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It's Not About "Balance"

When The Chef Is Having Fun...

If you cook often, you come to realize how much your mood affects how your meals turn out.   I come home weary and distracted and I make a dish that I've made many times before and I am sure that I am doing it in exactly the same way that I have in the past but it ends of up tasting uninspired -- fine, but nothing special.   Three weeks later, I'm trying the same dish but I'm in a mood where I'm loving what I'm doing and taking tremendous pleasure from it.  I still don't think that I'm doing anything different in terms of ingredients and amounts and heat and time...  but the food tastes better.  And it tastes better to Lynn, too, no matter what her moods may have been.

So it's become my standard practice in a restaurant, when everything on the menu looks interesting, and I can't make up my mind what I'm in the mood for, to ask the server to bring me whatever the chef "is having the most fun with tonight."

This only works, of course, when you have a chef who really knows what he or she is doing, and that was definitely the case last week when we had dinner at Tangled Up In Blue in tiny Taylors Falls, Minnesota, about an hour or so from the Twin Cities.

We went early, since we wanted to be able to get back to the Inn in time to watch the sunset from our porch.  It's still early in the season, so we were the only people there when we arrived.  The interior is, unsurprisingly, done up in various hues of blue, dusted with sparkles.  Wine bottles, sculptural fixtures, small candles on the tables; the place calms and invites.  It is intimate and welcoming with the sense that someone has turned the front half of their house into a casual, but sophisticated, dining space.

A nicely wide-ranging menu with a variety of seafoods & meats -- including bison, which Lynn was immediately intrigued by.  Everything looked interesting, everything looked good, and I wasn't in the mood to have to make my own choices.

So when the server came, I ordered wine and we ordered appetizers, and then, after Lynn expressed interest in the bison, I said, "Whenever I'm in a place where everything on the menu looks good..." and Lynn interrupted, laughing, "I know just what you're going to say."  And so we explained, and the server grinned and said, "I may have to have the chef come out and talk to you."

A little while later, Paul appears at our table, a little quizzical.  I explain my theory about how having fun affects your cooking and he smiles and nods.  I tell him that Lynn's in the mood to try something with the bison, but I'm up for whatever he wants to do.  He sees that we've ordered a big red wine, so he suggests that if he goes with the bison for Lynn, he can do something with a filet mignon for me.  "That works,"  I say. 

As he turns to the kitchen Lynn calls out, "Oh, and with red meat we're definitely rare to medium-rare people."  He turns, with an even bigger grin, and says, "I love you guys!"

Turns out that one of the things Paul is particularly good at (at least on the evidence of this one meal) is mixing sweet and spicy in perfectly balanced but unexpected ways.  My filet (a beautiful piece of meat in and of itself) came with a semi-spicy roasted pepper and raisin risotto topped w/ toasted almonds.  There were cilantro lime carrots and the sauce was honey habanero.  Lynn's strip steak was possibly the tenderest, most flavorful piece of bison she's ever had (and she'll go for the bison whenever she sees it on a menu) with carrot potato gnocchi, wilted spinach /w tomatoes, sauteed zucchini & squash and a bleu cheese demi glaze.

We traded up a bit, just to compare, but he'd done a perfect job of picking for each of us.  I laughed when he came out to check on us -- "As far as our own cooking goes," I pointed out.  "Lynn's the one who makes gnocchi and I'm the one who does risotto."  You'd think he knew.

At the end of the meal, it's not as if we needed dessert, but they do bananas foster, flamed at the table.  Why not?  It seemed like an appropriately celebratory way to end a marvelous meal.

I hope that Paul had fun -- he was certainly carrying a big smile at the end of the night.  So did we.  We were stuffed.  We were happy.  We were hoping we can figure out a way to get back there one day.





Tom Roper

Question: what's the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
Answer: you can't wash your hands in a buffalo


Great, fun post! If I ever have dinner at your house I hope it's when you are in a joyful cooking mood. :)

One thing that struck me in MN was all the bison on the menu, as well as the "local" products (local cheddar especially). I took "local" to be the Minnesota equivalent of in, food from farm to table, only so many miles, etc. But local has a certain zip that I appreciated, along with the Grainbelt beer.

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