Cold Seat, Warm Heart

Restaurant Alma
528 University Ave. SE, Mpls.; (612) 379-4909
Hours: Monday-Thursday 5:00-9:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday until 10:30 p.m.; closed Sundays

Here's every restaurateur's nightmare: The critic shows up to research her first review of your newly opened spot and, unrecognizable in her overalls and putty nose, she gets the very worst table in the house. Twice. On two separate evenings, she's backed up against the temporary velvet-curtain vestibule, and every single time someone comes, goes, or (God forbid) politely holds the door open for friends, icy strains of wind reach through the velvet and curl around the long-suffering scribe like fingers of blue fire. It is the true mark of success when not even such frigid reminders of season and latitude can keep said critic from purring.

I guess you could pin my lack of resentment toward Alma on the dazzling wine list, or on the breads co-owner Jim Reininger bakes daily. But what really made me feel warm and fuzzy was chef Alex Roberts's restrained, confident, satisfying dishes: Just remembering his celery-root soup ($6) has me smiling over my keyboard. Rich and creamy with the nutty subtlety of celeriac, the dish gained a hint of luxurious fragrance from the crowning swirl of black truffle oil, while the confetti of roast Brussels-sprout leaves scattered on top added pleasant texture and visual appeal. A shiitake and farro soup ($6) perfectly blended chunks of springy, fresh mushrooms with chewy grains of wheat in an astonishingly rich-flavored broth; fresh greens to one side of the plate added bright notes, and garlic croutons kept the texture lively. I got more out of these two bowls of soup than I have out of whole meals at other restaurants, cold drafts be damned.

Diana Watters

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Restaurant Alma

528 University Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Restaurant > Health

Region: University

Such lovability is quite an accomplishment for a restaurant not yet four months old. Then again, Alma isn't as young as it seems, what with co-owners Reininger and Roberts having accumulated ages of culinary wisdom between them. Fifty-year-old Reininger has been working in Twin Cities kitchens since the days when fine dining meant a trip to the downtown hotels. He cooked at Faegre's, the first Ediner in the Galleria, and the New French Café, but he's probably best known for being the force behind the Hennepin Avenue bistro Lowry's until it closed in 1995.

For his part 28-year-old Roberts may have been born, raised, and trained as a chef in Minneapolis (he even served a stint at Lowry's), but he has been well-hardened in the white-hot world of trendy Manhattan cuisine. After attending the French Culinary Institute, Roberts worked for two of New York's most important tastemakers of the 1990s, including exacting David Bouley and Gramercy Tavern's Danny Meyer. Throughout Roberts's odyssey he and Reininger kept in touch, and a few years ago the Alma idea--a neighborhood bistro catering to both soup-and-bread walk-ins and discriminating diners--was born.

As is usual on the Minneapolis restaurant scene, the plan was easier hatched than executed: It took the pair nearly a year and a half to take possession of a suitable property, only to see their deal fall through at the last minute. Reininger bided his time as a wine consultant at Surdyk's, while Roberts tried his hand at serving pasta and crumbing tables at Ristorante Luci and Luci Ancora. By now there's barely a position in a restaurant one of them hasn't worked--which is good news for patrons, since it means a dining experience that's well-considered at almost every level, from flattering lighting to spreading-temperature butter and scrupulously cleaned shrimp.

There's more to those shrimp than meets the eye. After my string of visits to Alma, I called up Roberts and complimented him on a dish of orecchiette tossed with garlic, shrimp, organic broccoli, and pancetta. Not only were the shrimp perfectly cooked and buoyantly fresh, but the little split backs showed not a hint of black vein--one of my pet peeves. It turns out that those shrimp represent Roberts's effort to rebel against the system that trained him: New York kitchens, he notes, generally follow the French hierarchy of executive chef, service chefs, sauce chefs, sauté chefs, cold chefs, pastry chefs, prep chefs, etc.

"A lot of emphasis is placed on doing things to order," Roberts explains, "and I think a lot of times that is to the diner's peril. Without quality prep you don't have a system for making good food reliably. So I'm trying to train my staff in the Italian style, where they're nearly fanatical about prep, to focus on two things: the sauce-making, and getting the ingredients into the best shape they can be in."

Recalling some time spent cooking in a Florence restaurant kitchen, Roberts continues: "In Italy the chefs seem more confident because they've got that prep work to rely on. There are not a lot of happy people in French kitchens, but there are a lot of happy people in Italian kitchens. I want my staff to feel good while they're cooking, too--I think that feeling goes into the food."

I couldn't argue with him. Highlights on Alma's menu include sautéed chicken livers ($8), resilient, irony morsels in a perfect winter-sweet mélange of bacon, apricots, and vin santo. Another unforgettable appetizer is the cold-smoked salmon ($8)--three generous slices of bright pink salmon, rolled up and leaning on each other like sticks in a campfire around a kindling center of caramelized, sweet pickled onions. The whole construction is perched on a tender buckwheat pancake, which itself is surrounded by a tangy vodka-crème-fraîche sauce--so nouveau Russian! I tried the dish another night when a potato pancake replaced the blini; it was a bit sticky and not as marvelous, but it still paired beautifully with a glass of Jacquesson Fils Champagne ($10) and the snowdrifts outside.

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