Whole Foods, Whole Hearts

The French Meadow, foremother of all organic bakeries, now dazzles with dinner

French Meadow Bakery & Cafe
2610 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.870.7855
www.frenchmeadow.com

When French Meadow first debuted dinner with full table service and wine two full years ago, I tried it, wasn't too impressed, and flirted briefly with actually saying so. Then I remembered that denigrating French Meadow is sure to add about four lanes of slick asphalt and an entire High Occupancy Vehicle lane to one's road to hell, so I kept my big yap shut. Now that the dinner service has evolved into one of the most interesting budget destinations in town, offering top-flight foods at casual pricing, I'm glad I kept quiet--because now I don't have to retract my words, and I'm probably even going to try to claim credit for discovering this gem hidden in plain sight.

Why the reverence for French Meadow? Mainly because French Meadow has led, articulated, and demonstrated everything right and good about food in America in the last several decades: championing organics before there really was such a thing (and certainly before there was popular awareness of the issues around organics); promoting sustainable agriculture; making and serving slow foods; and generally providing a tasty little oasis of thoughtful and healthy living since the dawn of time. Or 1985, more specifically. That's the year Lynn Gordon, founder and current co-owner of French Meadow, opened her all-organic, yeast-free bakery. (Five years later the café debuted.) In the 1970s Gordon was already one of those moms who would pack tofu sandwiches for trips to Valleyfair, and she was a produce buyer for a small St. Paul co-op, when even knowing what wheat bran was pretty much qualified you as a health nut. Years before that, Gordon's theories about food and wellness were forged in the most difficult circumstances: Her mother died of cancer at the age of 42, leaving 15-year-old Lynn with two young sisters, ages 10 and five, and a father who had a profound belief in the connection between food and lifestyle and health. "They say that when something like your mother dying happens to kids, it builds character," says Gordon. "You get tough and you learn. I knew then that I didn't want illness like that to happen to me, or anyone. I knew that what my dad was saying was right--that there was a connection between food and health. My whole life since then has been organized along those lines. My ex-husband used to say, The house smells like an Indian restaurant. Can't you cook any normal food? But the kids loved it, of course--kids don't know any better. They like things that are healthy."

Tempeh for meat lovers: The French Meadow
Jana Freiband
Tempeh for meat lovers: The French Meadow

Location Info

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French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

2610 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Well, me too. I like things that are healthy. And evidence says you do too. Every once in a while I join the frenzy of millions that arrive at French Meadow for the justly adored weekend brunches. Those pancakes that offer a counterintuitive blend of lightness and weight, buoyant and springy on the plate, but giving a firm foundation for a day's activities. After those meals I'll usually take a seeded baguette home--I love the way it combines an airy center that offers a whiff of sweet and sea spray with a crust that's satisfying to toy with and eat, like a bread lover's beef jerky.

And the dinner? Well, a year ago the food was good, but eating in felt like getting French Meadow takeout and bringing it to an airplane hangar: noisy, cold, not right. After two solid years of steady improvements, though, manager Matt Kline and server and wine-buyer Debbie Gordon have made the space welcoming, soothing, and warm, established a service staff that pretty much knows what it's doing, and provided a thoroughly pleasant showcase for the considerable achievements of chef Jonathan Grumbles. You should care because all of this has combined into a first-rate restaurant in the woefully underserved category where entrées cluster in the attractive $8-to-$14 range and a full dinner--with wine!--can be easily had for $20 a head.

Enter this cathedral of original organics at night nowadays and you're asked to seat yourself at whatever table suits you. I always found one at either end of the long room, where polished wood tables topped with bowls of candles and flowers make it seem like you're at a winter garden party. Browse the wine list and you find two dozen nice bottles, each chosen with an eye toward value, though the European selections are the best bargains: The $18 French sauvignon blanc Tarral is lemony and crisp; the $30 albariño, Valdumia, is like a soft citrusy blossom in the mouth. (For reds, try the $24 dusky pinot noir from Chartron et Trebuchet, or the beautiful blackberry and cedar Rioja from Vina Alberdi, $39.) Visit on half-price-wine Saturday, and you're in an improbable, wallet-friendly heaven.

Improbable too was the time I actually found myself regarding the arrival of a tempeh cutlet with anticipatory glee--me, who generally thinks all entrées--and most beverages--can be improved by the addition of generous amounts of sausage. And yet one of the entrées on the regular menu is a concoction of pumpkinseed-wild-rice-crusted tempeh resting on two little hills of vegetables ($13.95), and darned if it isn't both vegan and delectable. The tempeh itself is made in little triangles, so that the nutty crust is available in every bite--and that crust is a seedy fried thing that's good in the simple way that, say, almonds are. But it's the two vegetables that slay me: The yams are amazing, a simple spiced maple-yam purée that glows as orange as a fireplace ember and tastes so light and sweet, you practically want to hop into it. They're not like yams I've had before, as they're light in the mouth in an almost liquidy way, not leaden and Thanksgivingish. Then there is kale, bright, crinkly, resilient but silky in the mouth, and glowing on the plate like a little emerald hill of lacquered dollhouse laundry. I've been eating kale my whole life, and I think this is the best I've ever had. Another version of the plate is available with not tempeh but fried chicken ($14.95) and, boy, that's even better. The chicken is a local Kadejan (ka-DEE-zhan) farms chicken breast crusted with a thick layer of cornmeal and fried to that soul-food ideal of crisp and greaseless. The preparation is more like soul-food fried catfish than fried chicken, come to think of it, but it is really incredibly good. My other favorite from the regular menu--though please note that the ever-changing specials are quite good--is the vegetarian wild-mushroom risotto ($13.95), which had the perfect chewiness that risotto is supposed to have. It was loaded with buttery, peppery little slices of mushroom and sweet, nutty chunks of butternut squash and topped with a delicious tangle of forest-dark broccoli raab (also known as rapini). And this was a truly impressive version of the vegetable, a quick sauté preserving all of its irony power without bringing out its potential bitterness. (If I could wish for one thing, it would be that the fantastic vegetable side dishes were also offered à la carte: It is going to pain me in the future to know that there is broccoli raab of this caliber and I have to order a whole other dish to get it.)

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