Down-Home Gourmet

The Birchwood Cafe

3311 E. 25th St., Mpls.; 722-4474

THIS RECENTLY OPENED cafe, serving gourmet fare in a cheerful and humble fashion, is a great choice for wintertime dining--the kind of place where you can drip slush all over the floor without suffering incriminating raised eyebrows.

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Birchwood Cafe

3311 E. 25th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Seward/ Longfellow/ Minnehaha

With its surprisingly coordinated blend of green and purple walls and a red and purple checked floor, line counter, and a comfortable view of the kitchen, the Birchwood seems like the kind of grade-school cafeteria you always wished for. Everything here is made on the premises--and there's nothing frozen lurking in depths of freezers, waiting to make an appearance on your plate. Equally splendid is the fact that the Birchwood doesn't carry any of the attitude that you might expect it to, especially when you consider that they sell their own granola ($3/lb.). It's a heavy dose of rolled oats, toasted almonds, sesame seeds, coconut, and sunflower seeds, all treated with a measure of honey and maple syrup, bundled into an inconspicuous brown paper bag in case you are opposed to being seen with a bag of granola in hand. Consider further that they serve their sandwiches with organic corn chips, and then add to the picture forming in your head that they'll make your café au lait with soy milk if you cough up an extra 25 cents.

Breakfast is a quiet affair, with customers keeping to themselves for the most part (probably the most invasive thing I witnessed was one person venturing to ask his neighbor for the entertainment section of his newspaper). If coffee and freshly made pastries are your idea of a complete breakfast, then there are plenty of ever-changing options that should do the trick. A sample selection might include nutmeg and golden raisin scones ($1), chubby, glossy caramel pecan and cinnamon raisin rolls, and a lush blueberry cream cheese coffee cake ($1.50). It's sweet and decadent enough to be dessert, but since they tack on the words "coffee cake," you feel justified in wolfing down a piggy slice of it for breakfast. If you'd prefer something a bit lighter, the fruit and yogurt, as boring as it might sound, is actually fantastic: fresh, tart apples, pears, blueberries, and strawberries bound in nonfat yogurt and served in a grandmotherly, heaping fashion.

Besides the fact that they close up early, Sundays are special in that you have occasion to order from a creative assortment of rich, cheesy quiches baked fresh that morning, all served with roasted red potatoes and a pile of grapes and orange slices ($5.25). If you luck out, perhaps next Sunday you'll be facing a hot slice of quiche fattened up with large chunks of smoked salmon or tomato and hot pepper.

Lunch delivers all the standards, but with some creative twists. It was hard to see my friend's face as he lit into his tuna melt, obstructed as it was by the large chunk of chewy French baguette, which had been toasted over with hot pepper jack cheese. Other sandwiches include roasted vegetables, a sun-dried tomato tapanade, and a great chicken salad loaded with dill and scallions, and tinged with the good graces of fresh lemon juice. It's doubtful that the Birchwood's soups ($2.50/$3.50) have ever let anyone down; usually the daily selection includes one variety from the puréed and creamy family, plus a staunch, bean-based type. My favorite is a curried lentil replete with small bits of carrot, white onion, and enough curry to make a horse sneeze and a spice addict rejoice.

The kitchen also cooks up special entrées each week, and usually there's something for vegetarians. At least we were never disappointed on any of our visits: Once we fell across a lush and warm version of shepherd's pie, constructed from a thick stew of fat mushrooms, parsnips, cauliflower, green beans, and onions, perfumed with sage, thyme, and dill, and then topped with a hefty roof of mashed Yukon gold potatoes; it was served with organic greens and a vinaigrette ($5.75). Other occasions delivered an abundant Mediterranean platter heaped with spanakopita, humus, olives, and tabouli; a Mexican lasagna stuffed with black beans and roasted vegetables and garnished with snappy jicama radishes, and a heady mushroom stroganoff made with porcini mushrooms and mock duck.

Desserts are homey and old fashioned--and just in case you figured carob and fruit juice sweeteners were about to be mentioned, the dishes involve lots of sugar. There's a crunchy and tart bowl of apple crisp topped with real whipping cream ($2.50); a sophisticated chocolate-chip pecan cookie dressed up with sun-dried cherries (75 cents); and a heavy-looking chocolate layer cake, dark as can be ($2.50). The list could go on in every category, but suffice it to say that the Birchwood Cafe is just the sort of place that you wish were in walking distance from your house. Even though it probably isn't, you'll find plenty of justification for making the drive there frequently.

TABLEHOPPING

BAG OF PLENTY: Take your chances at doing something nice and perhaps you'll receive one year's worth of free bread. Come to the Bread Basket Bakery (3212 W. Lake St., Mpls.), take a grocery bag, and return this Saturday, December 9 any time from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bring along that bag filled with delicious food for someone less fortunate. The bags will be weighed and the top two contributors (based on weight) will each receive one loaf of bread free every week for a year from the bakery. All food collected will be donated to the Local Food Shelf Network.

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