By Adam Estrem
I'm sitting in a restaurant, when I am suddenly awakened. As I wipe the sleep out of my eyes, I start to realize what I am doing.
I see my friend sitting across from me, talking and laughing, but I hear no sound coming from his mouth. I am enveloped in muffled agitation and muted bustle coming from dishes clanking together, meat sizzling in pans, knives chopping vegetables. Am I awake? Or is this some sort of existential attitude I have from eating out in restaurants too much?
As a food writer, this happens to me way too often. In the moments between sitting down, ordering food and the anticipation of eating said food, I drift off into another world. I can't help it. As soon as the server floats away with my order, my mind takes me into the kitchen.
I may appear to be listening to your important allegory or anecdote, or your self-righteous autobiography about how you saved the family meal by simply roasting the tenderloin at a lower temperature for a little bit longer, but I assure you I could care less. I may be nodding my head in approval, but I am a million miles away; or just inside the kitchen.
More often than not, the kitchen in my hallucinated fantasy looks, sounds and smells exactly like Doug Flicker's kitchen at Piccolo.
There is a small arrangement, almost a gentleman's agreement between cook and food here. Flicker promises to uphold creativity, practicing an alchemy of taste with utmost respect for the ingredients, and the ingredients promise to uphold their end of the bargain and provide unobtrusive passage into their pellucid flavor.
There is nothing I can write that hasn't already been said about Flicker's Piccolo restaurant. For such a reserved and humble man, Chef Flicker seems to hold the key to flavor's virginity belt. Time and time again, Flicker seems to unlock the forbidden, the unattainable and seemingly unapproachable ingredient amalgamation, flavors you would never expect to be together yet taste like they belong together.
Take this dish for example: Foie gras torchon with smoked cipollini onions, escargot, jalapeno peppers and chervil. Or Procini flavored pasta with veal tongue, sage and pine needle brown butter.
Maybe charcoal grilled octopus "shawarma" with yogurt, pickled green tomatoes and (might I add, blow your mind good) white asparagus and garlic puree.
Is Flicker insane? Mad? A lunatic? Or is Flicker an idiot savant, bordering on genius.
To me, Flicker embodies what a chef is. Anyone can cook, or follow a recipe like an indurated 8 year old, learning to play piano by numbers. But to be a chef, someone who can dream in flavor, know how ingredients taste together before one even puts it in their mouths -- that takes skill. Maybe even a touch of luck, but either way Doug Flicker has "it."
Flicker and I have been courting each other for quite some time now, sending emails, texts and phone calls back and fourth for months. But visiting his restaurant recently awakened a primal emotion within my inner being.
His food, his way of doing things resonates with my emotional attachment to food. His dishes make me feel the way my mother's cooking did when I was a child -- comfortable, content and cozy, leaving impressions on my mind like "this is the way it should be."
But in the end, none of that really matters. What matters, is that you like the food you put in your mouth.
I tasted almost everything on Piccolo's menu. Braised lamb neck with morcilla, puffed rice, cauliflower and compressed celery was rich and hearty, had the perfect fat-to-meat ratio and provided a slightly gamey, maybe exotic taste.
The Berkshire pork shortribs with chestnuts, porcini mushrooms, apple butter and parsley root puree was extremely tender and delicate, while the butter provided a richness that glazed my mouth porky goodness. The celery root soup with saltine cracker croquette, Benton's bacon and pickled herring was clean, sleek and full of subtle sea flavor from the herring.
The menu goes on and on like a rock concert, in your face but keeps you wanting to order more. The only problem is, the night has to come to an end at some point.
In the end, there is just you and what you have eaten. Course after course, bite after bite, and then there is this. I sit there thinking to myself, "what have I done?" The notes I took do no justice to what I have just eaten. It's like trying to explain the feeling of love to a toddler and do love justice, can it be done?
Flicker will hate me for writing this, he is too humble to take any credit for anything. But all I can say is, you have to experience it to believe it.
Adam Estrem is a writer, photographer, foodie and cook. After traveling the world and tasting the cuisines and wines of Mexico, Spain, France and much of Europe and the middle east, he has gone local and focused on restaurants and food producers of Minnesota. When he isn't working you can find him in his kitchen, creating recipes and entertaining friends. You can follow him on Twitter (@mspfoodie) or email him (email@example.com).
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