Coffee Shops with Benefits

Light- or dark-roast? Far more intriguing choices--like booze!--await at a new generation of coffeehouses.

When I think about all the rights granted to us by the Constitution, I am most grateful for our Right to Absolute Convenience. Think about it. When we were ruled by the British, milk came out of cows. Now it comes out of every gas station, that one kiosk in the airport, and can be five-fingered by anyone with big enough pockets visiting Mrs. Applegate's kindergarten class during the morning snack.

Yet America has sadly gotten off-track. For one thing, does Mrs. Applegate stock a larger size of floor mat for those who have mastered their numbers and letters but are also in need of a nap, lest we grow cranky? She does not. When did it become fashionable to penalize Americans for mastering the alphabet? I am disgusted. Furthermore, some mornings I open my mail and find so few discount coupons for Lasik surgery that I have no call to get out my forklift. For this we had Betsy Ross drawn and quartered?

To add insult to injury, I had a great idea. I would insert a monitor inside your refrigerator. When it sensed that you had nothing on hand for dinner, my employees would greet you, as you approached your home, with a hot broiled chicken, a roasted cabbage, and such delights, impaled on a white-hot iron spear, which would be flung at you through your car window. Needless to say, this large iron spear needed to be white-hot to ensure your dinner's correct temperature. I'll tell you what. A fear of lawsuits has destroyed a once-great country.

Or so I thought, until I discovered that the Twin Cities now have no fewer than eight coffee shops with beer and wine licenses! And a few that sell actual liquor. Dang. How did this happen? Remember when anyone attempting to introduce a new beer and wine license into a neighborhood was greeted with the sort of response more appropriate for those attempting to introduce neighborhood children to the King of Pop? Times sure have changed.

 

 

BLACK DOG
Black Dog is roomy, artsy, laid-back, and so utterly convenient that it is in constant danger of being taken for granted. Like, did you know that before people figured out how to get the fleece off of sheep and spin it into socks, man was forced to walk around with his feet inside the bloody carcasses of freshly killed lambs? Well, of course not, but you get the idea. The idea being that you will be hard pressed to find a better salad, pizza, and glass of wine in any coffee shop than you will find at Black Dog, and we should all stop taking them for granted.

Why, just the other night I popped in for one of Black Dog's "special salads" ($7.50) and a personal pizza ($4.95). The salad was special indeed: a mound of fresh red leaf lettuce, crumbles of tender, fresh chèvre, a handful of good olives of every hue and size, little islands of cucumber slices on the edges of the plate, and a nice, understated balsamic dressing. The pizza was made on a homemade flatbread, a sturdy, nicely rich and thin crust topped with good cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and fresh basil. I've had far, far worse pizzas at three times the price in local white-tablecloth joints. With my pleasant dinner I got a glass of Château Laulerie 1999 Bergerac ($5.25), a brassy, strong French wine with plenty of acid and likeable red fruit.

Black Dog has a nice little selection of beverages: In addition to all the good coffees, they have beer, including Guinness in the draft can, and a dozen nicely chosen wines in the $20 a bottle/$5 a glass range. Or you can try any three wines in a tasting flight for $10, or get a carafe of wine (almost three glasses) for a half-bottle price.

While I sat in Black Dog, I took a good look around at the other patrons, and was treated to a spectacle of utter economic diversity. At one table, two elderly friends convened over bowls of soup. The man was explaining the fine points of buying medication online to the woman, using Black Dog's wi-fi. At another table, some members of the board of a nonprofit arts organization argued about what had been said at the last meeting: One of them had a beer, another had a thick Odwalla juice, the third primly nursed sparkling water. A stylish sort of artist with flame-colored hair and high, spiky heels gave her cell phone withering glances while she sipped a glass of Chardonnay and waited for a stack of takeout. In the corner a couple on a study date sat, shoulders touching, fingertips on separate keyboards. An artist from a nearby studio came in and blew off steam to the Black Dog workers about his rotten day. I ordered a nice slice of sour cream coffeecake and ate some of the delicious little cinnamon strudel bits with my fingers. I considered how Black Dog is exactly the kind of space, the kind of restaurant that perfectly nurtures life as we lead it today. I resolved to do more remembering of Black Dog, and less taking it for granted. BLACK DOG; 308 Prince St., St. Paul, 651.228.9274, www.blackdogstpaul.com

 

 

GIGI'S
I initially planned to center this review on Gigi's and on Mill City in northeast Minneapolis. Gigi's is a South Side coffee shop with a lot of heart, a lot of big wooden tables, homemade soups, fun desserts, and a super selection of wine. Then I called them up to find out about the owners, and so forth, and learned that every visit I had made heretofore was all but irrelevant, as they had just hired a chef, and were soon to be rolling out dishes cooked to order, in ovens. So sometime between now and summertime Gigi's will have an almost entirely new face; gone will be the cheesy lasagna, in will come the...who knows. So what's a girl to do? Recommend a restaurant in deep flux? Speak only of the wine? Group the joint in with a lot of other coffee shops that now sell wine? Something.

In any event, and no matter the flux, I do think Gigi's is a great little place. One night I watched the cutest group of moms convene, three with glasses of wine, one with a cup of tea. They each had a ball of yarn and knitting needles, they set a copy of Knitting for Dummies in the middle of the table and appeared to have a rollicking evening, knitting a little, laughing a lot, and generally looking to have a completely wholesome good time in a completely non-corny way. Another night I watched a young couple split a bottle of wine and a giant fruit and cheese plate while their infant sat in a highchair waving a piece of apple around as if he were grand marshal in a Fourth of July parade. I never knew a slice of apple could withstand such a workout. I never knew you could visibly observe a serious, khaki-clad couple unwind in the course of an hour, transforming from taut to loving as the cheese and wine dwindled.

Another night I seriously considered punching a DFL blowhard who would not shut up about what an insidery insider he was, and how the coming south Lyndale Avenue rethink will transform the city in our lifetime. In any event, I can only imagine that whatever changes are coming to Gigi's will be pleasant ones, and whether you need someplace to spread out your architect's plans, park your baby's stroller, eavesdrop on your councilperson's minions, or just generally lead your life, Gigi's is a nice place to do it. GIGI'S CAFÉ; 822 W. 36th St., Minneapolis, 612.825.0818

 

 

MILL CITY
When the Gigi's thing went south, I figured, "Well, I still have Mill City, a sweetheart of a Northeast coffee shop that has a full wine, beer, and liquor license and has been serving nice Greek comfort foods with hardly a customer to enjoy them." Again, however, a phone call revealed that the very pleasant nights of $8 plates of Greek moussaka, or $9 casseroles of pork stew, each rich and comforting, emanating the most winter-charming scent of nutmeg, and making me feel like I was in my Greek nana's breakfast nook eating perfect Greek leftovers--all of that was now kaput, irrelevant, and about as useful as a dead rat to a blind man. Eh?

Evidently all of Mill City is about to be painted, cleaned, re-themed, and basically entirely redone by the man who opened Psycho Suzi's. It will be a pasta bar. There will be dollar Black Label specials on some nights. It will be kitschy, but not as kitschy as Psycho Suzi's. Mill City even refused to let our photographer take a picture of the joint, because they didn't want any recording of the way it is now. Well, in the meantime: Please know that Mill City has a full liquor license, so you can get a shot of Maker's Mark with your latte in the morning. You can't take it with you, but you can get it. And sometime in the future, everything will be completely different. MILL CITY CAFÉ; 2205 California St. NE, Minneapolis, 612.789.8262

 

 

LORING PARK
Kids today don't know how lucky they are. Or actually, who cares? More interestingly: Do you have any actual idea of how lucky kids today are? Get this: Today college kids can sit in a coffee shop such as the Loring Park Coffee House and Wine Bar, all stylish curry-colored walls and dark-slate floors, and they can sit there in front of a fireplace, and if the cutie from Intro to Sociology needs help with her term paper, they can just download one off the internet using Loring Park Coffee's free wireless internet access! And if things go well after that, they don't even have to leave that fireplace, they can just order an Anchor Steam (on tap!) or a bottle of wine, such as the light and fruity Tin Roof Sauvignon Blanc ($5 a glass or $17.50 a bottle). And they can even just put it on a credit card! Do they need panini, soups, scones, salsa? Put that on the card too!

You know, when I was in college, courtship, studying, eating, caffeinating, and drinking required several changes of venue. Which was almost exactly the same as carrying a 50-pound block of ice up five flights of tenement stairs in Hoboken. Kids! LORING PARK COFFEE HOUSE AND WINE BAR; 1301 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, 612.332.9094, www.loringparkcoffeehouse.com

 

 

MARYSBURG
The thing about writers is, from the outside, we appear to be doing nothing, at all times. Yet inside, inside we are breaking rocks in the hot sun. So we require constant soothing, petting, and the application of chilled beverages. Nobody understands this more than Teri Peppe, founder of the misleadingly named Marysburg Books, and author of The Marysburg Chronicles. Now, Marysburg Books is, as anyone who has read The Marysburg Chronicles would know, the name of a fictional coffee bar in Mankato. Hence this coffee shop and wine bar's name. Get it? No? Well forget it then, it's a Marysburg thing, you wouldn't understand.

Suffice it to say that Marysburg is a coffee shop on the edge of downtown that serves wine, beer, homemade chocolate-dipped pretzels, and a very pleasant Marysburg platter, on which, for $8.95, you will receive a small dish of warmed goat cheese topped with pesto and pine nuts, a wedge of Brie, slices of spicy salami, a bowl of toasted almonds, a pile of fruit (giant strawberries, on my visit) and a massive pile of slices of warm garlic bread. There are lots of big cozy chairs, a piano, tables inlaid with checkerboards, free wi-fi, and semi-private writer's stations. (They have to be semi-private or otherwise civilians could see what it is we're up to. Which is nothing. But pure, unadulterated suffering. And reading the Post's Page Six. And seeing what sorts of espadrilles you can buy in shoe stores in Madrid. And finding out whether certain New Mexican sparkling wines can be shipped to Minnesota. I mentioned the suffering, right?)

Anyhoo, Peppe has all kinds of new special events planned to raise the profile of her emporium, like a lox and bagel brunch, and two-for-one happy-hour pricing on wine and beer from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. weekdays, and such. She's hoping to attract book clubs, poetry readings, quilting circles, you name it: If you would like a large, clean, cozy, inexpensive venue in which to hold an event, contact the Marysburg crew at once; they are just hiding and waiting for you, in plain sight. MARYSBURG BOOKS COFFEE EMPORIUM & WINE BAR; 304 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis, 612.340.0078, www.marysburgbooks.com

 

 

ZENO
Zeno is flat-out the most convenient place that has ever been imagined. As gold is to gold, Zeno is to convenience. The one in Uptown is big and roomy (there's one downtown, too), and it's got every beverage that you could ever imagine thinking of wanting: Trappist Ale; Irish whisky; Zinfandel Port; tart and wonderful fresh-squeezed lemonade; just-roasted Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee; New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; French Champagne; Gundlach Bundschu Cabernet; crazy-mad coffee drinks, like the one with Hennessy cognac, Frangelico liqueur, caramel, Ghirardelli chocolate; and more more more. Martinis of every stripe. More. More. More.

In fact, if you want to think of a beverage that Zeno doesn't have, you're going to have to reach into serious cocktail arcana and come up with one of those drinks made with hot mead and bouillon cubes. The architecture and design of these homegrown über-convenience stops is utterly pleasant: blond wood and blue-gray steel, big windows and small modern lights. To me, Zeno feels very Danish-airport, in a good way. I have avoided writing about Zeno since it opened, though, because I find the food uniformly over-sweet, or underwhelming.

I dropped by recently to see if I was just being a pill: The apricot chicken salad ($7.95) was beautiful, lofting six inches off the plate, but as always, to me, the dominant flavor was a tooth-aching sweetness, imparted, I'm guessing, by the apricot-ginger dressing. The spinach salad is equally beautiful, but made dessert-like with handfuls of candied walnuts and dried cranberries, and a sweet balsamic vinaigrette. The shrimp flatbread ($8.95) is a cracker-crust swamped with gooey, bland cheese, mushy shrimp, fresh avocado, black beans, corn, and a heavy brown snowfall of cumin. The panini have never seemed right to me; they use a thick, resilient bread that seems not to toast in the panini press, but instead just to get very hard.

Worst of all, I don't like Zeno's signature desserts, they always seem like sugar explosions to me. On my last visit I tried the tiramisu, or "Zeno Misu" ($7.95), hoping for something light with cream. What came was a glistening dark brick of a super-sweet chocolate cake seated in a martini glass, topped with even sweeter treats. And so it goes. Looking at their menu now, I see that even Zeno's New York cheesecake comes with "your choice of decadent syrups and candy crumbles: Snickers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, or Heath." This is obviously a difference in palate.

That said, even though I don't like the food, I really do like Zeno fine: People like to meet there, and I like to meet them there. I have had a number of productive meetings at Zeno, and a number of highly pleasant drinks with people who all had wildly different beverage preferences, but all of who found something perfect just for them. The hours are beyond any concept of convenience, and the beverage program is phenomenal.

Is that not convenient enough for you? Well, get this: For $9.99 at Zeno you can pick up a dozen actual, air-freighted H&H bagels from New York's most renowned bagelry. The only possible way I can see them becoming more convenient would be if they'd get their coffee shop on a magical flying platform so that it could swoop around the cities, picking up people at their homes and showing them a lovely aerial view at the same time. Hey, it's Zeno. If anyone could be that convenient, it would be them. ZENO CAFÉ, DESSERT & WINE BAR; 2919 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.746.4170, 800 Lasalle Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.746.1045, www.zenocoffee.com

 

 

AND DON'T FORGET:
I couldn't even fit all of the notable coffee shops with wine into this roundup. But here I go anyway. I mean, we musn't forget the Wilde Roast Café in Northeast (518 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.331.4544, www.wilderoastcafe.com). The long-loved River View Café just opened an adjacent wine bar; look for a longer review of them once they've had time to find their feet (River View Café and River View Wine Bar; 3753 42nd Avenue S., Minneapolis, 612.722.7234). The forefathers and foremothers of the genre are certainly places like Macalester area Coffee News Café, 1662 Grand Ave., St Paul, 651.698.3324) and grand old dame Caffe Latte. (850 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651.224.5687, www.cafelatte.com).

And remember, kids, only you can prevent forest fires! Oh, wait, that certainly, but also, while it might seem like the world is going to heck in a henbasket and you feel sad because no one is flinging even one little white-hot spear of chicken at your car, it's also important to remember that there has never been such a golden time to grab a glass of wine in a clean, well lighted, convenient place.

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