Alma has lately debuted "little dinners" in addition to big entrées, typically vegetarian or near-vegetarian dishes with powerful flavors. I particularly liked corn crespelle (thin pancakes, $13) filled with ricotta, goat cheese, and greens on a bed of guajillo-chile-spiced lentils--they were the best enchiladas I've had in Minneapolis. On the big-dinner side, a chunk of pork roast braised and served in a sauce of dark spices such as star anise and cinnamon ($15) reminded me of an adventurous Swedish Christmas. The roast is also a nice example of Roberts's theory, learned under David Bouley, that every dish should showcase no more than three flavors, in this case the savory meat, nutty, smoky rice, and aromatic spices. Plus, of course, those good feelings. And wine.

I had great fun at Alma amusing myself with inexpensive bottles I'd never heard of, like a Sardinian wine called Cannonau di Gallura, ($23) a refreshing, windy grenache that's difficult not to drink like fruit punch. (There is also a nice selection of wines by the glass, from $5 to $10.) I only wish I had had the deep pockets to go for one of Reininger's more expensive bottles, like the 1990 Volnay Clos des Chênes ($110), a wine I've only read about. This red, from the "Enclosure of the Oaks," is made by a famous Burgundian family, the Drouhins. Wine writers just about fall on the floor when describing the scent of violets that emanates from the ruby-colored, velvety burgundy--and Alma even has the renowned and hard-to-find 1990 vintage.

One way to afford more wine might be to dedicate your dessert pennies to the vine, since the desserts--made by both Reininger and Roberts--are mostly homey, unsurprising comfort food, and they're big enough to share. I liked the vanilla panna cotta ($5) for its freshness, and the chocolate-Grand Marnier cake ($6) for its light texture and piquant blood-orange sauce. The one complicated dessert I did try, an ill-conceived, palate-mangling tart filled with layers of chopped cashews and shredded, gingered fresh carrots surrounded by a pool of acrid pineapple foam ($5), proved to me that the two should stick to their strength: nice, country-inn-simple sweets.

Looking back, I'm surprised my server even let me order that problematic tart, since the waitstaff here can be rather, um, forceful: On several occasions I witnessed servers arguing with guests about their selections, and one of my companions finally yielded, only to end up with something that didn't suit her personal taste. (Later, I learned from Reininger that there are some spookily high-powered servers at Alma, including staffers brought from the long-ago days at Lowry's and a onetime Loring Café chef, so perhaps enduring a bit of arrogance is not an unfair price to pay for dining among such talent.)

Happily, we can all look for said talent to get a little more elbow room in the coming months. Reininger says Alma will soon be adding a formal dining room to accommodate white-tablecloth diners who prefer fancier environs and more space between tables. This will allow the restaurant to serve the ambitious tasting menus Roberts wants to do, while still accommodating the soup-and-bread neighborhood crowd that's quickly developing at the small bar.

I bet those locals would be surprised to learn that, according Reininger, they live in an area that's nigh impossible for two out of three would-be gourmands to find. Alma is on University and Sixth Avenue SE, about halfway between Surdyk's and the Fourth Street/University Avenue exit off I-35. When I called Reininger recently, he was pulling his hair out after half a day trying to give directions to cityphobes. "This woman, from Edina, she hadn't heard of Southeast, St. Anthony Main, Riverplace, the Stone Arch Bridge, Northeast. Had no idea where the university was. So the question is, how do you give directions to someone without landmarks?" Personally, I suspect that the problem will soon take care of itself: This neighborhood jewel seems to be well on its way to becoming a landmark in its own right.

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