Colonel Mustard

Café Barbette solves the case of the catapulted condiment

I didn't love absolutely everything at Barbette. There was a peculiar salad of mache with mint and either fava beans or edamame ($9) that had a kind of cleaning-out-the-icebox dissonance to it. And the desserts, like a lemongrass panna cotta drowned in red raspberry coulis, are no better than grocery-store versions. However, according to the restaurant, the desserts will be seeing major upgrades soon, which is good, because I'm guessing a new generation of Barbette customers will soon discover the place. And when they do it would be nice if the restaurant had all those ducks in a row. Or perhaps I don't even mean discover, perhaps I really mean rediscover.

After my recent series of delightful Barbette experiences, I was puzzled as to why I stopped going to the place—after all, in 2001 and 2002 it was one of my favorite Minneapolis restaurants. Then I looked into my dining notes from the bad old years of 2004, 2005, and 2006, and found a string of observations like "fallen downhill," "coasting," "sputtering," and "hope this is an awkward adolescence." Happily, it seems to have been just that. All of Barbette's greatest strengths remain: its powerful, un-manufacturable sense of place and energy; its pop, sass, and cats-eye glasses and Champagne charm.

Among those steady old charms is the cafe's wine list: 90-odd offerings, mostly French, that provide more bang-for-the-buck than almost any list in town. On the low end, a glass like the $6 white Aramis, a lemony blend from France's Cognac-making region, goes perfectly with sitting outside and eating oysters during the late afternoon happy hour, when $5 buys you three oysters. On the high end, things get pretty marvelous: premiere cru Burgundy, exquisite Champagne, small estate Bordeaux, and all sorts of jaw-droppers cost $60 or so, and are wildly underpriced at that.

Landon Schoenefeld has gone from making novelty news headlines to making gnocchi
Tony Nelson
Landon Schoenefeld has gone from making novelty news headlines to making gnocchi

In the past I've had problems with Café Barbette's service; even in the best of times it tended to be distracted. But lately, on each and every visit, I found the servers—all, coincidentally, women—to be uncommonly alert, informed, calm, and aware of the needs of their tables. It really made dining there a delight. I innocently asked one of these servers one night if there was a new chef, and she volunteered that there was, after a long rough patch, and that morale among the servers was higher than it ever had been.

All you upscale Uptown types who gave up on Barbette, feel free to wade back on in, the water's fine.

For all you other Uptown types who are cursing me for potentially ruining your favorite French fry haunt (they're still great), take solace in the long view: There is a greater life lesson for all of us in Landon Schoenefeld's strange journey. You see, when I first talked to young Schoenefeld, then 25, now 26, about his cooking at the Bulldog N.E., all those scant months ago, he told me that he didn't plan to flip burgers forever, that he had bigger plans, greater dishes, more to show the world. Like any jaded critic, I thought: you and everyone. But life has a funny way of throwing a lot of life into the mix. And then came that dark and fateful mustard moment.

"I honestly considered moving after all that," Schoenefeld told me last week by phone. "Just head out west, stage [volunteer in ambitious kitchens] in Boulder, Seattle, San Francisco.... And it's all over this issue of salad dressing on the side. I certainly don't want people thinking I'm some kind of kitchen Nazi, because it really had very little to do with that. It was mostly about bartenders being dicks."

Speaking of dicey interpersonal relations, one element of this drama that didn't get wide attention was the fact that Schoenefeld's best friend and sous chef, Erik Emery, got Schoenefeld's job after he was canned. I asked Schoenefeld if the two were even speaking—whereupon I learned that they are, believe it or not, such good friends that Emery recently moved in with him. "But I tell him: I don't make burgers anymore, I prepare 'royale with cheese.' He calls me Colonel Mustard, and I call him Professor Plum."

I suppose Kim Bartmann, Café Barbette's owner, gets to be Mrs. Peacock or Miss Scarlett—but who is Mr. Boddy? All of us? I don't know, rightly, though I do know that when the weapon is mustard in the barroom, sometimes it's fate working in its famous mysterious ways to help a young chef, a not-so-young restaurant, and all us gnocchi-eaters.

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