In the height of the Great Recession, two sackings at local restaurants got citywide attention. The first was when Steven Brown was let go from Porter & Frye (after he got them their Mobil Five Diamond rating! For shame. But it turned out to be in the best interest of American food. Out of the ashes came Tilia, Brown’s restaurant, and then all the restaurants of Brown’s line of line-cooks, including Travail (4th best new restaurant in America,) Piccolo, the Dakota (so good now, you should go) and Catbird Seat in Nashville, recently named to Food and Wine’s list of the best new chefs in America. The other major sacking: Hakan Lundberg, then-top chef at Cosmos. The back-channel gossip all sounded the same. Sky Is Falling note: If someone as good as Brown or Lundberg, can be let go, what hope does any of us have? We all know where Brown went, to great glory and the hardest reservation in town, and Hakan Lundberg was snapped up by the private, members-only Minneapolis Club—and I’ve been waiting for someone to invite me ever since.
The call finally came last week. And all I can say is: ‘Nyah, nyah, nyah, I got to go to the Minneapolis Club and eat Hakan Lundberg’s food!’ Well, I can say a little more than that. First of all, you all know what the Minneapolis Club is, right? It’s that big ivy-covered building on the corner of 8th Street and 2nd Avenue S. in downtown Minneapolis—the one that looks like a bit of Harvard Square dropped in to downtown? Well, it’s a private membership club, like something out of a Sherlock Holmes book: If you’re a member you can eat there, work out there, hang out in the posh reading rooms, host private events, and now, eat Hakan Lundberg’s food in one of the restaurant-like dining rooms.
As I remembered from his stint at Cosmos, young Lundberg—who turns 35 next month—is a tremendously gifted technician, with a particular talent for making ingredients come together in a way that the palate reads as light and energetic. For instance, I tried a diver-caught scallop, pan-seared till its crisp and dark outside, baby-spoon tender within, paired with a springy sort of side of sautéed tomatoes and fava beans, all of it given contrast with cold smoked ‘salmon bacon,’ salty bits of fish that made the scallops seem more buttery, the vegetables more springy.
Lundberg’s cooking always reminds me of a triangle built of wires, the corners holding together, the edges springing away, the whole thing about maximizing potential energy. Working in a private club is obviously a whole different ballgame than cooking in a private restaurant . . . diners may be there for the food but likely they’re not, and a certain number are going to want a burger and wild rice soup no matter what the chef is capable of. Some chefs find this depressing, but Lundberg’s food actually seems energized by the stability. For my main course I had what has to be the most whimsical dish in my last ten years of local dining: A sea-monster. Well, he said it was a seahorse, but it looked like a sea monster to me. Slabs of rare-seared Ahi tuna, painted on its edges with a ponzu reduction that acts as glue to adhere puffed black rice to its sides, the slices of tuna interleaved with a black rice-stuffed fritter, shaped into a sea monster, and deep-fried. The tuna and rice fritter components were served with a tangerine carrot puree lightened with a little coconut milk, a wakame seaweed salad, and a sort of creamy mayonnaise-like dipping substance made of whipped tofu, lime juice, and hot sriracha sauce. The whole effect of the plate was like something between sashimi and a spicy tuna roll, everything strong and light. Little push-up pops of mango sorbet and raspberry sorbet, with pistachio brittle up top, were the perfect end to the meal—frivolous, adorable, tasty.
Get someone to invite you! Or, if you’re nicely set up, join. I got the Minneapolis Club’s membership director to send the packet, and in addition to getting access to Lundberg’s cooking there’s a fitness center, pool, overnight accommodation options, a business center, golf (in Independence, Minnesota,) a concierge—all kinds of things. The club has been trying to get younger members, so the fees are prorated, under 30-year-olds pay only $125 a month, after a $500 initiation fee, while over-40-year-olds pay some $400 a month, after a hefty $3,500 fee. This summer the ground-floor dining room at the Minneapolis Club will close down, so a large patio can be installed on the St. Olaf side of the building, with a fire pit, and, I imagine, prime see-and-be-seen opportunities.
After tasting Lundberg’s food, I had to ask the un-askable question: What’s it like for a super-talented chef to essentially take your hat out of the ring? I mean, no critic is going to be able to go (except me, that one time!), and I can’t imagine Lundberg will ever get written about again, in terms of best chef, best restaurant, or any of those things.
Actually, he says he likes it.
“Do I miss the publicity? No. I have two kids at home, a house, and stable, set hours, I don’t leave every day dead-tired the way I was at Cosmos. I have balance in my life, and I still get to do crazy stuff,” he said.
Crazy stuff like what? Besides the Sea Monsters, I mean. Crazy stuff like, they offer a chef’s table in the Minneapolis Club every other Wednesday (officially the most exclusive table in Minnesota) at which Lundberg lets his imagination fly. For instance, he told me about a recent dish of steak tartare with black fermented garlic and bearnaise sauce as ice cream that sounded particularly magical. And then there’s the engineering department. Yes, local chefs, eat your hearts out, because Hakan Lundberg has an engineering department. One of the members is a woodworker, another is a mechanic, and they’ve made him little special-built hibachis they call “Hakan-bachis,” little live barbecues for grilling meat at the dinner table, which the servers can travel with for passed appetizers skewers.
“Skewers for 100 people can be smoking hot,” Hakan told me with satisfaction. “They never get cold.”
Live fire! Sea monsters! That’s what you get when you leave regular restaurants for the secret world of private clubs, evidently. Lundberg told me his kitchen is now home to many fine dining refugees from other big name restaurants. I’m not sure that I’d put any of this in a print magazine, it seems of limited interest to most diners, but if you’re a cook in town wondering what else there is in life besides restaurants, or if you’re a Minnesotan wondering what goes on behind those ivy clad walls, or if you’re simply a diner wondering whatever happened to Hakan Lundberg, now you know. Private parties indeed.
Minneapolis Club, 729 2nd Ave. S., Mpls., 612-332-2292, mplsclub.org