A Grand Experiment

In which a handful of culinary brainiacs scramble, strive, scheme, surprise, and succeed

With the meal we had a bottle of a truly beautiful 2000 Supèrieur from Château des Graves ($24), a wine that combined the mellow notes of cherry with the weight and meat of good wine. Sitting there in the all-white room, with its high, high tin ceilings and gentle light, I felt like I was dining in a whitewashed church in Normandy on vacation. Lovely.

Then, even more recently, I had the best coq au vin I've had in the Twin Cities: long-stewed, cooked with lots of red wine, tiny pearl onions, deeply concentrated mushrooms, and bits of baconlike pork belly. It was like eating a rainbow of wine colors--the deep, the dark, the robust. I had it with a glass of Proteus ($6 a glass, $18 a bottle), a country wine from the Midi that has a nice berrylike, rough-hewn quality with enough structure and acid to stand up to all these countryside foods. My friend had a very nice entrée of garlicky beef brisket; the soft, muted meat surrendering at the touch of a fork, the whole presented in a bowl of salty jus along with a crosssection of marrowbone and a spoon, for a truly rich treat. There was also a moderately successful parsnip dauphinoise, which in this instance was like a thinly layered parsnip and cheese gratin, in a wedge. My friend tried a glass of Mt. Veeder 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet ($10), and while the wine is generally lovely on its own, with the food it tasted like there was a big oak plank in the glass.

Which clearly raises the question, What the heck is a big-name American red doing here? It's just another new enthusiasm whipping through the restaurant, and I say, Stay far away from it. See, the place just added an American list full of $90-and-up prestige West Coast reds, and if you even start considering this place as a $100-a-head dinner destination, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Chris Freeman serves up dinner at the constantly morphing Bakery on Grand
Fred Petters
Chris Freeman serves up dinner at the constantly morphing Bakery on Grand

Because that's when you will remember not the nice coq au vin, but the fact that the appetizer of chanterelle custard ($9) had so much sugar in it that it tasted like mushroom dessert, that they serve duck à l'orange that reminds you of nothing but a candied apple, that you can make reservations in an afternoon that the restaurant has no record of by dinnertime, and that when you retire home for an evening, you might find that your otherwise charming server's assistant had the bright idea of combining your leftover coq au vin and your friend's beef brisket into a giant multi-meat snowball, mashed into a wad with your leftover parsnips dauphinoise and yukon gold purée, as though by Mork from Ork on his first earth-day.

I mean, what I'm trying to say is, do you ever think about the Arts, and the continuum of reliability and volatility that exists within them? With, say, the Rembrandt room at the MIA at one end, as the utter apex of culture and taste, beyond criticism the way the sun is beyond criticism, and kept in the kind of place where armed guards can get at you if you do something untoward? And at the other end, avant-garde dance troupes coated in flour, strapped into harnesses, and whizzing through the air to the sound of prerecorded floor-waxers running over gravel? You know the kind of art I mean, the kind where you have new, shocking sights and unimagined experiences, and find yourself worrying too much about the fire code. Or maybe you don't go to the parties I do.

Well, no matter, you get the idea. Bakery on Grand is not the Rembrandt room, it is the spunky dance troupe. It has almost nothing in common with Campiello or Lucia's or any of the places that you know you can go into any night and have, at the absolute worst, a very, very nice time. If I were planning a birthday dinner for Grandma or a work dinner for a yet-unmet visiting company VP, Bakery on Grand is among the absolute last places I would pick. If I were going to dine with someone I knew occasionally bought original works of art, Bakery on Grand is among the first places I would choose. It's ideal for acutely sensitive, aesthetically inquisitive artsy types who can understand the true triumphs of the place, the exquisite simplicity of the breads, the whitewashed country cathedral of the big bakery front room.

It is above all a place of constant change. "This place has morphed an enormous amount," says Jessica Anderson, the English talent behind it all (who is constantly misidentified in the press as being Irish). "The great gift the restaurant has had is, it could change on a sixpence. This first year we've been able to chop and change to provide a service. I would never have opened for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, but that's what this community needs. It's much more fun that way too, you never know what's going to happen next--it's like theater."

Personally, I think the place would be improved if it calmed down a bit. I think that coq au vin and the brisket should be on the menu until the ramps come out next spring. Which might let the cooks and servers relax so that they can find their bearings and improve the things they aren't doing well. But even as I type that, I feel like I'm the Grinch in the kindergarten and am trying to replace all the modeling clay with arithmetic books and thus stomp all over everyone's creative play.

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