not for everyone. Flicker also offers glories like veal-tongue pavé, thin layered slices of alternating horseradish-buttered potatoes and pastrami-cured, hickory-smoke-powdered veal tongue, served with a salad of paper-thin slices of cornichon and sweet onion pickles, the savory, rich pavé and sour-tart salad bridged by a buoyant caraway foam that turns the whole dish into something between a wink (I’m just a Reuben!) and a waltz. And if neither jellied celeriac nor veal tongue is your thing, there’s always sous-vide cooked chicken thigh, fused neatly to a savory Thanksgiving-like bread stuffing, the whole thing seared until it’s so crisp you could bounce a quarter off the skin. Yet the meat remains spoon-tender, and the whole thing ascends to that place of exquisite comfort food that turns the mind soppy and preoccupied with the dishes your mother used to make. And if you think that this roast chicken sounds lovely but the other dishes sound alarming, I have bad news for you. You will hate this place.

Piccolo is a restaurant unlike any other we’ve ever had in Minneapolis. It’s basically only for people who are comfortable speaking in the semi-international language of European and American chefs. To wit: One early, scathing review had Internet commenters piling on a “$13 meatball,” actually a preparation of confited lamb shoulder en crépinette—wrapped, that is, in the all-but-impossible-to-get lacy membrane of fat that surrounds a lamb’s small intestine and cooked so that the fat disappears and is replaced by a crispness which itself bears the faintest shadow of meatiness. This technique is typically one deployed only in five-star kitchens. Thomas Keller uses it often at Per Se and French Laundry. Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten use it, too. I have encountered the technique in Minnesota mainly when insanely ambitious home chefs try to cook The French Laundry Cookbook from cover to cover and turn to me to try to find caul fat. Twice when I’ve managed to connect readers with the delicate stuff, they’ve written later to say they botched it. I imagine the reason more chefs don’t prepare things en crépinette is because it’s a pain in the neck, takes a lot of time, and imparts only an extra percent or two of finesse to a final dish, a bit of finesse that is lost on most people who aren’t Michelin inspectors. I didn’t even like the lamb en crépinette at Piccolo. I thought it was gamy without being lusty, and thus not worth the bother, even with the lovely accompaniment of squash confit and house-made quince paste. But I didn’t like it because it failed compared to other lamb en crépinette on a world stage, not because I mistook it for a $13 dollar meatball. And if the difference between these two points seems obnoxiously effete to you, I wouldn’t argue with you. But I’d also point out that just as the world has room for the Beach Boys, the Ramones, and Usher, it also contains room for composers like Charles Ives, Philip Glass, and John Coltrane—artists who tinker with and reinvent things that the rest of us didn’t know needed reinvention.

The most unsettling thing that Flicker is tinkering with is something I didn’t even know was up for debate, namely entrée portion size. Piccolo’s menu of “small plates” is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s essentially the equivalent of the five-course tasting menu at a restaurant like La Belle Vie, except the individual dishes are sold à la carte so that you may get every single little course, or as few as you wish. I’ve found that a total of four courses, (three savory, one dessert,) make a typical meal; big appetites will want five courses. Most of the courses are priced between $6 and $14, so plan on spending between $35 and $50 a person for a full dinner, and consider the restaurant in a league, in terms of both cooking and cost, with places like Alma, Meritage, and Lucia’s. Whatever you do, don’t eye the menu prices and think you can get dinner for $20 by ordering two of Piccolo’s small plates: You cannot. You also cannot get the kitchen to make you a simple green salad because you don’t see anything on the menu you want and you assume every restaurant kitchen is well-supplied with lettuce. If the lettuce isn’t locally grown and up to Flicker’s standards, he doesn’t have it: “I simply will not buy a three-pound box of spring-mix lettuce,” Flicker told me on the phone. “I remember when there was a time when people used to buy individual heads of lettuce and make their own mixes, and then it got popular, and now it has turned into this commodity of overworked land and small lettuces that no longer taste like the earth. When it’s the season for lettuce, I’ll have all the lettuce in the world. But what’s the point in having it out of season? It’s that exact point I want to fight against.”

That point being, in macro terms, the unthinking conventions, habits, and traditions that underlie restaurants. Like the idea of a five-ounce portion of fish flanked by another 10 ounces of various starches and vegetables: “The whole economic model of a restaurant,” Flicker told me, “is based on the idea that you need to bring in X dollars per evening, based on Y customers. Let’s say you need them to spend $45 in food. The entrée is designed to pick up two-thirds of that, so the question is, ‘What will people think is a good value for $30?’ So you’ve got a five-ounce portion of fish, maybe an eight-ounce chicken breast, or what have you, and you’ve got to balance that out with maybe another eight ounces of potato purée, and everything else you have to throw at it to make it work out [financially]. As a customer, though, your brain shuts off after four bites and you’re just working to get a clean plate because you’re a good Minnesotan. My idea is to take half that traditional big-entrée size so that people can eat two of them—and feel better, have twice as many flavors, and have twice the experience. I think you can put two of my [small plates] up against any single entrée in town and you’ll get twice the enjoyment out of it.”

I think that’s probably true for those comfortable at a restaurant with nary a Caesar salad, French fry, or steak in sight. That said, the restaurant isn’t particularly experimental: It’s actually, quite simply, seasonal and local, as translated through a vast tool kit of international five-star technique. As goes with the seasonal and local theme, the desserts and wine list are positively homey. The wine list is terrifically affordable, with lots of under $30 options, though I think Piccolo’s gesture of serving fine wines in simple tumblers comes off as the most awkward anti-pretensiousness, like serving caviar on paper plates. The desserts, all done by Flicker, are exceptionally simple: The panna cotta is exquisitely light because Flicker makes the ricotta for them himself, with a local farm’s milk. The bitter almond cakes are really just individual pound cakes with homemade ice cream and a brown butter honey that’s like a loose, lilting caramel. Flicker tells me their secret is that they’re made moments before dinner service begins, and if he needs more he has the time and space to make another tray. “If there are any left at the end of the night, we eat them.” Which isn’t such a big deal, because they make a dozen at a time.

And that might be the most revolutionary thing at work at Piccolo: Making a mere dozen of anything at a restaurant is odd, like making a single ice cube at home. Restaurants are typically about volume: They buy broccoli wholesale by the pallet, and charge you six times what they paid. Piccolo is not like that: It’s more like one of those 10-seat Tokyo sushi bars that gets six portions of the rarest tuna belly and knows that it can make a living selling them to six special tuna connoisseurs. The difference, of course, is that Piccolo is resolutely Midwestern, and this version of the rarest tuna belly is not rare solely because of its sourcing, but more because of its hand labor and the vision of the chef behind it. Whether Minneapolis is ready for something so fine, rare, artful, and structurally revolutionary is an open question, but if the idea of a small, rhapsodic portion of jellied celeriac calls you, this Piccolo just might play.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

Piccolo Restaurant
4300 Bryant Ave. S., Mpls.
Open Mon. 5:30–10 p.m.; Wed.–Sat. 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun. 5:30–9 p.m.