Levain Unleavened

To redefine success, a south Minneapolis hot spot needs some polishing

Levain
4762 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.823.7111

Success is a bedeviling concept. The things that constitute a successful day for a newly divorced mom with the flu, a surgeon in a field hospital in Afghanistan, or a field mouse are all very different, you know. Yet, as a restaurant critic, you--and by you I mean me--you are required to judge whether this or that establishment is successful, be it a pizza tiki bar, a neighborhood bistro, or one of the most expensive white-tablecloth restaurants in the state.

Imagining these different kinds of success with which to judge these different sorts of restaurants is a bedeviling process itself. So you come up with some rules that cut across issues of price, class, or what have you. For me, my one make-or-break question that I come back to every week is, did this place make me happy?

A work in progress: Levain's veal osso buco with pickled kumquat, Bhutanese red rice, and star anise
Sean Smuda
A work in progress: Levain's veal osso buco with pickled kumquat, Bhutanese red rice, and star anise

And so it was with increasing discomfort that I noted that I never left Levain feeling happy. Now, Levain should be very happy-making. The place is owned by Harvey McLain, whose work and integrity I have praised roundly in these pages over many years, as I think his bakery has some of the best breads in the country. The kitchen is headed by the wildly talented Stewart Woodman, who came to Minneapolis to raise a child with his wife, a Minnesota native, after a terrifically successful early career in New York City, where he was the opening sous-chef for Alain Ducasse's Essex House, executive chef at Zoë, and generally has a résumé the likes of which this town has never seen.

Dishes that Woodman sends out are sometimes of the highest imaginable quality. On a good day, the appetizer of duck foie gras torchon is as intense and balanced as possible. This dish ($15), made of a duck liver poached in Sauternes, ground, chilled, and served as a perfect pink circle on a wide, white plate near an oval of fig chutney, offers a beautiful study in elements that both enhance and entrance one another. The silk of the duck liver plays against the grainy elements of the fig, the fig brings out the fruitier qualities in the liver, the liver points to the gaminess of the fig, and you smear your torchon on your brioche toasts with oohs and ahs.

Lobster poached in butter and paired with cèpes and black trumpet mushrooms ($32) is a concoction of such expansive, ghostly subtlety that you feel that it might start to fog up and float from the plate as notes of the sweet sea and forest earth whisper to each other through the nutty pools of browned butter.

A snowy white pheasant poached in cream ($26) and resting on a bed of Napa cabbage, the whole of it topped with a scattering of fresh herbs, is another subtle triumph. Each bite of the fork-tender bird ushers in a whole realm of questions: Was this really what people ate in those country clubs in the 1930s? And if so, how lucky they were! Each bite is as if a meadow were made with cream.

The desserts, by Khanh Tran, are elegantly fanciful and show real talent. Tran makes a lemon soufflé ($10) served in a hollowed-out lemon rind that had such a heady lemon scent it was healing just to be near it. Lift a spoonful of the pale froth and it tastes clean and pure. A crème brulée was topped with grapefruit and surrounded by a dense caramel sugar cage. The brisk citrus and deep caramel were a perfect foil to the understated custard at the heart of the dish.

And yet, on a bad day at Levain, there is many a slip between cup and lip. An appetizer of sweetbreads ($12) had lingered so long before serving that what arrived was a ball of rubber bands resting on a congealed lump of port wine goo. The lovely torchon was one day made by someone who wasn't paying attention, and both liver and chutney reeked of wine that wasn't cooked off, and the alcohol note was like a badly played trumpet right by your ear.

I'd be very surprised if anyone in the kitchen had tasted the lamb shank I had one night that was as tender as a custard and looked utterly charming, surrounded as it was by tiny little carrots the size of spring peas, but which tasted as plain as boiled mutton. It seemed like it hadn't even been salted. I wondered if it was meant to go out like that, or was it just a casualty of the servers rushing back and forth and crashing into one another like they do? Either way, it made the $25 price tag sting.

When I visited Levain and was not recognized by the staff, the ratio of perfect dishes to poor was about 70-30 (although when I was recognized everything was nigh flawless). Which is enough problems to keep you nettled and on edge, and prevent you from ever slipping into any kind of reverie. And for me, once there is no reverie, price starts to loom larger and larger as a factor. And I can't help but think that at a restaurant where you can expect to spend 60 bucks a head, without beverages, and usually more like $80 or $100, the standards for success are higher.

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