Levain Unleavened

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

That said, after enough lackluster meals I even grew to dislike the dining room at Levain. It is one big, spartan, candlelight-colored hall packed to the gills with white-tablecloth-covered tables and heavy chairs. It looks like the cafeteria of a monastery. It's uncomfortably crowded, and servers are usually jostling you or getting you to duck and bob while they do their thing. Whenever I visited in winter and the vestibule-free door to the street opened, the temperature in the dining room dropped 10 degrees. I spent two meals in my coat. This, too, detracted from the general reverie.

As did the stressful wine list. The list is short, expensive, and odd. It's populated by lots of well-known budget standbys, like Bonnie Doone's sprightly Pacific Rim Riesling, which I love to buy in stores for $10, but couldn't quite stomach to impress guests with at $41. Levain's strange list focuses mostly on very pronounced and concentrated varietal wines. However, it offers almost nothing in the realm of useful dinner wines under $50, things like white Burgundies or Pinot Noirs that work well across categories.

These wines are needed particularly because with Woodman's ever-changing menu you can expect at any one time to have on the table such a variety of flavors--from subtle cream foams to salty bacon baked oysters, and to sweet-and-hot Asian combinations--that wine pairing becomes a true headache. There are without doubt some great wines on the list, for example the Smith Wooton Cabernet Franc ($79) is a potent, chocolatey, figgy charm in a glass with more heady perfume to it than a carful of debutantes, but on one week's menu I counted maybe only one appetizer and two entrées that would go with it, so good luck putting that on a table for four.

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

Location Info


Cafe Levain

4762 Chicago Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55407

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Powderhorn

Only four non-dessert wines are offered by the glass, and again, good luck pairing from that, especially as the two reds are a Cabernet Sauvignon and, of all things, a Malbec. I found acting as a host here to be exceptionally stressful because it is so difficult to find a wine for the table. Of course, I asked the servers for help, but they tended to have even worse ideas than I had.

In fact, when I wasn't recognized service was startled, addled, and generally unfamiliar with the point and habits of ushering guests through a meal. Questions about the wine were met with bafflement, plate auctions were routine, some diners' courses were left in the kitchen and forgotten, dirty silverware was returned to the diner or removed at random, and so on. In short, there was never any evidence of training. I had my dinner reservations mysteriously lost on two occasions. Bread-servers interrupted conversations routinely. I am forced to say that, with the exception of my last visit when I was abundantly recognized and worked with an old pro, a career fine-dining waiter who deeply understands how service is done, table service at Levain is almost exactly like the counter service at Turtle Bread. And it should be very different.

And so you--and by you I mean you--run the risk of paying $150 or $200 for your big birthday dinner while you sit in your coat, after they lost your reservation, while you are jostled by servers who left your entrée to chill in the window, and your only solace is an overpriced wine that goes with a quarter of the foods you've tried, and the knowledge that the chefs in the room are deeply talented.

As Daniel Boulud says in his recent book Letters to a Young Chef, people "only think that they come to a restaurant merely for the food." In fact, Boulud has concluded that we really go to restaurants for emotional well-being. For me, my well-being would be being better if Levain would get the front of the house together already.

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