Island Paradise

TABLEHOPPING:

110 PERCENT ALMA: You know what's productive? Asking the dumbest questions imaginable. Like, get this: It seems that Restaurant Alma, already pretty great, has gotten about 10 or 15 percent greater since, oh, about April or so. Possible? If so, why? Of course, I had to call and put that question to co-owner Jim Reininger and Alex Roberts. Reininger didn't much know, but he did point out that wine dinners have lately become both more ambitious--a Kistler chardonnay single-vineyard vertical tasting? Unheard of! And also more easily discovered, thanks to a new Web site: www.restaurantalma.com. The $42 four-course menu is also available now every day, though on Friday and Saturday nights Alma might require that everyone at the table participate. Even more astonishing, there's now a $19.95 Sunday supper served every, um, you know, Sunday, and dreamed up by chef Mike Ryan, who has been cooking at Alma for a year. One Sabbath meal began with ricotta and goat-cheese ravioli in a basil pesto and anchovy sauce; proceeded to New Zealand blue-nose bass baked with a spicy curry rub and served with gingered vegetables and papaya salad; and finished with a dessert of Rainier and sour-cherry soup with crème fraîche and French mint. Cheaper? More accessible? Great restaurants never get cheaper and friendlier in the face of success, do they? Well, apparently this one does.

And what was head chef Alex Roberts doing while Ryan made his Sunday supper? Why, manning the dishwasher, of course. So he had plenty of time to talk to me, too. Turns out that Roberts had a good idea of how the restaurant could get better, namely, better supplies. It's not just that it's the height of summer harvest, though that certainly is a chunk of it; it's also that Alma recently added produce from Co-op Partners Warehouse, an organization created by several local co-ops to find and handle their fruits and vegetables. Ever since then, says Roberts, the gooseberries, currants, and cabbages he sees have all improved. "The purchasing is the weak link in a lot of food," says Roberts. "Do the purchasers that you are buying from know what a good clam or a good gooseberry is like? Or do they look at it like a box of nails, or any other product you'd buy for someone else that you don't necessarily have to look at? The people we're dealing with now, who also supply Sapor, know what to look for when they look at a carrot. Unless you get exceptional ingredients, you can't make great food. With the ingredients, at least you can try."

Diana Watters

(Ahem: So, once again it all comes down, on some level, to our local co-ops. Will they ever stop giving and giving? Let's hope not. I swear upon this stack of carrots, I will never complain about a $6 head of broccoli again.)

Roberts also credits some of Alma's improvements on the Ryan Factor: "The Sunday suppers are pretty much his baby, and the first ideas other than my own that are creeping into the food," he says. "He helps me be a better cook by bouncing ideas off me, and by the conversations we have about technique."

And that, says Roberts, is the system that editor Ruth Reichl walked into one rainy Sunday night in June, which garnered them a mention in her column in Gourmet, and that is the system that is going to have them featured in Bon Appétit this October.

For me, one of the things that keeps writing about restaurants interesting is that some pretty basic questions--like "What makes a good restaurant good?"--have answers that are bottomless and often seem to apply to a lot more than restaurants. Restaurant Alma, 528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 379-4909.

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