Beef à la Mode

1304 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis; (612) 623-4211
Hours: Monday-Friday lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m., dinner 5:00-9:00 p.m.; Saturday dinner only, 5:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; Sunday brunch 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.

The time has come to admit something I have been keeping from you all. I am renovating an old house. Yes, my daily life is that tedious. Yes, I am that exhausted. I've tried hard not to bore you with tales of irregular plumbing and regular decay, but it has become undeniable. I am in full-on battle with one of those big, turn-of-the-century charmers made by craftsmen who really knew how to build a house--namely with lots of asbestos, tar, mummified mice, and playing cards. The reason this becomes relevant is that sometimes now, after a long day of toil in which my hands end up with mittens of tile mastic and my brow is furrowed by the estimates of ambitious men aiming to replace my furnace with one of hand-tooled platinum, I like to take, as they advise in the women's magazines, a few minutes for me. I set aside my cares and worries, and unpack one of my prized albums from the supper-club Sixties: Mel, Frank, Dean. I take a moment, slide the heavy vinyl from its brittle paper sleeve, carve "Gone to Erté" in it with an awl, post it in the window, and lock the door behind me.

You see, Erté, despite the froufrou name (pronounced ER-tay and referring to the French artist), is the sort of classic American restaurant where you can sink into the something-and-potato reverie that feels like the God-given right of anybody who's spent the day messing with a sledgehammer. Steak and potato, chicken and potato, shrimp and potato--it's all good, as are the low, low old-fashioned supper-club prices. Eight to fourteen dollars starts you off with a platter of bread and butter arranged around a glass dish of olives and pickled peppers, follows with a cup of soup or a salad, then leads you through a big entrée on a plate: steak, chicken, trout, cassoulet. Add a platter of potatoes for $5, a beer from $2. Prices are even more old-fashioned than they seem once you realize they include all the taxes. Yet Erté is better than an old-fashioned supper club: The bread on that platter is a fresh-cut, good-quality baguette; the olives in the middle are imported and spiced; the soup of the day may be as exotic as Ecuadorian fish chowder; the salad is based upon newly torn lettuce, not chopped iceberg; the dressings are fresh and homemade; and the cassoulet is vegan.

Daniel Corrigan

Imagine Erté as an old structure thoroughly rehabbed. Owner Ellie Meenan bought the supper-club concept from foundation (steak) to roof (green-goddess dressing), but then threw out all of the chintzy, cost-saving improvements that had polluted the thing (the prefab dressings, the stale bread) and voilà!-- a contemporary structure that's comfortable and attractive without being cloying or retro. Shrimp cocktail ($9.50) is brilliantly fresh, the cocktail sauce zingy and bright. Crab cakes ($7) have just enough salt and cayenne to avoid being bland, and good chipotle aioli on the side gives more heat if you want it. Dinner salads are prettily composed plates of lettuce, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers topped with dressings that deserve some kind of award. Flapper-era green goddess is made with a combination of herbs and scallions so fresh you marvel at the plate. Buttermilk ranch is creamy and piquant. Blue cheese dressing is rich and powerful.

Erté serves three steaks, a New York strip ($14), a sirloin ($13), and a filet mignon ($14.50). All the beef here is certified Angus, and quite good; it offers a nicely forward taste and tender texture. Where does it fall on the great Minnesota steak scale? It was better than the meat I've had at lots of steak houses, if not as good as the best steaks I've had, like those at Manny's. The potatoes definitely play in the big leagues though: Pan-fried hashbrowns, ordered extra-crispy, had a gorgeous crust, the house O'Briens, made with minced, fried-till-they're-soft bell peppers and onions, were perfect. Creamed spinach was chunky with fresh garlic but not overwhelmingly spiced, and the plate of sliced tomatoes, that other steakhouse classic, boasted pretty layers of red and yellow salad tomatoes.

Not all the side dishes--all priced at $5 for a full order and $3 for a half--are as good as the hashbrowns. Skip the too-sweet sautéed mushrooms and onions (called--shudder--"mushnions"), and the sautéed vegetables tended to be greasy. I had those on the table the same night I had vegetarians at the table--imagine, vegetarians who enjoyed their meal at a steakhouse. One tried the pasta puttanesca ($10), a good preparation of the classic sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic. The other had the vegan cassoulet, which I'm sad to report was undercooked--a mess of white beans lacking the lush qualities of real cassoulet.

Of course, you don't go to a supper club for vegan cassoulet, but you don't go there for chicken either, and I had had such luck with Erté's roast chicken that my hopes were high. This chicken, a local bird priced at $13 for a whole and $10 for a half, is rubbed with garlic, rosemary, and thyme, cooked whole and basted in a pan full of bay leaves, onions, pepperoncini, green olives, and chopped lemons and oranges. The result is a bird with a sauce like a stew, complementing the sweet roasted flesh, bites alternating between salty, sour, and startlingly citrusy. Everyone at my table marveled over the thing--and what's more, it makes great leftovers.

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