You Wish

Café Maude is hotter than an oven on fire in the center of the sun—so good luck getting in there

Cafè Maude, 5411 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.822.5411, www.cafemaude.com


What's more useless than a drowned rat? What's more useless than a squashed hat? What's more useless than a bike with two flats? This restaurant review, because it's about Café Maude, a remarkable new neighborhood bistro in Armatage, the neighborhood in the very bottom corner of southwest Minneapolis, and you are never, ever, ever going to get in there.

Well, never, unless you have the ability to call a few days in advance and reserve a table, which, if you are a typical Armatage resident knee-deep in kids, dogs, and teenagers, not to mention teenagers who are supposed to be watching said kids and dogs, and—wait. How many Razor scooters did the Comcast truck run over? Wait, wait. Who gave themselves a haircut? What time is urgent care open till? Where is the hamster? Wait—I thought you were picking up the cookies for National Night Out! Oops! Where was I? I mean, Armatage is not a neighborhood where most people know what life will hold in the next six hours, so how the heck are they expected to make a dinner reservation? Well, score another one for the empty-nesters. Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth, but if he lived south of Minnehaha Creek, he'd think differently.

Welcome to the neighborhood: Café Maude is getting a warm reception
Jana Freiband
Welcome to the neighborhood: Café Maude is getting a warm reception

Since you're never going to get in there, let me sketch a picture of what you're missing at Café Maude. You drive up on a quiet stretch of Penn Avenue and see a big, blank box with a red awning. It looks like it might be a carpet showroom, a design studio—something tasteful and domestic that closed a few hours ago. You haul open the front door and confront a small anteroom full of magazines: glamorous magazines, European magazines, the kind of magazines that supermodels hurl at their assistants, the kind of magazines that you'd read if only you had two years off, a MacArthur genius grant, and underlings to blame for things. You can take them to your table to read, if you like.

Forging past the magazines, you open a second door, and you confront what feels like a million people—a million particularly Minnesotan, particularly prosperous people. Men are wearing glasses fit for Danish architects, women are glistening with artist-blown beads, tweens are hiding their braces behind elaborate pouts, hipsters are sipping martinis while their fathers unfurl plans for the new kitchen expansion. Everyone is seated in a whirlwind of excitement: A live band, a pianist, or a DJ plays nightclub-worthy music, just loud enough that you have to really want to say anything you're going to say, but not so loud that you can't be heard; servers in floor-length aprons hustle purposefully; and, of course, couples cluster at the door, staring longingly at your table. The intense garnet walls and the high bar contribute to the restaurant's intense vibe of energy, sparkle, and center-of-the-world bustle. Don't you feel like you need to be there? Of course you do. And good luck to you.

Me, I am lucky enough to have some very organized friends who secured reservations. Then, when I visited the place, I found that it's not any particular dish, any particular drink, any particular anything that makes Café Maude so popular—the place just has the certain pop and sizzle that great restaurants have. This is bad news, because if it were merely a special dish or a special drink drawing the crowds, someone would knock it off and the buzz around Maude would fade. And then you could get in there! But I don't think that will happen, so you'll just be stuck with useless written accounts such as this.

Now, the food at Café Maude has a distinct style, in which rather sophisticated elements are showcased in a forthright, understated manner. Arancini (Italian rice and Parmesan croquettes, $6), were rustic and homey, with their crunchy rice crust, but also heartily flavored with a rough-chopped toasted-hazelnut-and-lemon sauce. A brown-edged, gorgeously fried egg served atop sautéed spinach which was itself on top of basmati rice flavored with Greek feta cheese ($5) was both incredibly simple and incredibly craveable.

Paper-thin flatbreads (all $10) are neither too flashy nor too plain. One is made with sugar-sweet oven-roasted tomatoes, chewy mozzarella, and a basil pesto in which the licorice aspects of the herb are emphasized by using floral almonds in place of all the traditional pine nuts. Crab cakes ($12) are light and fresh, and perked up with watercress and a pickle-flecked remoulade sauce. Café Maude's cheese plate is charming. Order it and you get four elegant little islands—a chewy Greek Haloumi, grilled and topped with a robust tomato jam; a tangy Saint Pete's blue drizzled with honey and decorated with a sprinkling of pine nuts; a fresh, creamy goat's-milk cheese, Bucheron, its chalky elegance complemented by a tiny pool of fig molasses; and gooey, pungent Pont L'Eveque, topped with a spoonful of wild mushroom conserves. (Each cheese can be had individually for $3.50; all four together costs $13.)

Not everything from Café Maude's kitchen was delightful—I thought the wood-smoked baby-back ribs ($9) were overwhelmingly sweet and marred by an overpoweringly dark, molasses-like taste. The chorizo hash ($7), a Spanish tapas-like dish of grilled baby octopus, fried rounds of potatoes, lumps of chorizo, and spicy red harissa aioli, was made of too many big items with big flavors. I longed for it to be chopped smaller, or united by egg—somehow made to integrate with itself.

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