The bad desserts at Birchwood aren't really bad desserts. Bad desserts in this town tend to be the overslick, taste-free cynical offerings. You've had them: the ebony-colored but chocolateless flourless chocolate cakes, the airy but empty bread puddings. They tend to be almost-desserts.

Which reminds me of my first assessment of this modest restaurant. I reviewed it about a million years ago when I first took up this page. I thought, after trying what I thought were watery soups and plain-Jane salads: This is a restaurant? Now I look at the delightful composed salads, like a recent offering of tiny mixed greens topped with ripe grape-tomatoes, perlette grape halves, chopped pecans, and an excellent, mild blue cheese and think: This is a restaurant! The best things are simple, good, and confident.

And the pizzas are among those best things, made lately with a sweet yeast dough that crisps so nicely and has such a firm and tender presence that it's completely individual--it's so rich it almost tastes like a brioche. The always-available pepperoni pizza ($5.75) features a robust, chunky sauce, good spicy pepperoni, and just the right amount of cheese to turn the rich, six-inch disc into a full meal. Throw a Sonny's ice cream IBC-root beer float ($3.25) on the side, and you've got an all-American repast that's as flavor-packed as a pound of truffles.

David Kern

Location Info

Map

Birchwood Cafe

3311 E. 25th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Seward/ Longfellow/ Minnehaha

The vegetarian meals have also grown ever-more ambitious: A Mediterranean-influenced creation of Parmesan-topped, broiled, and crusted chickpea croquettes on a bed of sautéed, herb-saturated zucchini and peppers served with a tomato-feta salad ($7.95) was excellent, the nutty croquettes proving the perfect foil to the bright zucchini. A more recent dish of plain quinoa cakes on a vast pool of black beans ($7.95) was prevented from being boring by three delicious accompaniments, a cumin-laced salad of pickled beets and red onions, a sweet, spicy mango-pepper salsa, and a banana raita. There are often dairy accents in the main vegetarian entrées that can be left off for vegans, and the Birchwood always serves a few explicitly vegan dishes, like an awful ginger-miso soup ($2.95 a cup, $3.95 a bowl) that was so overly intense it tasted like salad dressing, or a perfectly good adzuki bean salad with a spicy peanut dressing.

And then on to dessert. Or not. Those were done before the meal even began.

I guess sometimes the natural order can do with a little tweaking--dessertpetizers!--while there are other times--girl stings bee!--it can't. Oh, and the young terrorist, to the amazement of all, walked away from the Birchwood completely unscathed and unchastened. She's probably busy biting mosquitoes right now.

TABLEHOPPING

ALMA SWELLS: Speaking of fresh and seasonal, lately diners at Restaurant Alma, the American bistro at 528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 379-4909, have been not only eating fresh, local, and cutting-edge (stinging-nettle gnocchi with Love Tree Farms ricotta, cucumber consommé with smoked Star Prairie trout, and frisée salad with Wisconsin fava beans and haricots verts), but they've been drinking like princes: Co-owner Jim Reininger says the restaurant's generous corkage policy--$15 a bottle to bring your own--has, counterintuitively, increased the amount of wine they sell. "Almost to a one, people who bring in wine look at our list and say, 'If I knew your list was like this, I wouldn't have bothered picking out something of my own,'" says Reininger, curator of Alma's wine list and baker of its excellent breads. "Then, almost invariably, they drink a bottle of their wine, and a bottle of ours. And then we've got loyal customers."

The only problem, he notes, is that his wine-savvy clientele is making it nearly impossible to keep rarities on his list: A few bottles of 1997 Kistler chardonnay from the McCrea and Durrel vineyards he picked up recently flew off his shelves. High-end chardonnay buffs know that if you weren't one of the lucky ones who got a bottle of these perennial five-star Kistler chardonnays when they came out, and sold for a mere $45, you'd have to seek it out at auction. A March 31 auction at the Chicago Wine Company (www.tcwc.com) saw bottles going for around $100 each.

Happily, Alma's deep-pocketed customers are financing a coming boon for penny pinchers: Reininger and co-owner and chef Alex Roberts hope to get approval from the city to expand into an area that's currently part of the Dunn Bros coffee shop next door. This would allow them to consolidate their upscale dining area into a two-level, white-tablecloth area in the rear of the restaurant. The front of the restaurant would turn into a cheap and fast casual café. Alma almighty!

Oh--and starting July 16, they're going to open for dinner on Sundays, so those that head out of town for the weekends can have a relaxed evening meal.

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