Only on a Sunday

With two fancy new brunches, you can finally prove to your mom that you really do have a job

Nicollet Island Inn
95 Merriam St., Minneapolis
612.331.1800
www.nicolletislandinn.com

 

Sapor Cafe * Bar
428 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
612.375.1971
www.saporcafe.com

Carefully composed: The Nicollet Island Inn trades carving stations for an elegant, updated prix fixe brunch
Bill Kelley
Carefully composed: The Nicollet Island Inn trades carving stations for an elegant, updated prix fixe brunch

 

There comes a time in the life of every modern person when we must grapple with the fact that we share a preponderance of our DNA with the common fruit fly. And while some find this appealing, and dream of transport through cantaloupe, most find this to be the sort of thing that looks exceptionably bad to a loan officer. In any event, one is forced to conclude that practically nothing sets people apart from the animals, except for the human appreciation of brunch, and the animals' growing disillusionment with Sid, the giraffe in Cage 12. Which is not to say that the animals do not appreciate a good brunch, but is simply to point out that they rarely have a really good place to keep their credit cards.

Hopefully, you do. Because there comes a time in every modern person's life when we must prove to a woman with whom we share even more DNA than a fruit fly that we really do have a job, and, moreover, the ability to converse in the mornings. Yes, there comes a time when you must take your mother to brunch. Preferably to a place where she can wear her pearls, and drink a mimosa, and no one will have cause to remember that time you got sent home from summer camp because of the unfortunate incident with the flagpole, the Italian assistant counselor, and the archery coach.

This spring, two new classy, sunshiny, high-heel-friendly prix-fixe brunches, the kind that act on moms the way company cars do on dads, debuted in downtown Minneapolis, so I went out and gave them a whirl.

The fanciest is at the Nicollet Island Inn, where, for $30 a head, you get a mimosa or other beverage, and five of the most memorably darling courses I've ever seen at a brunch. My visit was on a sparkly, sunny, birds-chirping-in-the-treetops-and-all-is-right-with-the-world sort of morning. We walked through the country-club-gracious space, and once we sat, at a pretty window-side table with views of the old iron bridge to St. Anthony Main, we were treated like brunching royalty.

The meal got off to a bright start with drinks made with fresh orange juice and a basket of wee pastries, including tiny fruit-filled muffins and a marvelous kind of cinnamon-caramel pastry that looked like two drinking straws entwined, and gave you all the joy of a cinnamon roll without any of the usual bulk. For a next course I tried a pair of small buttermilk biscuits, exactly as flaky and golden as they should be, cloaked in a gorgeously heavy cream gravy studded with bits of maple sausage. My date got crème brûlée French toast, two thick, eggy, cakelike triangles with a crisp millimeter of crust that were served with slices of fresh strawberries, fresh whipped cream, and a fresh, bright-pink strawberry coulis: precious!

A slice of Maytag blue cheese and white peach tart alongside a mixed green salad dressed in a thyme oil vinaigrette and topped with toasted hazelnuts followed, as did perhaps my favorite course of it all, a Prosecco gélee filled with fresh raspberries and blueberries. This is essentially Jell-O done up in Breakfast at Tiffany's style: The Italian sparkling wine in the pale gold gelatin made the stuff literally shimmer and effervesce on the tongue, while the fresh juicy berries added some amount of terrestrial presence, as well as sweetness, even more texture, and pop. It was the happy soul of early summer, captured in five forkfuls.

The big, substantial fourth entrée courses were no less pleasant than all the frills and fancies that preceded them. A pan-roasted salmon fillet served in a bowl with an elegant, light fresh dill cream sauce and a lively cucumber and fennel salad was everything you hope for in a brunch entrée: Healthy, vivacious, and so elegantly done that it's clear you're not dining at home. Another one of the big entrées, slices of rare grilled hanger steak arranged with balsamic-glazed roast crimini mushrooms and big wedges of crisp Parmesan-coated potato, was a filling and impressive dish, and would be sure to satisfy any dad who happened to sneak in.

The meal ends with your choice of desserts, and, when I was there, they were nothing short of a triumph: A chocolate ice-cream sandwich stood up on one of its corners in a bowl of lush banana crème anglaise like a fancy, geometric sculpture; tip it over and the tender cake of the outside of the ice cream sandwich, the dusky chocolate ice cream, and the rich crème anglaise combine in a way that is both as innocent as a picnic and as sophisticated as the fanciest brunch in five states. The strawberry shortcake, based on a cornmeal cake made with fresh orange zest and given a little extra zip with a silky rhubarb compote, was also pleasant in every way: The touch of orange and rhubarb made it just different enough to be surprising and to ensure you'd never do it at home, but the pure flavors, including a big white hat of fresh whipped cream, would make it lovable to even those who prefer the most simple dishes.

Chef Erick Harcey is to be awarded a big bouquet of buttercups for creating such a feast. It's exceptionally difficult to pull off something so whimsical and so clever without ever hitting saccharine or cloying notes, but he has done it. If you're now scratching your head and saying, "Hey, the Nicollet Island Inn is supposed to have an all-you-can-eat buffet of fancy things, that's where I've been planning to go and slip a whole smoked salmon into my girdle!" Well, Bunky, you snooze, you lose. The Inn discontinued the big buffet to debut this five-course plated extravaganza, and while this is bad news to anyone on Bobby DeNiro's Raging Bull diet, it's a boon to those seeking conversation, chitchat, and girly catching-up time.

When I visited, our server was completely tuned in to the needs of his tables; he paced our meal over a leisurely two hours, giving my friend and me time to catch up on the smallest minutiae of our lives. Our coffees were always kept hot, our water glasses kept full and chilled. I left convinced that anyone with a mother, a grandmother, or an aunt could add this one to their calendar in ink. Even though it's the most expensive brunch in town, for every dollar spent on crème brûlée French toast, six times as much would be saved in future therapy bills.

Meanwhile, a few blocks to the west and north, Sapor has debuted a less white-glove, but nonetheless noteworthy Sunday brunch. Here, for $14.95, you get a basket of home-baked morning treats, such as currant scones cut into rough-hewn blocks with pretty toasted edges, and two more courses. The starters can be as light as a minted fruit salad, or as complicated as a salad I tried one day of poached quartered artichokes and hand-pitted black olives on a bed of shaved fennel dressed in a lemon coriander vinaigrette. Eating it was like enjoying a little gust of Mediterranean spring by the sea. Another memorable starter was a simple poached egg on a bed of spicy, long-cooked black beans, the whole of it dressed with a light and creamy cilantro-avocado crème fraîche and a few perky stripes of salsa. (Skip the Malt-o-Meal brulée: It sounds adorable, but when I tried it it was a ramekin of the cereal served refrigerator-cold and topped with a crème brûlée crust; it seemed like a good idea, with an unfortunate conclusion.)

The main entrée courses have all been very good: Fluffy, crisp waffles were airy and light, but made exuberant with a warm puree of rhubarb. Another weekend, small cornmeal molasses pancakes were crisp and crunchy at the edges, and topped with a pumpkin-pie-spiced combination of barely stewed peaches blended with blackberries. A nicely dense, homemade burger was made sour and savory with a topping of house-made pickles. (Mimosas and other drinks, such as fresh limeade, are all available at additional charge.)

Sapor, if you haven't been there lately, is Minneapolis's most underappreciated underdog: It's a pretty, very contemporary spot, with earth-tone walls, simple glass sculptures, and large windows onto the Warehouse District. Outside there is a large, sunny patio. When you dine at Sapor, you feel like you're in some European version of Minneapolis.

The brunch here is the work of Sapor's sous-chef Josh Paulsen and pastry chef Tatum Barile, who should be proud of the sophisticated, global-accented, but at base deceptively simple brunch menu they've engineered. It's a great place to go if you want to treat a friend to a fancy brunch, or, of course, if your mom is more interested in modern architecture and Armani suits than she is in cottage gardens and Lily Pulitzer sundresses.

Indeed, Minneapolis has entered a new golden era for brunching with metropolitan-area moms, grandmas, and aunts. It is a great moment for scones, and also for little berries, small dishes of butter, finding out who your cousin is marrying, and sitting up straight. In fact, the only downside that I can see is that this wasn't written privately to you. So a certain lady might also get her hands on a copy.

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