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.

LIQUOR BIRTH: The Modern Cafe (337 13th Ave. NE, Mpls.) recently received approval from the Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Department of Licensing for a wine and beer license. Now you can chase your meatloaf, skin-on garlic mashed potatoes, and pan-roasted chicken breasts with a bottle of Hidden Cellars Cote de Zinfandel or a glass of Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc.

DELICATE DUNGENESS: Café Un Deux Trois (114 S. 9th St., Mpls.; 673-0686) is pleased to introduce Menu de l'Indochine every Wednesday night, which features a number of Asian specialties in addition to their regular menu. Have a go at the array of delicacies from China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan, prepared by the learned Chef Andrew Zimmern. If you need a few more adjectives to sway your palate, imagine yourself feasting on this One Pot Crab: It's a Thai dish using Dungeness crabs "harvested" and kept on ice, flown directly to the Twin Cities from Coos Bay, Oregon, steamed in sake, chilled again, cut into easily manageable pieces, and finally sautéed with fresh lemon grass, cilantro, ginger needles, and a pungent oyster sauce. Or perhaps your taste buds would swell more from visualizing scallions and ginger prawns with soba yosenable, a Japanese version of bouillabaisse made with tofu, watercress, Japanese cabbage, shrimp and mussels. And dessert? Maybe a few licks of red papaya sorbet is what you've been lacking. So stop snuffing your desires and pop into Café Un Deux Trois before this fortuitous situation changes.

WARM FEELINGS AND TINY COOKIES: While you're building up your insides with a warm padding of barbecued ribs and corn bread, here's a chance to treat your more ethereal self to an equally warm feeling. Dave Anderson, owner of Famous Dave's BBQ Shack, is introducing "Wilbur's Mitten Clothes Line" at his Linden Hills location (4264 Upton Ave. S., Mpls.; 929-1200) to collect mittens for needy children. "Wilbur the Pig and I are asking kids and parents to bring in their mittens that don't fit anymore and hang them on our line," explains Anderson. "Then we'll donate all the mittens we collect to Warm Hearts/Warm Hands, who will distribute them to local children in need." Wilbur's Mitten Line will be hung every Saturday in December. To make it even more of a party, Anderson is inviting all kids in the area to join him December 9 at the BBQ Shack from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. to greet Santa Claus and join in decorating holiday cookies.

HOT CHILI, COLD COMFORT: If you're worried about the year passing by without your having done anything meritorious, here's an opportunity: The Third Annual Great American Chili Contest. All you need to do is have a great idea that involves at least one 1-ounce package of Jimmy Dean Chili Seasoning--you've probably already had three ideas like that today! Any chili-seasoned main dish is eligible, including vegetarian chilis, those made with any combination of meats, and dishes prepared with or without beans. What? You suck at making chili? Well, that's no reason not to try: There's another category just for you, calling for "any creative dishes especially appealing during the summer"--just the ambiguity you were looking for. Remember that your summertime concoction must use at least one package of any of these Williams seasonings and sauce mixes: Taco, Sloppy Joe, Spaghetti Sauce, Country Gravy, Chicken Gravy, or Brown Gravy. If your recipe is selected as outstanding, you may win $1,000. All you need to do is send your recipe neatly printed on 8.5 x 11-inch paper, including name, address, and telephone number, to: Great American Chili Contest, William Foods, Inc., P.O. Box 14067, Lenexa, KS 66285-4067. Recipes must be postmarked by April 1, 1996.

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