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5 things to know about Book Club, now open in the former Cafe Maude space

Go for this killer butternut squash soup

Go for this killer butternut squash soup Sarah Chandler

After a sneaky soft open in late November, Book Club is officially up and running in Armatage.

The new California fusion venture from restaurant impresario Kim Bartmann and chef Asher Miller has the old Cafe Maude space looking and feeling good -- you know, like California is supposed to make you feel: airy, spacious, free, and a little funky, with plenty of flattering light in case the paparazzi is lurking.

We popped in last week. Here's what you need to know:

5. The vibe is West Coast cool, but not too cool for school.
Imagine the living room of your imaginary aunt who decamped to Frisco in the Summer of Love, made some money in the tech boom, and grew up. She’s still a flower child, but one with a good eye for feng shui and a seriously impressive wallpaper budget. Sure, she likes her kombucha and her kale, but boy, can she mix a mean whiskey sour.

While the décor is Instagram-tastic, the framed antique cookbooks and flower-power walls fashion a tasteful midcentury retro ambience that feels mod and fresh rather than like a kitschy flashback (or... another kind of flashback). Succulents trail from colorful ceramic boxes perched on one sunlit wall; on a crimson windowsill, mini cacti pop from a dozen yellow-rimmed pots.

4. It’s not a book club, but your book club would probably dig it.
With happy hour from 3 to 6 ($5 wines and selected taps; $6 classic cocktails and snacks) plus flexible seating behind the bar, you might actually consider dragging your book club here. When we asked our friendly server if any area clubs had booked a table for their next meeting, she smiled enigmatically and simply said, “Not yet.” We appreciated the inviting little shelf near the host stand with picture books for the kiddos. (Just inform them it’s pre-Steve Jobs California, and leave the iPad at home.)

The vibe: California cool, but not annoyingly so

The vibe: California cool, but not annoyingly so Sarah Chandler

3. The beloved neighborhood brunch remains intact, and how.
Café Maude was always packed for brunch, and we suspect her successor will be, too. The morning menu’s most alluring offering may be the Porchetta Eggs Benedict, though it will likely require you to schedule a post-brunch nap. The kitchen is generous to midday diners, with a several interesting salads and a killer butternut squash soup, made rich with coconut cream and flecked with fried garlic and cilantro.

2. Plenty of avocados, but no avocado toast.
Have you heard of a circa-1951 cookbook called West Coast Cooking by pioneering fusion chef Helen Evans Brown? Probably not! But perhaps you should check it out: it provides the inspiration for chef Asher Miller’s foray into California fusion cuisine, a sometimes dangerously gigantic concept. Here, it’s allowed to roam fancy-free on the menu, from Balinese chicken skewers to a rice bowl with lentils and pickled veggies to fried cauliflower burritos. (Fried cauliflower burritos? Those crazy California people!)

Fitting for a restaurant that’s an homage to a state known for both no-bounds excess as well as the health food movement, you’ll find plenty of vegan, veggie and gluten-free items, along with even more meat: a bavette steak, a hefty Niman Ranch ribeye, a confit turkey leg and fried chicken in several incarnations. Ultimately, the dinner menu aims for playful rather than outright trendy; you’ll spot plenty of avocados, but no avocado toast.

1. The drink menu is downright democratic.
We don’t mean Nancy Pelosi Democratic, but rather that there’s something here for everyone who’s not an absolute cocktail Scrooge. Yes, everyone: Your nine-year-old root beer fanatic (it’s on tap), your Kombucha-guzzling clean-eating sister (yep, it’s on tap, too), or your 90-year-old, sidecar-loving Aunt Lillian, who will be impressed that the cherry juice is fresh and that bar brandies its own cherries. The bar staff takes their mocktails seriously, too: a gingery Armatage Spritzer, a nod to the restaurant’s home turf, was a surprise hit.

Oh, and one more thing that’s democratic? A 3 percent service charge to offset employee health insurance costs. You might enjoy your meal a little more knowing your server has access to proper medical care.

Book Club
5411 Penn. Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-822-5411