Extreme localism

When flavors speak louder than words
By BRIAN DUFF  |  March 19, 2014

 food_vinlandsoup_main

HAVE IT YOUR WHEY Tangy yogurt provides the base for Vinland's turnip soup.

How easy is it to be self-satisfied for eating local? So easy that last week US Representative Bill Huizenga, a Republican from Michigan, congratulated himself on the passage of the Farm Bill by reminding reporters that “there is nothing hotter than farm-to-table.” Seen that viral video of Mitch McConnell and wondered why he is smiling so much? He is pleased about foraging his own nettles, of course!

In offering cuisine made entirely with ingredients from Maine, the new restaurant Vinland seeks to perfect a trend at the moment it has become banal — like Al Green did with soul music or the Flamboyants did with gothic architecture. 

This is not necessarily bad. Sure, the Flamboyants lacked elegance, but thank god for Green’s mid-career repertoire. Whether we should be thankful for Vinland depends on how they pull off the conceit. It is hard to swallow sanctimony, especially regarding a cliché. And in its self-promotion Vinland has shown a predilection for cant — promising lessons in ethics, aesthetics, nutrition, history, and politics. As Vinland’s manifesto concludes (after stating 19 principles; read the whole thing at vinland.me): they “hope to honor the indigenous and the myriad non-humans who have been so grievously harmed by Western culture. We hope to earn their welcome….” Too late, I fear! And too little, if what you are offering is expensive meals.

So it’s a pleasant surprise that dinner at Vinland feels neither too overtly eco-friendly nor too ego-friendly. Perhaps Vinland’s pontifications become white noise, which fades away as you appreciate the food and its distinctive coherence of flavors and textures — the Nordic, astringent, piney, ascetic goodness of it all.

Vinland’s extreme localism has led to a mastery of the dried and the fermented — starting with the amuse-bouche of an earthy beet chip topped with a dollop of tangy yogurt and a bit of bitter radish. A gimlet cocktail gets its sour from yogurt whey instead of citrus, which smoothed out the gin’s bite and harmonized with the mint of pine syrup. A rum cocktail uses the same whey, as well as ginger, to create an appealing fruitless tropicality. 

Yogurt also provides the base for the turnip soup — white and silky with a sort of pleasant probiotic tang. The turnip deepens the bitterness and gives the soup some heft, while fermented carrot and greens provide sharpness. Even better was the oat polenta — creamier than most corn versions, and less sweet. The hearty oat complemented a just-sour goat-cheddar sauce, and big pieces of tender delicata squash.

A scallop entrée showed off Vinland’s distinctive strength in the ingenious potato risotto that was the foundation of the dish — much lighter and less oily than most rice versions. The barely seared scallops, from the sea that afternoon we were told, tasted of it. A broth infused with mushroom and seaweed brought some subtle funkiness, roasted carrots added sweetness, and spirals of dried beet offered texture. Pork capocollo — usually cured — is prepared sous-vide (sealed in an airtight bag and cooked in a water bath) at Vinland and seared in herb butter. The pale and tender result has a subtle ham-like flavor. A red cabbage kraut was so lightly fermented it was almost fresh, and the pine cheese crisp had a funky intensity. 

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