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.

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.

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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