Eat the Revolution

California Cafe
368 South Boulevard
Mall of America, Bloomington

The world is full of signs and portents: The first crocuses summon spring; the first red leaves announce fall; the first time a kid ducks and covers upon a parents' arrival heralds puberty; and, if history is any judge, the moment Chef Steve Vranian unpacks his knives signals a new bloom in the excellence of the local restaurant scene.

Jana Freiband

Location Info


California Cafe

368 S. Blvd.
Bloomington, MN 55425

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Bloomington

It all started in the '70s, when Vranian lit out from Michigan for San Francisco with nothing but a Volkswagen Fox and the Minnesota woman he was madly in love with. Instead of ending up homeless or as a night laborer in a cannery, Vranian landed in the kitchen of the Fourth Street Grill--the restaurant run by Mark Miller, a nationally known chef who was a principal figure in the Chez Panisse/New American Cuisine revolution. Miller introduced Vranian to Alice Waters and the rest of the foodie revolutionaries, and quicker than you could say "pan-roasted beet salad," Vranian was spending his off hours picnicking with Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters on M.F.K. Fisher's Sonoma farm. "She had a beautiful waterfall in the back," he explains.

Vranian got to be a player in one of the most important American restaurant developments this century, and when he moved on to establish himself under the wings of yet another nationally known chef--Jeremiah Tower, founder of the famous Stars restaurant and the acknowledged patron saint of contemporary California cuisine--he found himself on the bleeding edge of another international restaurant trend. As chef of the Singapore Stars, he experienced the pan-Asian/European fusion like few others.

Last Christmas, though, Vranian and his wife Jules, a onetime pastry chef at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch, headed back to Minnesota to take advantage of the...internationally renowned restaurant scene? Name-brand chefs? Food writers' backyard waterfalls? Nope. As a dad of two, Vranian settled here to take advantage of the public schools. "Honestly, you could say I've had the life of a spoiled brat," he admits. "I got paid to travel to Paris with Jeremiah and promote his cookbooks, I've spent weekends scouting around Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok for Stars. I've eaten some incredible meals cooked by incredible people. But it's time to settle down a little bit, or my wife's going to kill me." Still, Vranian doesn't equate moving to the heartland with shifting to the backseat: He says the next restaurant avant-garde may be taking shape right in Minnesota. "I see a lot of people here who have traveled, who know quality, who know wine, and who want to spend some of their time and money on good food. I see some interesting restaurants opening up. I see a lot of interest in food generally. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the Bay Area when I first got there."

Sitting inside the California Cafe, contemplating the lengthy wine list full of Pacific Coast rarities and basking in the Cafe's plush service, I could just about believe it. After all, here was evidence of a world gone terribly right: My meal began with perfect circles of scarlet ahi tuna ($8.95), elegantly seared on their black-sesame rims, served on a plate brightened with a tart daikon and carrot salad, ginger caviar and wasabi. My companion had the impressively meaty crab cakes ($9.95), rounds of still-recognizable crab fried crisp and served with a crunchy black-bean-and-corn salsa and a smoldering chili sauce. A buttermilk-poppyseed butterhead-lettuce salad ($5.95) gave me new respect for this salad-bar standard, revealing a depth I'd never expected. My friend had a gorgeous entree of zebra-striped lobster ravioli ($17.95), stark black-and-white striped pillows holding a sweet lobster mixture, the plate filled with an exquisite lemon shellfish sauce and decorated with beautiful morsels of fresh-shelled lobster. I can't remember the last time I saw lobster ravioli served with actual lobster, and I was delighted.

On that same visit, I also had a grilled lamb sirloin steak, ($19.95) a tender fist of rare-grilled lamb served with a perky mint aioli on a beautiful, dusky bed of curried lentils which itself rested on a springy tangle of braised Swiss chard--a perfect harmony of strong flavors. For dessert we tried the heavenly apple pie, an individual, hand-formed beauty served hot beside a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream ($5.50.) By the time I finished that, I was ready to crawl beneath M.F.K. Fisher's waterfall myself.

A lunch visit yielded another series of delights. The Mediterranean vegetable pizza ($9.95) had a golden crust which struck the perfect balance between wood-fire smoke and yeasty tenderness. The chicken pot pie ($10.95) was a delectable combination of chunks of smoked chicken, chanterelle and button mushrooms, baby potatoes, and braised celery and carrots, all melded with a fresh-thyme gravy--one of the few dishes I've ever had that made me covet the recipe. The barbecued hickory-smoked ribs ($10.95 for half a rack, $16.95 for a full rack at dinner) were sweet and plummy, a good example of Asian-American fusion, the anise scent from the hoisin in the barbecue sauce as fragrant as the ribs were clean and meaty.

But then there was the other night--the one when I sat on the terrace, buffeted by the rumble and screams from the roller coaster, watching the flume go up and down, up and down, watching the Kite-Eating Tree swing ride go round and round, round and round, backed into a corner by the Cafe's two-foot-high "Ménage à Trois" appetizer presentation. (The Ménage is a three-tiered tower of plates featuring those wonderful sesame ahi tuna medallions, a sultry smoked salmon on a dill focaccia with a pungent sun-dried tomato aioli, and smoked-duck spring rolls--all tasty, but physically so big that the combination effectively blocks out all non-freakishly tall dining companions on a table for two.) That night, the idea that we're living in the next food utopia seemed distinctly unrealistic.

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