Three Things to Eat: Feb. 20-26

Cochon555 Minneapolis
The chefs at Cochon 555 – Minneapolis. Photo by Joy Summers.

This Sunday I was stuffed inside a giant room inside Loews Hotel surrounded by cheering chefs, a naked splayed pig, a fair amount of bourbon, and a gaggle of other industry professionals and food fans. A wave of intense gratitude washed over me as I looked to my left and saw chef J.D. Fratzke of the soon-to-close Strip Club Meat and Fish as he wrapped his arms around his beautiful wife Lisa, clad in the matching plaid shirts his team wore. (Well, mostly wore—one brave soul donned lederhosen.) An enthusiastic member of Thomas Kim’s team for The Rabbit Hole was shaking his shoulders and shouting something encouraging at him, as his wife Kat threw back her head and laughed heartily. Somewhere, Handsome Hog’s chef Justin Sutherland’s mom was just about to burst with pride. The Surly guys were decidedly not surly, but smiling around chef Jorge Guzman. Meanwhile, Corner Table’s Nick Rancone was sharing a likely PG-13 observation with Mike Brown of his Travail Sexy Chef calendar. In minutes, chef Grae Nonas of Tullibee would take the stage along with all of the fierce competitors in great pork preparation and be crowned the winner of this year’s Cochon 555 competition.

Cochon 555 is a nationally touring culinary contest that celebrates heritage breed pork. It’s also a great excuse to see a room filled with people who don’t always get to hang out together during daylight hours. I was struck by the power of this community. I’m so proud to be a diner in these twin towns where chefs step up and help each other. If someone gets sick, gets hurt, or even runs low on supply, brothers and sisters in culinary arms will step in and take care of each other. They make us all better. I’m better for their dedication and compassion. It’s in these restaurants that I seek solace when I’m hurting. It’s them I turn to when there’s cause for celebration.

This Sunday, we toasted them—all these folks who stay up way too late, work in the flames, break their backs to create that safe, beautiful bubble of a great meal. Chef Nonas will represent us beautifully in the national competition this summer in Snowmass, but I’d say we’re the winners. We get to taste the fruits of their hard labor and feel the delicious embrace of the fantastic food, drink, and hospitality happening in this town.

Here is where you can dine and get a little bit of that greatness along with a healthy dose of something porky.

Handsome Hog’s Pot au Feu
Winter’s not done with us yet, and this is the perfect dish to celebrate the colder temperatures that will hit this weekend. There’s a depth and soul to chef Sutherland’s fare that requires further consideration. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been in, it’s time to head back to the Hog.

Corner Table’s RPM Gamay Noir
Whenever I dine at Corner Table, Laurie Hefner always has the perfect bottle to pair with my meal or mood. Sometimes I just say, “The red wine equivalent of an old flannel” or “early spring in a bottle” and she gets me! This week, the winner of the Somm Smackdown at Cochon 555 poured me this glorious red with the most alluring light garnet color and a snappy, tart, clean finish. The complexity of the flavor inside this glass was extraordinary.

Strip Club Meat and Fish Steamed pork buns with foie gras
Tim Niver and J.D. Fratzke have made the difficult decision to close their St. Paul restaurant and now it’s time for a long, Minnesotan goodbye (the final service will come this summer). The menu will change at the chef’s whims, but right now there are these incredibly fluffy steamed buns, layered with a little rich foie gras and faintly sweet, barbecued pork belly. They’re best eaten with reckless abandon—it’s a deliciously messy affair.