Saturday, March 19, 2011

Revisiting old favorites- do they change or do we?

I was recently in Pierre and had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite places, La Minestra. Over the years, I have had many very enjoyable dinners there and have raved about it here. I re-read that post and puzzled over whether I felt the same now. I mean, the meal I had with some friends and family was perfectly good, but it really wasn't anything terribly special. The question I kept pondering: Had LaMinestra had changed or had my experiences and expectations changed? Probably, a little of both.

If you have read any of the older posts on this blog, you probably know that I have had the extreme fortune of being able to dine in some of the very top-tier restaurants in the country. These aren't places that merely make good food, they are on the cutting edge of food preparation and techniques. The sort of things a chef like Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago is experimenting with today may appear on a plate somewhere else years from now. You don't think some line cook at Chili's in suburban Atlanta invented molten chocolate cake, do you? Anyway, eating really great ingredients prepared in extremely innovative ways can change the way you think about the ingredients and how they are used. At least, that's what should happen if you are paying attention.

The other factor, for me at least, that I believe has changed my perspective a bit is that we are enjoying an embarrassment of riches here in Sioux Falls right now. I credit the efforts of places like Parker's and Bros along with an absolute smathering of really excellent richly ethnic spots. We have reached a point where if you want something more interesting than a steak with baked potato or even a brick oven pizza, you can get it. Thanks to really excellent seared duck breast (Parker's) or unctuous, slow cooked pork goodies, including pork belly (Bros), even a trip to old standards like Minerva's don't look quite so attractive. Thanks to beef tongue tacos and really decent Pho, we know there are more exotic flavors out there.

My recent meal at LaMinestra was really pretty good. Steak cooked correctly and good service. But it was just lacking pizzaz. The sauce for the steak, a take on beef bourgignon, fell short. Too acidic. Lacked richness of the dish it was meant to replicate. The potatoes- eh. It was good. It just wanted something more jacked up, so to speak.

There is always going to be a place for safe, mildly-seasoned, old favorites served in familiar settings. After all this is South Dakota, and there are still plenty of people around here who believe that too much salt and black pepper can render a dish too spicy. But for those of us who understand the criticism of a judge on Top Chef that the food is not well-seasoned, and who have eaten outside our comfort zones, the old standbys begin to look, well, old.

Please make an effort to visit a small, independent restaurant in South Dakota. Order something other than a steak, stuffed chicken breast, or basic pasta dish. Treat your server well and thank the chefs- if you think they do a good job. See if your perspective changes, even just a little.