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Sep 17, 2007 05:48 AM

Kessler (of the AJC) on the Twin Cities dining scene

John Kessler (of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) was in the Twin Cities recently for the Association of Food Journalists' annual conference and wrote this piece on how the Twin Cities dining scene compares with Atlanta’s.


~Was impressed by the eating local scene here “golly, these folks mean it”, declaring Lenny Russo’s (Heartland) charcuterie to be the highlight.

~Admired our “culture of pastry.”

~Remarked that Twin Cities' fine dining has “hit the skids” and declared his one, albeit ambitious, meal at La Belle Vie to be “meh” to “meh-plus.”

~Admired the personality of our fine dining chefs who “play by their own rules” and “revel in ideas and dishes that no one else would think of copying,” citing Stephen Trojahn’s (Cosmos) local duck with smoked mustard spaetzle and slivers of pickled cherry and caviar service as examples.


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  1. Sniff. I'm a little embarrassed by the notion that fine dining has hit the skids, but really how many locals or potential tourists can spend $250 per couple on a dinner? MSP is still a great place to eat at the $100 level (including wine). What really makes a place fine dining? Is Alma fine dining? Certainly it's a better value than LBV.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mnitchals

      Before joining the 'Atlanta Journal-Constitution,' Kessler was the 'Denver Post' restaurant critic -- one of a succession of excellent reviewers who are knowledgeable about foot and fine writers too. The Post's current reviewer, Tucker Shaw, was MIA from the 'Post' food section last week. I thought he might be on vacation. Now I think he was probably in the Twin Cities, perhaps comparing notes w/ John Kessler.

    2. I think I'd quibble with his notion "fine dining" at La Belle Vie. While the lounge is nice, it's not the same as the main dining room...

      6 Replies
      1. re: bob s

        Good point, Bob. Forgive my ignorance, since I've not dined at LBV-- lounge or main dining room--but are the menus and kitchens different for the two, which would therefore account for his "meh" experience with the food in the lounge while the food being served in the main dining room could be better than "meh" or even than "meh plus" ? His assessment of "meh" was regarding the food, not the venue or the service, so unless the menus and kitchens are different, in the lounge and in the main dining room, it would still seem that his "meh" experience with the food is legit.

        mnitchals, I tend to think of truly "fine dining" restaurants as those in the highest tier of food, service and atmosphere and, alas, price usually increases when you reach the elite levels in all of those arenas. If you're getting out of a restaurant at the $100 level (including wine), I'm not sure that really counts as "fine" dining, that is, even if the food is exceptional and the service is very good.


        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          I suspect that it's a single kitchen, but the menus are different. For instance, the lamb sliders that Kessler described are not on the dining room menu. However, there are a few items that are on both menus.

          Also, he suggests that the $80 tasting menu is for the lounge. The lounge tasting menu is $40 for 4 courses. The dining room offers 8 and 5 course tasting menus for $80 and $65, respectively.

          I'm not trying to suggest that his conclusions about the food that he ate are wrong - it's just that he leaves the reader thinking that he had a so-so meal at La Belle Vie for $80.

          Also, TDQ -- and this is a question of pure curiosity, not a snipe or snarkiness at all -- what do you think of as the "fine dining" places in the Twin Cities? Do you limit it to Cosmos/LBV/D'Amico Cucina? Or do you include Alma/Lucia's/Chambers/Fougaisse in that?

          And the second question (again with sincere curiosity) does it matter in any way?

          1. re: bob s

            Bob, as far as what restaurants fall into the fine dining category and whether it matters, you'll have to ask mnitchals. I was simply attempting to provide a response to the question she asked here: I haven't eaten at all of the places you've listed, so I am going to decline to categorize each and every one of them and, instead, fall back on how I would generally define fine dining here:

            Don't feel you need to shoot the messenger here. It was Mr. Kessler, not me, who described LBV as "meh" and said that Twin Cities fine dining has "hit the skids." I simply provided a link and a bullet point summary for those of you who hadn't seen his piece yet. I think it's interesting to see what outsiders think of us. (I'm not even sure I've lived here long enough to be "us.") (Personally, I was delighted by his comments about the strength of our "local" movement. And I was super-fascinated by his comments about our "pastry culture" because I'm not sure I ever noticed that. I'm still not sure I agree with it, but it's something I shall ponder awhile).

            EDIT--now that I think about it, I will answer the part about "does it matter anyway." It only matters if it's important to you whether Twin Cities "fine dining" measures up to the "fine dining" scenes in other cities. It's hard to compare the "scenes" if you don't have some general agreement on what constitutes fine dining and what doesn't. I know Per Se and French Laundry are fine dining. Based on what I know about LBV and Cosmos, I would probably put them in that "fine dining" category (not commenting on quality here, I'm just saying that I think these restaurants are all trying to play in that same elite arena).

            I hope that makes sense to you.


            1. re: bob s

              By the way, thank you for the clarification about the different menus at LBV's lounge vs. the dining room. I agree with you that makes a big difference. Also, I think his factual mistake about the price of the tasting menu in the lounge is revealing.


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Thanks, TDQ. Your response makes perfect sense to me.

                I was responding to Kessler's article, not to your summary of it. My defensiveness arose because the question I was posing could be asked with all sorts of tones - and I wanted to make sure that I was not trying to attack you with it. The perils of low bandwidth.

                To me the question of what is "fine dining" is illusory, I didn't know what you meant when you said that even if you had exceptional food with good service that it might not be fine dining. If cost is the sole criterion, I'd disagree with that assessment. Lots of places that _I_ would consider fine dining are places where you'd get dinner and drinks for much closer to $100 than $250. (Of course it depends on how you take "with wine" as well in the definition.) So that's why I was asking.

                I also found Kessler's "culture of pastry" comment to be a little bizarre. I think that the dessert scene in the Twin Cities is fine, but not exceptional. I'm still looking for a great stand-alone dessert and coffee place in the Twin Cities.

                1. re: bob s

                  It's probably clear from my posting history that I prefer dining in more humble, family-owned establishments than in fine dining establishments, so, I'm really not the best one to define what is "fine dining." I absolutely agree that cost is not the sole criterion; in fact, I'm not sure it's a criterion at all; however, it can perhaps be an indicator of the presence of some of the qualities (high staff to customer ratio; experienced, presumably better paid, top of their class foh and boh staff etc.) that, to me, define fine dining. It's easy to identify at the top end, but where the line gets drawn between fine dining and the rest, I'm not sure. Obviously, using the highest quality ingredients is essential, but is that, combined with merely good service enough to tip an establishment into the fine dining category? Or is it, as I used to joke with a friend merely, "Your average above-average restaurant?" Here's a thread where folks more experienced than me attempted to draw the line.

                  Perhaps his "culture of pastry" is specifically relative to Atlanta's? I don't know; I haven't dined there enough to be able to comment.


        2. Along the lines of "What do critics from other cities think of Twin Cities chow," here's a piece WCCO (actually, it looks like it's the Strib's piece originally) did about the critics' visit to the MN State Fair.


          1. I casually know Kessler, and have dined with him. His history (what I know of it) is as a sincere and well meaning critic. Note the key word: history. His comment "golly - these folks mean it" should give you some idea of his style of critique, but he redeems himself with his observation about the true personality of the good places here. But either way, the AJC is a third-tier regional paper much like the Strib, so don't put too much weight on it.

            That said, there are many "fine" dining places in ATL. Some are truly fine, and some are "fine" in the sense that "fine" = staggeringly expensive or hugely trendy and hip. There are some big money movers and shakers in ATL, and it's much more of a hustle town than MSP is, so the resto market is different there. In some ways, our "fine" dining, while perhaps appearing less fine, is probably more authentically prepared and presented. This ties to Kessler's comments about dining with personality.

            On the other hand, there are some true fine dining experiences in ATL that extend into Thai, Viet, Malay, and other "ethnic" cuisines that we don't even come close to here. That's why I don't get overly excited about recommending Asian to out-of-towners, especially big-city ones.

            I still think we have it good here overall.

            1. Hey, everybody -- It's great that I sparked such a lively discussion. I would like to say that I don't think there were any factual errors in my column. It seems that food journalists in the Twin Cities have written a fair bit about the demise of other fine-dining places, but that La Belle Vie was one of the last standard bearers of the pricey fixed price meal.

              I did find it interesting that a restaurant of this ambition is doing the whole lounge/small plates thing. Like many diners today, our group opted for the comfort of armchairs over the starch of tablecloths. We were offered both lounge and dining room menus (the latter topping out at $80) and picked several items from each to sample. The service was great.
              As I wrote, you can't judge a restaurant like LBV from a few tastes in the lounge, but the few we had tended to a bit on the dull side. Of course, "meh" in a cocktail lounge may translate as finesse in a four-course meal with an appropriate wine.

              And I really, really loved your city and the great, honest, unpretentious food I had there. Besides, where does "fine dining" fit anymore? Las Vegas?

              Loren, if you're the person you seem to be (spouse of a former AJC colleague), please send her my best. John K.