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Café Barbette
1600 W. Lake St., Mineapolis., (612) 827-5710
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; limited menu at other times.

By all rights there should be a new-restaurant riot going on outside Uptown's new Café Barbette, which recently opened in the space once occupied by Café Wyrd. You know the kind: blondes in capri pants stacked up like monkeys in a barrel, head to head, lip-gloss smearing on the plate glass; SUVs run up on the sidewalks resting on local baby strollers. I mean, a confident chef who's sure to be a local star, an accessibly priced menu, a lovely wine list, new, sexy, vaguely 1920s Paris-circus décor, and still I walked in there at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday without a reservation and was immediately seated? What gives?

Ingenuity? A softening economy? Whatever the reason, Kim Bartmann, longtime Bryant-Lake Bowl owner, has pulled off what I would have thought impossible: a quiet restaurant opening in a town that's often starving for high-quality food. And I can think of no better example of the high quality going on here than Barbette's amazing salade niçoise ($9.50). Salade niçoise was about the last thing I expected to be dazzled with in this lifetime--how many times must you see a gray slab of tuna surrounded by hard-cooked eggs and lettuce before you give up?

But here it was a joy in every detail. At the core of the plate were greens with a dressing of buttery olive oil from Crete, fresh lemon juice, a hint of anchovy, and sea salt. To one side, a little firewood stack of delicate steamed haricots verts, crisp and perfect in every way, a few halves of salted, boiled quail eggs that melt in the mouth, a wee pile of imported niçoise olives, carefully pitted by hand and tossed with a bit of fresh tarragon, and a few waxy slices of astonishingly bright purple potato. All of these lovely things were arranged around the pièce de résistance, a glorious piece of tuna, sushi grade, seared without, red within, absolutely delicious in every way.

The first time I had this salad, I couldn't stop gasping and purring and clamoring over it. I've had it twice since then and think I could have it once a week forevermore and purr each week anew. The menu gives no hint that this salad is so good; it sits in modest company with unspectacular-sounding casual French food like a croque madame, crêpes, and quiche. And yet nearly each of those yielded unexpected joys.

Generally, I can't stand quiche. To me it always tastes like some combination of sulfur and cheap cheese, and I often wondered why anyone ate it. Now I know. Here the quiche (ingredients change daily; $6.25) is a white, moist, bubble-light brightness that cleaves at the touch of a fork into silky chunks that caress the tongue. It's served in a rough-hewn butter crust that is a model of the form. The crêpes ($8.50) were good enough--made with a dark, irony buckwheat batter and filled with your choice of such fillings as fresh spinach, smoked salmon, and Gruyère--but how do you order crêpes once you've tasted Barbette's salade niçoise?

Of course, such a perfect dish doesn't come out of thin air. The kitchen here is headed by Lisa Carlson, a Twin Cities native who has climbed her way through some of the most prestigious kitchens in the world, including London's two-Michelin-star L'escargot, and most recently she was chef de partie at Lespinasse in New York. I spoke to Carlson on the phone for this review, and she says she's trying to instill a few touches of Lespinasse's exactitude in this inexpensive and casual restaurant. Look for touches like a dainty fingerling potato piped with a bit of crème fraîche and set with a row of pearl-size salmon caviar on the seafood-tasting appetizer (this appetizer is $9 for one, $17 for two, and really a marvelous spread, holding smoked salmon, fresh oysters, marinated salmon tartare, and smoked trout). Oysters are ordered fresh every day (always perfect on my visits, served cunningly on a bed of rock salt, star anise, and pink peppercorns; $4 for three). Likewise, fish comes in daily and Carlson orders only enough for the night's dinner.

If you've never heard of real haricots verts in the Twin Cities, here's why: The dear little things cost $30 a case. "With haricots verts and things like that, I really hope people notice that I'm spending a lot of money on the food," says Carlson. "I did a lot of investigating in terms of getting the best products, and I just don't know yet if people know their food well enough to recognize the difference." For example, the tomatoes in the croque madame (fancy grilled cheese, served with salad, $6.50) are oven-dried for 12 hours, and the mushroom stock for the deeply flavored wild-mushroom risotto ($14.50) cooks for a full day.

I think people will notice. One night I tried an appetizer special of forthright pork shumai dumplings arranged on a big platter with a picture-pretty steamed pea shoot, and a friend of mine I've dined with a dozen times actually appeared to sit up and pay attention to his plate for the first time ever. On that same visit, I enjoyed an appetizer special of a chunky, marinated shrimp cake served with preserved-lemon tartar sauce. The clear flavors were so well balanced and harmonious, the plate so lovely--it came with a bundle of watercress sprouts tied together with a grilled ramp--I immediately vowed to start dining earlier, in hopes of getting to the restaurant before the nightly fish specials sell out.

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