ST. PAUL -- Dakota has a spicy roster of international jazz stars and an intensely local cuisine that has fans raving that the kitchen cooks every bit as much as the stage does. Much of the credit goes to executive chef Ken Goff, who has been wearing the top toque since Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant opened here in 1985.
In shaping the inaugural menu, he recalled the advice of his cooking school teachers that a chef's reputation rests on his bread, his coffee, and his soups.
"So I thought about what we have here in Minnesota: lots of dairy and plenty of apples. I was buying cheese from my neighborhood food co-op that was labeled 'Minnesota brie,' so I put Minnesota Brie and Apple Soup on the menu and sent it to the printer before I'd figured out a recipe."
Before the restaurant opened, Goff came up with a creamypotato-leek-apple soup swirled with melted cheese. But the "Minnesota" brie turned out to be from Belmont, Wis. Now, he calls the dish Dakota Brie and Apple Soup.
When the restaurant moved to the bustling Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis in late 2003, Goff tweaked the soup, adding a drizzle of rosemary-infused olive oil. Twin Cities diners still swear by it, so maybe Goff's cooking school teachers were right.
The sophisticated new digs gave Goff a chance to stretch the menu and redefine a fine vernacular cuisine of the Upper Midwest.
The chef sometimes makes light of the home cooking of his youth. "Baked codfish in white sauce," he says, "served with cauliflower." He pauses for effect. "On a white plate. That's real Minnesota soul food."
Goff is a master at transforming such dishes. Another of his signature plates is an homage to one of his Norwegian-American mother's "fancy" meals: King Oscar canned fish balls heated in cream sauce, served on boiled potatoes, garnished with tiny canned shrimp. Goff's version uses walleye dumplings instead of canned fish balls, a more sophisticated sauce, and freshly steamed crayfish instead of canned shrimp.
Walleye is to Minnesota what cod is to New England -- a mild white fish that was once so plentiful that it pervades the cuisine. Goff explains that although it's sometimes called "walleye pike," it's actually a kind of perch found only in very cold water, something the Land of 10,000 Lakes has in abundance. Walleye chowder and walleye fritters often appear as specials on his menu, but one stalwart is a broiled fillet of walleye served with mustard-horseradish sauce and a wild-rice pilaf laden with butter-simmered bits of local yellow onion and laced with toasted pumpkin seeds.
Wild rice is Minnesota's best-known food product, and Goff uses it lavishly. His standby vegetarian entree is an earthy, rich plate of crisp wild rice and root vegetable cakes that he serves with garlicky mayonnaise and wilted greens. Wild rice creeps into the soups and often pops up as an accompaniment. Until recently, Goff always purchased cultivated wild rice, but this fall he decided that he could splurge on 2,500 pounds of wild rice hand-harvested by Native Americans from Leech Lake and processed by a small Native American cooperative.
Goff is committed to local agriculture, and it shows in the intensity and freshness of his dishes. He started serving more duck and foie gras when he discovered Au Bon Canard duck farm near Caledonia, where Christian Gasson feeds his flock cooked whole corn grown literally across the road.
"By feeding them whole corn, it produces a tastier duck than feeding them on mash," Goff says. Last summer, he went hunting for bison, or at least bison producers.
"With a name like Dakota, it seemed only logical that we have buffalo on the menu," he says. The trip across neighboring South Dakota not only yielded a Native American producer of grass-fed, humanely slaughtered bison, but also a Native American family farm that makes dried sweet corn.
"It's terrific," Goff says. "Sweet and chewy." He serves the corn sauteed with onions and diced turnips as a side dish with the bison. True to cold-weather cooking, Goff is not afraid to sweeten the entrees. Often that hint of sweetness comes from maple syrup that he gets from a producer on the north shore of Lake Superior. "Maybe it's the stress of the cold that makes the syrup so good," he says.
You could say the same for the whole menu at Dakota. Minnesota soul food, indeed.
Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, 1010 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612-332-1010, www.dakotacooks.com. Entrees $16.95-$28.95. Open daily for dinner, Monday-Friday for lunch.