A Grand Experiment

Chris Freeman serves up dinner at the constantly morphing Bakery on Grand
Fred Petters
Bakery On Grand
3804 Grand Ave. S.

When Bakery on Grand opened last January, they had a few (delicious) scones, a big, empty, gorgeous white room, and big plans: tables, chairs, cooked food, the works. I thought I would wait to review it. When Bakery on Grand set out their first plates of hot food early last spring, in a hybrid counter-service fashion, at hard to predict times, without a wine and beer license, I thought I would wait to review it--for the winelist, the table service, and, generally, the restaurant part.

When Bakery on Grand got their much delayed wine list last August, they started to build a second dining room so that people didn't have to eat in front of the bakery counter amidst the bread racks, so I thought I would wait for the dining room. These, I thought, are the things a serious restaurant needs to have in place before it can be reviewed: Tables, walls, wine, food, and some sort of system of delivering the wine and food to customers.

When I visited last fall and sat in an electricity-free, heat-free dining room and shivered in my coat while peering down at a pitch-black plate wondering what might be endive, what might be cheese, and what might be the thumb of my dearest friend, I learned to appreciate, for the very first time in my land-of-plenty life, how critical basic utilities really are to dinner. Also, the final team of chefs--Emily Streeter as head chef, supported by Gerard Boissy and Andrew Zachow--didn't come together until a few months ago.

Now, as of this writing, and nearly a year after Bakery on Grand's opening, there is wine, there are regular hours, there is the cooking team, that second dining room even has heat, and as for lights--soon. Soon. Soon they will build a skylight and put a light fixture over that, which may or may not happen before the third, private, under-construction dining room debuts, and--did I mention the super-secret new downtown St. Paul location?

A new downtown St. Paul location is imminent, near the Landmark Center and far more upscale than the Minneapolis location, and I shudder to think what paroxysms this will wreak on this little team of brilliant scramblers, and so I think I am going to review Bakery on Grand in its current unfinished state, because I have concluded that it will forever be unfinished--unfinished, scrambling, striving, scheming, surprising, and doing it all on a base of some of the best scones, breads, and twice-baked brioche that any of us will ever have the privilege of tasting.

Oh, those scones. Those lovely, lovely little scones. Tender, buttery, the texture perfect beyond reckoning, the whole golden sparrow of one held together by little but gravity and the internal embrace of butter, then crumbling between the fingertips into lush, lightly lemony-looking lambkins of love! Lambkins of love, I tell you! Twice-baked brioche is another treat that will reduce grown-up critics to twirling tots, arms flung up to the heavens to celebrate the things that can be done with butter, almond paste, flour, and talent.

That these scones are so fantastic is no surprise. They're a Jessica Anderson concoction, and, as she was a chef at Lucia's for eight years, Anderson's talents have been keenly felt by thousands--even if they weren't always associated with her name. Bakery on Grand is owned by Anderson, Keith Poppei, and Anderson's husband Doug, a chatty, outgoing longtime theater director and playwright who has waited tables in many, many high-profile Minneapolis restaurants, and is perhaps the most-known and best-connected person in Minneapolis. If we ever suffer a blackout the way the East Coast did last summer, I predict that all communication in Minnesota will be done by means of Doug Anderson.

The Andersons and Poppei launched the bakery with the plan of having high-style, low-cost, European-minded dining--real food made in slow, simple ways. When they succeed, they make a little patch of Grand Avenue seem like it's been lifted bodily from your most fulsome fantasy of what life might be like in Paris. I think they meet their greatest success with their Sunday suppers, in which you get your choice of three courses for a fixed price.

I tried one last month, for $26, and it was one of the most pleasant meals of my year. The meal started with a choice of salads, either a crisp and clean mixed green salad with a champagne vinaigrette or a spinach salad with a rich, warm bacon dressing. Then we got to choose between a few simple appetizers: The house pâté was chunky and true, that simple pork and liver combination that is so grounding, though a tiny English Stilton flan was soggy and tasted more like a plain mini-quiche than something thrilling. Entrée options included a roast chicken, a nice pot au feu with beef brisket and short ribs, carrots, potatoes, and onions; it was like a pot roast, and while the broth it came in was thin, it was hard to argue with at that price.  

The final entrée choice was a version of the classic French cotriade, though in this instance the creamy fish soup included mussels, shrimp, and scallops, and so very much butter it would melt the hardest heart. (Or harden the youngest heart, or however that goes.) Of course, there was no need for dessert, but we got one anyway: the Bakery on Grand's signature chocolate roll, a dark-chocolate cake rolled around the most unadorned cream filling. It can be entirely captivating.

With the meal we had a bottle of a truly beautiful 2000 Supèrieur from Château des Graves ($24), a wine that combined the mellow notes of cherry with the weight and meat of good wine. Sitting there in the all-white room, with its high, high tin ceilings and gentle light, I felt like I was dining in a whitewashed church in Normandy on vacation. Lovely.

Then, even more recently, I had the best coq au vin I've had in the Twin Cities: long-stewed, cooked with lots of red wine, tiny pearl onions, deeply concentrated mushrooms, and bits of baconlike pork belly. It was like eating a rainbow of wine colors--the deep, the dark, the robust. I had it with a glass of Proteus ($6 a glass, $18 a bottle), a country wine from the Midi that has a nice berrylike, rough-hewn quality with enough structure and acid to stand up to all these countryside foods. My friend had a very nice entrée of garlicky beef brisket; the soft, muted meat surrendering at the touch of a fork, the whole presented in a bowl of salty jus along with a crosssection of marrowbone and a spoon, for a truly rich treat. There was also a moderately successful parsnip dauphinoise, which in this instance was like a thinly layered parsnip and cheese gratin, in a wedge. My friend tried a glass of Mt. Veeder 2000 Napa Valley Cabernet ($10), and while the wine is generally lovely on its own, with the food it tasted like there was a big oak plank in the glass.

Which clearly raises the question, What the heck is a big-name American red doing here? It's just another new enthusiasm whipping through the restaurant, and I say, Stay far away from it. See, the place just added an American list full of $90-and-up prestige West Coast reds, and if you even start considering this place as a $100-a-head dinner destination, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Because that's when you will remember not the nice coq au vin, but the fact that the appetizer of chanterelle custard ($9) had so much sugar in it that it tasted like mushroom dessert, that they serve duck à l'orange that reminds you of nothing but a candied apple, that you can make reservations in an afternoon that the restaurant has no record of by dinnertime, and that when you retire home for an evening, you might find that your otherwise charming server's assistant had the bright idea of combining your leftover coq au vin and your friend's beef brisket into a giant multi-meat snowball, mashed into a wad with your leftover parsnips dauphinoise and yukon gold purée, as though by Mork from Ork on his first earth-day.

I mean, what I'm trying to say is, do you ever think about the Arts, and the continuum of reliability and volatility that exists within them? With, say, the Rembrandt room at the MIA at one end, as the utter apex of culture and taste, beyond criticism the way the sun is beyond criticism, and kept in the kind of place where armed guards can get at you if you do something untoward? And at the other end, avant-garde dance troupes coated in flour, strapped into harnesses, and whizzing through the air to the sound of prerecorded floor-waxers running over gravel? You know the kind of art I mean, the kind where you have new, shocking sights and unimagined experiences, and find yourself worrying too much about the fire code. Or maybe you don't go to the parties I do.

Well, no matter, you get the idea. Bakery on Grand is not the Rembrandt room, it is the spunky dance troupe. It has almost nothing in common with Campiello or Lucia's or any of the places that you know you can go into any night and have, at the absolute worst, a very, very nice time. If I were planning a birthday dinner for Grandma or a work dinner for a yet-unmet visiting company VP, Bakery on Grand is among the absolute last places I would pick. If I were going to dine with someone I knew occasionally bought original works of art, Bakery on Grand is among the first places I would choose. It's ideal for acutely sensitive, aesthetically inquisitive artsy types who can understand the true triumphs of the place, the exquisite simplicity of the breads, the whitewashed country cathedral of the big bakery front room.  

It is above all a place of constant change. "This place has morphed an enormous amount," says Jessica Anderson, the English talent behind it all (who is constantly misidentified in the press as being Irish). "The great gift the restaurant has had is, it could change on a sixpence. This first year we've been able to chop and change to provide a service. I would never have opened for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, but that's what this community needs. It's much more fun that way too, you never know what's going to happen next--it's like theater."

Personally, I think the place would be improved if it calmed down a bit. I think that coq au vin and the brisket should be on the menu until the ramps come out next spring. Which might let the cooks and servers relax so that they can find their bearings and improve the things they aren't doing well. But even as I type that, I feel like I'm the Grinch in the kindergarten and am trying to replace all the modeling clay with arithmetic books and thus stomp all over everyone's creative play.

Oh well. I'll quit harshing your mellow, and sign off with my true conclusion about Bakery on Grand, which is that it's a great bakery, a restaurant that flirts with greatness and then often abruptly runs down a side path, and a fascinating, organic, artistic, unpredictable pulsating force, a force that shows every sign of growing in surprising ways for years to come. And I'll tell you, a pulsating force is a very interesting thing to be, or to dine within.

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