A weekend getaway to Lake Minnetonka for the coolest catch of the day probably won’t appeal to you at this time of year, when temperatures are below zero, dusk sets in as early as 5 p.m. and that ice fishing looks like a sterile fantasy.
In Vann, the likelihood of making this trip is greatest during milder seasons, when the breeze feels restorative and lake views are visible for longer. Vann’s nautical theme, full of blues, diamond wall patterns and coastal-style sconces – reminiscent of the kind of office real estate you’ll find in Nantucket, Mass. – then seems more appropriate.
When chef Eric Skaar opened Vann less than three years ago on the Spring Park site that once belonged to Tonka Grill & BBQ, he probably didn’t plan for his restaurant to operate only during peak seasons and serve walleye. muddy by the pound.
Luckily for us, he curated a small menu of dishes which rotated frequently, recently moving to a three-course prix fixe. Given Skaar’s heritage – Vann, pronounced “vonn”, is the Norwegian word for water – the catch of the day can encompass any coastal region. On restaurant visits from November last year, I ate Scottish trout, scallops from New Bedford on the south coast of Massachusetts and king salmon, an Ora breed, from New Zealand .
Looking for quality ingredients for a seafood-focused menu that changes daily? Ambitious, especially during a pandemic, when seafood prices have risen unsustainably. That might justify why his menu is a reasonable $75 (more on that later). Given Skaar’s skill in handling fish and his experiences working under award-winning chefs James Beard who dabbled extensively in seafood – and more recently Bachelor Farmer and Tilia – I didn’t expect nothing less.
What I expected from Skaar was his mastery of taste and technique. On both counts, it almost delivers. And given how often dishes change, maintaining its level of consistency is something I rarely come across, even among the most pedigreed chefs of recent times.
Think cold-pressed lemon oil, a citrus concentrate. Adding too much can tip the balance of a dish into medicinal territory. Used wisely, it adds aroma. Skaar uses this lemon oil to dress small slices of hamachi or amberjack the size of a belt buckle, crusted with all things spicy and crunchy caper slivers. In less creative hands, lemon juice—instead of oil—would have been used to dress the hamachi crudo, which is on the menu of seemingly every spendthrift New American restaurant these days.
On another visit, lemon oil reappeared – this time in braised hare over rice porridge, a more unexpected pairing. The game of the meat benefited from the Comté, which gave a nice acidity and married well with the floral oil.
Skaar’s brand of cooking harkens back to his Norwegian heritage more in discipline than flavor – with the possible exception of the Norwegian butter he dabs on the gougères, which I found forgettable – so his dishes are reductive to a point where ingredients, like this oil, work harder.
Spice, when used, flickers the heat quietly. I was amazed at how Skaar uses yuzu kosho, a type of fermented chili paste made from yuzu rind and juice, in a sauce as vibrant as the green goddess. He enhanced these large New Bedford scallops, which had been preserved in lemon, olive oil and salt until their pink flesh barely faded but remained lush, and topped with wispy furs in the shape of brackish dulse pom pom – a breed of dark red seaweed fleshier than nori. Without the overly sweet pickled radishes, this dish might have been an ace.
I admired the way Skaar uses heat to tease seared trout – through raw, fiery mustard greens and shaved horseradish. The black garlic mash, silky and as dark as a cauldron, was just sweet enough to outwit the spice. The combinations are particularly amazing.
Part of Skaar’s genius can be attributed to the way he expresses flavor, or umami, through another culture: Japan. The yuzu kosho. The pickled radish that rests on those scallops. And his frequent use of nitsume, a syrupy, sweet version of Japanese soybeans that he incorporates into a shiny, barely set egg custard – as nice as the one I enjoyed from Alma’s previous winter menu – that he garnishes with steamed mussels without shells. Less exciting, but still populist: a Wagyu short rib, swapped in place of bison, which came off with relative ease and was served with hazelnut-roasted maitakes and a potent sobise in which I could swear dashi slipped into it.
Sometimes he gets carried away. A kind of sweetness that permeated the overflowing forbidden black rice, and the raw amaebi, a type of shrimp commonly served in Japanese raw bars, was oddly lukewarm. The salmon one evening was served with shiitake, daikon and kimchi broth. The equipment was fine, the fish definitely not. Black cod, a softer but equally oily fish, might have been a better choice.
And, sometimes, the technique gets the better of him. Overdoing the sweetness might be forgivable, but overcooking the precious Ora salmon to the point where its flesh visibly leaches the albumen isn’t, even calibrating for the way Skaar typically cooks his fish (medium-well, unfortunately, at less for trout). And the date puree that came with an otherwise juicy squab was starchy and sickening.
Flaws aside, there’s little doubt about Skaar’s manner with ingredients – even with dessert. An Asian pear tart with frangipane and pistachio and a chocolate tart with sour cherries are as blessed as some of the jewelry box pastries you’d find at a tony bakery. Another, a semifreddo, was simpler but its rich yet light froth resonated deeply with coffee and banana. Only one disappointment: a textureless chocolate cake that looked and tasted like a packet dessert you thaw from the frozen aisle.
Not too long ago, Vann tightened up his menu. Where there were three options per dish (excluding dessert), there are now two. The change didn’t bother me and the dismissal of the gougères didn’t bother me. But the lack of an amuse-bouche instead did. Despite the cuts, the plates still don’t seem substantial – certainly not successful – the portions Lilliputian. Bigger plates and more extras could go a long way.
Chatting, after all, is the least to expect from a gifted chef who clearly knows how to cook. Sometimes more is more.
** ½ Very good
Location: 4016 Shoreline Drive, Spring Park, 952-381-9042, vannrestaurant.com.
Hours: Open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday.
Price: Three classes for $75.
Beverage program: Several options of red, white and sparkling wines by the glass ($10 to $17) as well as choices of beer, cider and N/A. The N/A choices are terrific and the wine pours are generous. Bottle options ($44-$170) include a good selection of varietals from different regions.