One of the perils of all this chef love we dole out, as far as the restaurateur goes, is the sticky situation that results when a chef leaves. If you heavily promote and trade on the style and magic that is iconic to chef Bob, what happens when he goes down the street, opens his own place, and becomes the competition? Who, then, are you?
This is not unlike the situation at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant last year when it lost chef Jack Riebel. This isn’t its first rodeo, however. The Dakota’s food-forward reputation was initially built by chef Ken Goff; Riebel was the fresh blood that came along later, after the joint pulled stakes in St. Paul and moved to Nicollet Mall. More important, perhaps, is the fact that the Dakota is a jazz club first and foremost, no matter who is cooking in the kitchen. And like a good jazz riff reinventing itself as it plays along, the Dakota is able to bring the cool.
In a move that is definitely off the scale, owner Lowell Picket brought in not one, but two new chefs to replace Riebel: Derik Moran, who had been cooking some fun food at Nick and Eddie’s, and Kristin Tyborski, an alum of Porter & Frye who was just coming off of maternity leave. Two head chefs in one kitchen seems like a grand experiment fraught with potential for clash, but these two make it work. There is no clichéd he-said/she-said conceit to the menu, and no name plating; it’s presented as a collaboration. As far as the eater knows, there’s a nice balance to the menu and a playful energy to the food that is rather captivating. As far as the fork is concerned, you don’t have to worry about which chef was creator, because you’re in good hands either way.
Sharing is a theme, and the overhauled menu relies heavily on small plates. While the intention is to pass the plate, in terms of the pretzel “gnocchi” (soft little buttery bites that loll in a cheddar sauce), you won’t want to share. Indeed, the snacky starters were a bunch of charmers. The beef carpaccio was as beautiful as it was refreshing, with micro-thin slices of beets. And the cassoulet was a jarring redefinition: Instead of a homey little pot, you’ll find beautiful flaky popovers as the vehicle for duck confit, ham, and housemade sausage mixed with gigande beans and dressed with gravy. So rich, so saucy.
The poutine was basically a steak dish—the plank fries were topped with a portion of sliced steak that was shocking for the under-$20 price tag. Forget the wings, but the burger was well portioned, very flavorful with a crisp edge, and, most important, not too tricked out. Some things are better left to simple elegance. Entrees were all touched with creative pops, such as the biting salt and vinegar potato chips with the skate or the brightness of kumquats with duck. The bowtie pasta was maybe the only real bummer as it was undercooked and underseasoned. And while it’s so nice to see hoppin’ John on a menu as a vegetarian offering, the flavor fell a little flat.
Lunch is a major treat when the patio is open, and I’m hoping that by then the lunch menu gets a little more of the dinner menu’s sass. We had a lilting carrot soup with ginger, honey, and a touch of cayenne that I’m still thinking about, but nothing else matched it. I think the service, too, needs to catch up to the innovative chefs and the playful nature of the food. More than once there was a confusion of words and descriptions about what we were getting.
The hardest part about the Dakota is the fact that you can’t sit in the bar and wile away the hours snacking on those small plates if an act is playing. You can dine there without buying a ticket, but this menu has such a spirit of gathering friends for a night of noshing, you may want to consider a late-night roosting. That’s more conducive to the music of this food anyway.
Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, 1010 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.,612-332-1010