Happy on the Inside

Sculpture, sunshine, and soul-sustaining sandwiches in Seward

Clicquot Club Café
2929 E. 25th St., Minneapolis
612.724.4700
www.clicquotclubcafe.com

Usually when you talk with people who own restaurants you hear the same old same old: The ice machines are more fragile than spider's webs, the staff is two bats short of a belfry and the ingrates are the only ones earning money off this pooch, the city inspectors have unhappy home lives and take out their frustrations on the innocent, the suppliers are extortionists with their thumbs on the scales, and if the restaurateur knew then what he knows now, he would have done something less stressful with his life, like cross-border bounty hunting. Heard it before? I hear it weekly.

So it was quite a surprise to phone up Bryan Maher, co-owner of the Clicquot Club Café, which he and his partner Aaron Olson opened last winter deep in the residential part of the Seward neighborhood, and listen as he said, "I am living the dream with the Clicquot Club. It's been all about following a dream, and then living it. We are so lucky, so happy. We have had a phenomenal summer, it totally blew away and overwhelmed any expectations we had. I'm having the time of my life. It's such hard work, I am on my feet scrambling all day long, but I go home at night and I'm tired and I love that. I'm constantly entertained, and I don't live in a cube anymore. All the people you meet, the social aspect, building relationships, that's what makes this so outstanding. It's why I call it a dream, no one should have a life this good."

Well, pour balsamic on my head and call me a salad, no wonder the Clicquot is such a success: Irrepressible joy is an irresistible force.

The Clicquot is a little coffee shop with benefits that accomplishes more in its modest square footage than many full-fledged restaurants ever do. (Right now those benefits are all food-related, but they hope for a beer and wine license next winter.) The Clicquot has grilled sandwiches good enough to go head-to-head with those at our most famous Minneapolis bars and diners: The Genoa Pepe Rossa ($6.95), for one, is stuffed with spicy Genoa salami, peppy roasted red peppers, balanced with sweet, fresh mozzarella, and grilled until the thing becomes a tasty, spicy, shirt-staining mess. The Panino Bolzona ($7.95) is a hot roast beef sandwich swimming in peppery gorgonzola and garlic-fired aioli; it's craveable as rain in drought.

If grilled sandwiches don't appeal to you (there are loads more, plenty of them vegetarian), please know that the Clicquot has a better weekend brunch than most full-fledged restaurants in town. The sausage and cornbread tostato ($8.95) is a giant plate brimming with seared mouthfuls of sausage crowded in with grilled onions, sweet roasted bell peppers, crisp roasted potatoes, oven-dried tomatoes, and eggs, all of it united with a drizzle of rich, eggy hollandaise sauce and concealing a treasure of fresh cornbread. Eureka! There's a new brunch in town.

Their French toast is another brunch gem, weighty with eggs, light with fresh cooking, and served with real maple syrup—it's a wonder that there isn't a line out the door. (I suspect there will be; the brunch is brand new.) When the line does go out the door, know that you won't be waiting dully: The Clicquot Club has coffee so good that they've won one of our region's few Golden Cup awards from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The place has indoor seating; outdoor tables; kids' meals; chef-made takeout; pizzas for eating onsite or on the road; fresh-squeezed orange juice; three kinds of lemonade; Tea Source tea brewed right, with the leaves floating freely in large contained areas in pots in order to release their most subtle aromas and flavors; Cuban coffee; and, if that's not enough for you, a full-on sculpture garden.

Seriously, a sculpture garden. There's a small garden full of Adirondack chairs and umbrellas to one side of the café. This little park hosts a lily pad-bedecked bubbling fountain and a prominent collection of large metal work by the local sculptor Jaak Kindberg. I dined there one evening, consuming my plastic basket of toasty, mellow, sweet, and just right grilled cheese (from $3.95) en plein air, the humble dairy catching the scent of fall in the wind and making me feel as Midwestern and happy as corn, and I thought, Boy howdy, this is some place.

But it took an interview to really reveal just what a place it was. As it happens, the Cliquot Club Café even has a bona fide chef on staff, which a good chunk of our local tablecloth restaurants can't manage. The chef in question is Joshua Paulsen, former sous chef from downtown destination Sapor, and he has done yeoman's work making treats emerge from a coffee shop-sized kitchen. The Clicquot Club salad ($4.95 or $7.95, depending on size), draped with tender prosciutto and scattered with sweet dried cranberries, is kind of a trail-mix for omnivores, just healthy enough to eat with abandon, just decadent enough to want to do so. What, you never heard of a real chef in a coffeehouse? Well, speed on over, because you probably never will again.

It turns out that the Clicquot Club is the lucky thing that happens to a neighborhood when empty nesters with a penchant for European living realize they can't abandon the good life in Minneapolis. It began when Maher and Olson realized their son soon would be graduating high school, and began to think about leading life in different ways. Maher, a New York City native who came to Minneapolis via Miami, left his job as a tech guru for Padilla Speer Beardsley, and the two scoured the country for better places to live. "We looked at Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, a lot of fast-growing cities with lots of opportunities, and all it did was make me realize how much better it is living here than in any of those places," Maher told me. "No matter how beautiful Seattle is, I couldn't put my finger on it, but I just deeply felt it wasn't as good. You know?"

Oh, I know. As far as I can tell, pretty much the only downside to quality of life in Minnesota is that as soon as you remark upon it bloggers rise up and label you smug and provincial. But that's as good an example as any of the advantages of living life not electronically but in the actual world, the one with the sunshine, the softly babbling fountains, the hot grilled sandwiches, and the cute little yippy dogs frolicking in a sculpture garden while their owners linger over coffee.

In my conversation with Bryan Maher it came up that that lingering is more significant than it seems at first blush. There are evidently two sorts of things that happen in coffee shops, the first being "transactional" coffee sales, during which you pay $4 for a coffee to go, and the rest of it being the rest of it, from the paint on the walls to the people behind the counter to you yourself, and whether you linger over your coffee and take up valuable heat and air that could be better devoted to people getting $4 coffees to go. "We are not interested in the transactional nature of the coffee shop," Maher explained. "Even though I love coffee. I live coffee. I can't get enough coffee, and coffee is my world. I probably drink three liters a day. In fact, it's probably going to kill me. We have great coffee. That said, we aren't about transactional coffee. A Starbucks could open across the street from us and it wouldn't affect us at all, we have a totally different customer."

Who's that? People who live in the neighborhood and live more of a stop-and-smell-the-roses sort of life. People who work at home, or have kids, or dogs, or gardens, or some other reason to have part of their day off-task. "When people think of Seward they think, 'the hippie neighborhood,' or, 'the vegan neighborhood,'" Maher said. "But it's not just that. It's gays, lesbians, blue collar, academics, doctors and various medical workers, writers, art directors, photographers, lots of stay-at-home moms. Oh, I forgot about the architect—I can see her pulling out of her driveway. I live four blocks away from here, I won't say I know everybody in Seward, but sometimes I feel like I do, and I'd say seeing my neighbors every day, my four-block commute, working with someone you love, it's all just been the icing on a big blessy cake.

"We modeled this place after various cafés in Europe; we'd always find ourselves traveling and basing [ourselves in] a particular café. After a while you realize a whole community is kind of circulating through [the café] and that's what we wanted to be, in Seward, which is the most amazing neighborhood. I always say you can find weird people anywhere, but the people in Seward believe in their weirdnesses, and want you to believe in them too."

If the weirdness du jour in Seward is happiness, joy, spicy sandwiches, tasty brunches, sculpture gardens, and, generally, nine kinds of icing on a big blessy cake, pour balsamic on my head and call me a salad, I'm moving.

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