Editor’s Note: After we went to press, chef Scott Pampuch announced that he was leaving Minnesota Valley Country Club for a similar role at a national hotel management company. He assured us that the locavore systems he developed for the club will continue with the kitchen crew he has put in place.
Locavorism has unquestionably been the dominant idea in food, and one of the dominant ideas in American culture, the past 20 years. Essentially, it’s the idea that sustainable, organic, locally grown food is better in all sorts of ways—in terms of its good impact on local economies (supporting local farmers, local distributors, and so on), its lack of bad impact on local environments (no pesticides in your drinking water), its nutritional profile (studies have proved local organic tomatoes have more antioxidants than trucked-in ones), and, most persuasively, its taste.
Twenty years ago, the Twin Cities restaurants that cared about local ingredients could be counted on one hand and were mainly Lucia’s and Café Brenda. Today, all—and I do mean all—the serious restaurants work with local farmers. The case for locavorism has been profoundly made and has brought such a massive cultural shift away from the food of the era from roughly World War II to the first George Bush (a period best defined as the time when Better Living Through Chemistry was executed by The Invisible Hand of the Market). Yet sometimes I wonder if anyone even realizes that it started somewhere and is detectably stretching and changing even as so many of us get used to a world in which people tweet pictures of their homemade tomato jam.
There’s no better place to consider the current evolution, and likely future growth, of locavorism than at Mona, Corner Table, and the restaurants at the Minnesota Valley Country Club. All three have this in common: a deep connection to Corner Table, a ground zero of sorts for the new version of locavorism, which has so changed our world. Corner Table, of course, is the south Minneapolis restaurant that Scott Pampuch opened in 2004; he was the first local chef I knew of to make a wholehearted commitment to local meat, even before a distribution network existed. He was the first to evangelize, with his words and his plates, the ways in which restaurant food sourcing could change the world. But first, let’s consider the new Mona.
Mona is the new downtown Minneapolis restaurant and bar opened by Lisa Hanson, a former chef de cuisine at Corner Table and a veteran of such starry spots as L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. She has boldly taken over a large ground-floor spot in the Accenture tower, in the southwestern corner of the commercial heart of downtown. I say boldly because it’s not a corner of the city with a lot of foot traffic, but those who seek it out will find a lovely oasis in the city, a room rich with dark wood and a sense of stately grace, a wine list to bring tears of joy to the eyes of budget-conscious oenophiles (a $23 bottle of Giesen Sauvignon Blanc is a nice way to reward the team after a hard day of brainstorming), an excellent beer list, and an outdoor patio. Mona offers mainly small plates, mostly priced less than $10, and is particularly notable for its great delicacy with small things: An artichoke in a bowl of warm and tangy vinaigrette arrives at the table adorned with egg yolks, hard-boiled, fashioned into a tuft of fluff, which collapses into something delicious at the touch of your fork. Beef marrowbones are roasted and served with small planks of grilled raisin toast and apple butter, a soul-satisfying composition of great depth.
That said, what’s most remarkable about Mona are the elements that would have been headline-worthy 15 years ago, and how they are used in no-big-deal ways: local grilled ramps and pickled radishes on the hummus plate, homemade rhubarb compote for the chicken liver pâté, headcheese from pork raised in nearby Elgin, little curlicues of fiddlehead ferns peeking out like emeralds from a white bean salad. This is local cooking that’s locavore to the bone, so much so that it doesn’t call attention to itself—even though fiddlehead ferns in a chilly Minneapolis office tower are actually a stunning development.
A stunning development wrought in no small part by Pampuch, the Winona chef known for preaching a relentless gospel to anyone who came in the door of Corner Table, a gospel that ran: The food raised around here is better than the food trucked in, and now taste why. It was an argument he won every time, with pork like candy, trout with undeniable energy, panna cotta with the dairy-caught breath of meadow flowers. So it was peculiar when Pampuch announced he was selling Corner Table to Nick Rancone—can you sell a church known for its star preacher?