Alma Cafe is a refreshing new approach to fine cooking

The smoked whitefish tartine from Alma Cafe.

The smoked whitefish tartine from Alma Cafe. Provided

I can’t think of the cooking at Alma as anything other than food for smart people.

It’s understated to the nth degree, never flashy, and beautifully, classically prepared.

The prices are always fair. Not cheap, but fair. A few dollars more than what you’d pay for something woefully subpar at a lesser place. And that’s the other part of what makes it a thinking person’s restaurant. This is the practical man’s best bet. It’s the Prius of dining out. A bit of a stretch at the outset, but pays its dividends long after you’ve driven off the lot.

All the smart looking people in smart, sensible glasses and shoes crowding the room at Alma’s new sister restaurant, Alma Cafe, clearly don’t need a lesson in this kind of economics.

The cafe has been open less than a week and business is already booming. The more casual digs and menu are just what the 17-year-old eatery needed to modernize and keep up with How People Eat Now. While their way of doing things has always been a cut above, this was also becoming a special-occasion place for many. And that can serve as a death knell in this age of casual everyday dining out.

So Alma Cafe came at just the right time, and it’s totally refreshing.

By night, the menu is designed around grabbing a drink first, and going from there. If ever there were an ideal happy hour place for adults, this would be it. Bittercube has designed a comprehensive menu of classic cocktails as well as seasonal ones in keeping with Alma’s steadfast adherence to seasonality. Start with a libation, and you won’t go wrong.

The Frosted Gimlet with gin, lime, green tea syrup, and peppermint cotton candy is absolutely irresistible because you get to pour the liquid over the candy floss until it dissipates. Then you’re left with a little punch mug of your grandma’s peppermint schnapps on ice, all grown up.

Or try the Still Got it, a butternut squash daiquiri served in a gourd. Sounds strange, tastes enchanting.

With drinking and sharing in mind, the menu is anchored by snacks and small bites. You’re free to order just a pile of gorgeous breads next to a pot of butter, or a selection of cheese, or some olives or spiced nuts and nothing more. Stop in here before dinner and you can still make it home with appetite enough to sit down with the family.

Or don't, because a smattering of entrees can also slide right into the dinner hour, from a $6 half order of macaroni and cheese to a $29 Limousin Sirloin Steak and plenty of things in between.

Our favorite bites were brilliantly prepared vegetables, like crispy smashed potatoes cooked in duck fat with a little pot of black truffle hollandaise for dipping, or light-as-a-feather fried cauliflower with frizzled jalapeno, sesame, and ginger. Both were done so nicely they made meat eating seem almost superfluous.

But if you’re going to get carnivorous, house rigatoni with spicy pork ragu, tomato, kale and Pecorino is a good way to do it. Order the large to share; it won’t last long.

A great way to approach this menu is by seeking out gorgeous bites served over grilled bread or crackers. Tartines and bruschetta are like little fine dining bites without the fine dining price tag or pomp. Smoked whitefish, a generous swipe of duck liver pate, or lamb rillettes (meat cooked in fat) are a good way to sit, cocktail in one hand, bread or cracker in the other, and be very happy indeed.

So far, we’re loving this intersection of Alma’s graceful fine cooking sensibilities with a more approachable format. We can’t wait to return, and it seems neither can anyone else. A pro tip is to go early (prior to the dinner rush) as the cafe does not take reservations. Alma Restaurant re-opens on November 25 after its own remodel, and you can start making reservations now.

528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis