Linden Hills' Trattoria Tosca makes the ambitious seem effortless

Chef Adam Vickerman creates simple-seeming creations with seasonal ingredients

For the past five years, ever since Harvey McLain moved his Turtle Bread baking facilities out of Linden Hills, neighbors have been waiting, patiently, for him to make good on his promise to reopen the space as a restaurant. Periodically, rumors of a forthcoming launch would surface, but the date would always pass with no discernible change. Sometimes, heading down 44th Street, I'd think I'd catch a glimpse of sheetrock or table saws through the windows, though they always turned out to be new-restaurant ghosts.

I couldn't understand McLain's hesitation. Linden Hills residents are among the most affluent and food-savvy in the city, frequenting top-tier restaurants such as Alma, La Belle Vie, and Heidi's. ("They're a very demanding group," McLain says, "and I applaud them for it. They have very sophisticated palates.") Ironically, the neighborhood's dining options are mostly limited to casual fare: burgers and malts at Convention Grill, barbecue at Famous Dave's, bacon and eggs at Zumbro. Even the slightly more upscale Rice Paper and Cafe 28 aren't performing at the level that the demographic could sustain. And here was McLain, sitting on the neighborhood's most coveted restaurant vacancy for nearly six years, and not giving diners a crumb.

But McLain has learned a few things about the food-service business in the 15 years since he launched his Turtle Bread empire, which began with the original Linden Hills shop and has grown to include the Turtle Bread/Pizza Biga/Cafe Levain complex at 48th and Chicago. Not wanting to see his new restaurant forced to relocate on a landlord's whim, McLain waited until he was able to buy the building outright. So after much anticipation, the corner that once housed the dry goods store run by Curt Carlson's father (McLain says he has an old photo of young Carlson in front of the building with a horse-drawn wagon), then a Studebaker dealership, and more recently the Reindeer House gift shop, would finally become Harvey McLain's next restaurant.

Hitting the sweet spot between upscale and casual: Tosca's Flavors of Spring Plate (top) and rhubarb-topped panna cotta
Jana Freiband for City Pages
Hitting the sweet spot between upscale and casual: Tosca's Flavors of Spring Plate (top) and rhubarb-topped panna cotta

At Trattoria Tosca, cozy tables near the front windows have replaced the dough sheeter used for making croissants. The smaller of the two dining areas has a wine rack on one side and the raised kitchen on another, and looks as cute as the black-and-white hexagonal tiles on its floor. The adjacent dining room, which abuts Turtle Bread, is darker and roomier, lined with forest-green banquettes. Both spaces can get quite loud during the dinner rush but tend to clear out by about 9 or 9:30 p.m.

McLain's concept for Trattoria Tosca is not so different from that of Cafe Levain, the casual French bistro that McLain conceived to replace his original eatery, the more formal Restaurant Levain. (Out went the highly résuméd chef and luxurious menu, in came ketchup bottles on paper-covered tables and entrées priced less than $20.) In Levain's first incarnation, McLain noticed that most of his customers returned only once a year—but they would frequent slightly more relaxed, slightly cheaper restaurants, such as the nearby Cave Vin, several times a week. So with both Cafe Levain and Trattoria Tosca, McLain aimed for the sweet spot between upscale and casual: restaurants that feel special enough to celebrate a birthday, but not too extravagant for a weeknight supper.

Tosca had its soft opening last fall, helmed by chef Landon Schoenefeld, an up-and-comer best known for opening the Bulldog NE. Schoenefeld introduced a new breakfast-lunch menu to Turtle's ready-to-eat options, supplementing quiches and pastries with omelets, frittatas, French toast, and pancakes. Before launching Tosca's dinner service, McLain sent Schoenefeld and Cafe Levain chef Adam Vickerman on a trip to Italy to tour kitchens, take a few cooking lessons, and experience the country's food and wine firsthand. But soon thereafter, shortly before dinner service was scheduled to begin, the peripatetic Schoenefeld resigned, and McLain asked Vickerman to take over Tosca.

Since Vickerman—who was then a relative unknown in foodie circles—was handed the reins at Cafe Levain a little more than a year ago, his artful yet down-to-earth fare quickly impressed neighbors and critics. McLain, who has employed several of the Twin Cities' top chefs, including Steven Brown and Stewart Woodman, says he's been extremely impressed with Vickerman's inspired cooking and the calm, measured way he oversees the kitchen—no small accomplishment for a guy who just celebrated his 24th birthday.

Tosca's menu is nearly as brief as the one at Matt's Bar, with just enough choices to keep diners from feeling limited. The menu's structure was mostly a business-driven decision (reducing the ambiguity of what diners might order means the kitchen is less likely to run short of some items or carry excess of others), but Vickerman says he likes the way the spare menu allows him to make changes based on seasonal ingredients. "You don't get complacent, cooking the same thing a million times," he says.

Drawing on his experiences in Italy, Vickerman creates simple-seeming preparations that highlight often fleeting, seasonal ingredients, many of which are sourced from local purveyors. "Some of our best dishes are on the menu for one day," he says. The approach seemed a tad raw when a salad came topped with a whole radish—fibrous stems, spindly tail, and all—but, typically, it feels spot-on for the season. Vickerman might anchor the Flavors of Spring Plate with an ultra-smooth chicken-liver pâté, rich with cream and brown butter and seasoned with shallots, garlic, rosemary, and Marsala, for example. But he'll contrasts the rich pâté with an opposing battery of tastes and textures that includes several early-season pickings: the crisp, fresh sting of a French breakfast radish; the tart crunch of pickled ramps and fennel; the piercing sweetness of roasted grapes; and a complex rhubarb-ramp compote.

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