Love it or hate it, humans are in the thrall of beauty. Physical beauty moves us; attractive surroundings captivate us. We are drawn to optical pleasure everywhere, even (or especially) on our dinner plates.
Think about the best meal you’ve ever had. It was probably visually compelling in one or more ways—the atmosphere, the tableware, the food’s arrangement on the plate, the combinations of colors, textures and shapes. (Your dining companion is a factor too, but that’s a different article… ) Some restaurants stimulate our impulse for beauty, and many chefs insist on it. There is a ritualistic, almost spiritual aspect to a meal, like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala sand painting, after hours of painstaking toil, the sand is swept away; the precious labor-intensive food is swallowed within five minutes. Keep that in mind when you enjoy some of the most visually affecting eateries we know, in accordance with place, palette, plate and palate.
Beet and Orange Salad
Banish any associations that you have with the words “pub food.” McCormick’s pub doesn’t have food, it has a kitchen: chef-driven, ingredient-forward, innovative fare that is expertly prepared, exquisitely flavored and beautifully arranged. The menu is seasonal so check the specials. Maybe the chef will treat you to a darling amuse-bouche or palate cleanser. The dazzling beet and orange salad is a perennial menu item—just marvel at what the kitchen can do with the humble, earthy beet. Walnuts and ricotta salata lend crunch and salt; the salad is citrus and curlicues, dabs and drizzles on a snow-white square plate. $9. 331 Broadway Ave S; Wayzata 952.767.2417
Is it art? Can I eat it? Does it taste good? These are the questions that pop up around Patisserie Margo’s desserts. These objets d’art are, taste-wise, a total knockout. They’re a winning combination of exquisite ingredients, brilliant flavor pairings and sly plays on beloved classics. The Empress Charlotte was the inspiration for the Charlotte russe, a custard-and-jam-layered cake attributed to the great chef Carême. Margo’s take is Charlotte russe gone psychedelic. Spirals of jam-filled genoise (sponge cake) build a fanciful mound like a lava lamp crossed with a geodesic dome. The dome’s mortar, Bavarian cream, oozes yolk-yellow custard at the seams. Raspberry sauce is a pop of tart next to the soft creaminess of cake and custard. Snag this specialty item while you can—it’s available only in September and December this year. $40. 284 Water St., Excelsior 952.746.2232
King crab, seared tuna, poached shrimp, lobster tail, grilled scallops, oysters on the half-shell and a trio of sauces: It’s a cathedral of goodies from the ocean in shades of pink, gray, white and red with a silvery flash of ice. Everything about this is utterly gorgeous; you’ll even want to save the empty shells. Need we enthuse about how wonderfully delicious everything is, too? The accompanying sauces (cocktail, creamy horseradish, chive butter) are also fantastic. The scene shifts into beauty overdrive with glowing table lamps, ivory tablecloths and crystal chandeliers. $45/$80. 635 E. Lake St., Wayzata 952.404.1100
Wasabi tobiko—sounds spiky, forward and aggressive—the name of a haughty general in a dated war movie? Nope, it’s just a bitty piece of sushi, a nori-wrapped cylinder of vinegared rice topped with tobiko, flying-fish roe as finely grained as sand. Wasabi—Japanese horseradish—jumps in with an electric green hue and sinus-clearing power. The little piece of sushi becomes an enchanting goblet bubbling with potion or maybe a spill of emeralds on black velvet. There will be gasps, euphoria. A bite of cotton-candy pink gari—sweet/sour pickled ginger—breaks the spell. $5.95. 28 Water St., Excelsior 952.474.1720
Lord Fletcher’s compound of dining rooms has so much character and charm that it’s a universe unto itself. Have a seat in the pub, the smallest dining room, and you’re mesmerized by burnished wood beams, red leather chairs, copper dishes, oil paintings and a big old fireplace, all very whimsical and cozy. Once ensconced in the pub, you must order the Fletcher’s famous walleye dinner. It has a wholesome, straightforward, Upper-Midwestern beauty that only a mother (or Minnesotan) could love. Our state fish, walleye, is cracker-crusted and pan-fried till golden; our state grain, wild rice, graces the plate like Mother Nature’s confetti. There are lemon wedges and shallot-herb butter for the fish, and tartar sauce too, if you’d like. Don’t skip the dull-looking au gratin potatoes—you’ll remember that creamy kiss of garlic and nutmeg forever. $25. 3746 Sunset Drive, Spring Park 952.471.8513
Japanese cuisine is the leader in artful edibles; the aesthetic is simple yet exquisite. Chefs act as artists, putting together a plate according to the nature of the ingredient as well as freshness, availability and personal whim. Sakana uses raw fish to build luscious plate-scapes in shimmering colors. Vegetables make eye-popping accents—a nest of snowy daikon radish strands, long green spears of cucumber, darker green triangles of lime. Rosettes of pinky-orange salmon are striped with white; a deep brick-red tuna looks like smooth pavestones. Buttery yellowtail and rosy-edged red snapper curl into astounding blossoms and finials. More color comes by way of shredded beets and carrots so that the entire palette—and palate—is a virtual seaside sunset or a Martian landscape (whichever you’re in the mood for). $24.95. 683 Lake St., Wayzata 952.476.7000
Ike’s entrées hit the table like a Broadway show—bold, buoyant and gleeful. The colossal white plates are a striking backdrop for the showy Niçoise salad and its many lovely morsels. The various players line up in colorful rows, a chorus of emerald haricots verts, little cream-and-rose potatoes, red chopped tomato, red onion and hard-boiled egg. The best part is seared tender ahi tuna, edged in a peppery spice mix. This might be called a composed salad if it was made in another kitchen, but here it is hardly composed: It’s exuberant. Mustard vinaigrette is the secret ingredient. $14. 17805 Highway 7, Minnetonka 952.681.7099
Popovers are profoundly perfect. That’s the only way we know how say it; it’s almost impossible to understand unless you’ve experienced the phenomena for yourself. The Lakeshore Grill at Macy’s is famous for its popovers, which replace the standard basket of bread. These are blithe cushions of comfort, a miniature chef’s toque or cheery little parachute. It’s crispy here, soft there, golden with brown edges; the all-natural, homemade appeal is irresistible. Honey butter comes swirled in a little pot like soft-serve ice cream. Popovers are pretty on the inside, too: tender, custard-like and hollow. Available as a side with most dishes, or on their own. $3.50 for six in the Macy’s market. 12411 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka 952.591.6727
Sit beneath Bacio’s breathtaking vaulted stone ceilings—Italian monastery meets chateau wine cellar—and savor a decadent dessert, one that is almost too pretty to eat and might be named “death by chocolate.” Enter the budino (“pudding” in Italian), a molten chocolate cake. It’s a dark, gleaming cylinder sprinkled with powdered sugar and flanked by delicate ovals of Tahitian vanilla ice cream. The dabs, smears and squiggles of chocolate and berry coulis transform the whole into a modernist masterpiece on a stylish oblong plate. $8. 1571 Plymouth Road, Minnetonka 952.544.7000