Beef à la Mode

Daniel Corrigan
1304 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis; (612) 623-4211
Hours: Monday-Friday lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m., dinner 5:00-9:00 p.m.; Saturday dinner only, 5:00 p.m.-1:00 a.m.; Sunday brunch 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.

The time has come to admit something I have been keeping from you all. I am renovating an old house. Yes, my daily life is that tedious. Yes, I am that exhausted. I've tried hard not to bore you with tales of irregular plumbing and regular decay, but it has become undeniable. I am in full-on battle with one of those big, turn-of-the-century charmers made by craftsmen who really knew how to build a house--namely with lots of asbestos, tar, mummified mice, and playing cards. The reason this becomes relevant is that sometimes now, after a long day of toil in which my hands end up with mittens of tile mastic and my brow is furrowed by the estimates of ambitious men aiming to replace my furnace with one of hand-tooled platinum, I like to take, as they advise in the women's magazines, a few minutes for me. I set aside my cares and worries, and unpack one of my prized albums from the supper-club Sixties: Mel, Frank, Dean. I take a moment, slide the heavy vinyl from its brittle paper sleeve, carve "Gone to Erté" in it with an awl, post it in the window, and lock the door behind me.

You see, Erté, despite the froufrou name (pronounced ER-tay and referring to the French artist), is the sort of classic American restaurant where you can sink into the something-and-potato reverie that feels like the God-given right of anybody who's spent the day messing with a sledgehammer. Steak and potato, chicken and potato, shrimp and potato--it's all good, as are the low, low old-fashioned supper-club prices. Eight to fourteen dollars starts you off with a platter of bread and butter arranged around a glass dish of olives and pickled peppers, follows with a cup of soup or a salad, then leads you through a big entrée on a plate: steak, chicken, trout, cassoulet. Add a platter of potatoes for $5, a beer from $2. Prices are even more old-fashioned than they seem once you realize they include all the taxes. Yet Erté is better than an old-fashioned supper club: The bread on that platter is a fresh-cut, good-quality baguette; the olives in the middle are imported and spiced; the soup of the day may be as exotic as Ecuadorian fish chowder; the salad is based upon newly torn lettuce, not chopped iceberg; the dressings are fresh and homemade; and the cassoulet is vegan.

Imagine Erté as an old structure thoroughly rehabbed. Owner Ellie Meenan bought the supper-club concept from foundation (steak) to roof (green-goddess dressing), but then threw out all of the chintzy, cost-saving improvements that had polluted the thing (the prefab dressings, the stale bread) and voilà!-- a contemporary structure that's comfortable and attractive without being cloying or retro. Shrimp cocktail ($9.50) is brilliantly fresh, the cocktail sauce zingy and bright. Crab cakes ($7) have just enough salt and cayenne to avoid being bland, and good chipotle aioli on the side gives more heat if you want it. Dinner salads are prettily composed plates of lettuce, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers topped with dressings that deserve some kind of award. Flapper-era green goddess is made with a combination of herbs and scallions so fresh you marvel at the plate. Buttermilk ranch is creamy and piquant. Blue cheese dressing is rich and powerful.

Erté serves three steaks, a New York strip ($14), a sirloin ($13), and a filet mignon ($14.50). All the beef here is certified Angus, and quite good; it offers a nicely forward taste and tender texture. Where does it fall on the great Minnesota steak scale? It was better than the meat I've had at lots of steak houses, if not as good as the best steaks I've had, like those at Manny's. The potatoes definitely play in the big leagues though: Pan-fried hashbrowns, ordered extra-crispy, had a gorgeous crust, the house O'Briens, made with minced, fried-till-they're-soft bell peppers and onions, were perfect. Creamed spinach was chunky with fresh garlic but not overwhelmingly spiced, and the plate of sliced tomatoes, that other steakhouse classic, boasted pretty layers of red and yellow salad tomatoes.

Not all the side dishes--all priced at $5 for a full order and $3 for a half--are as good as the hashbrowns. Skip the too-sweet sautéed mushrooms and onions (called--shudder--"mushnions"), and the sautéed vegetables tended to be greasy. I had those on the table the same night I had vegetarians at the table--imagine, vegetarians who enjoyed their meal at a steakhouse. One tried the pasta puttanesca ($10), a good preparation of the classic sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, and garlic. The other had the vegan cassoulet, which I'm sad to report was undercooked--a mess of white beans lacking the lush qualities of real cassoulet.  

Of course, you don't go to a supper club for vegan cassoulet, but you don't go there for chicken either, and I had had such luck with Erté's roast chicken that my hopes were high. This chicken, a local bird priced at $13 for a whole and $10 for a half, is rubbed with garlic, rosemary, and thyme, cooked whole and basted in a pan full of bay leaves, onions, pepperoncini, green olives, and chopped lemons and oranges. The result is a bird with a sauce like a stew, complementing the sweet roasted flesh, bites alternating between salty, sour, and startlingly citrusy. Everyone at my table marveled over the thing--and what's more, it makes great leftovers.

No leftovers came from an encounter with the scampi ($14), an excellent rendition of the dish that lined up five garlic-sautéed shrimp atop a bed of rice or mashed potatoes. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, perfectly cleaned, plump as peaches, and not the least bit greasy--a miracle on all fronts. Desserts were perfectly fine. I particularly liked a buttery vanilla pound cake that arrived attractively unadorned, pale and dense upon the plate: supper-club simplicity, distilled.

The place is also open for an inexpensive lunch and Sunday brunch: A brunch visit proved the kitchen really is a whiz with potatoes--the Angus hash ($8) was particularly good, as were the eggs Benedict on crab cakes ($9) and the fluffy, plate-sized stack of hotcakes ($5.50). The only breakfast fumble was the fruit in the fruit, yogurt, and granola plate ($6). The very saucy, minced fruit salad was more peculiar than appetizing.

The place could stand a little tweaking on other fronts as well. The wine list is ho-hum, and servers, while friendly and attentive, often seem completely uninformed about the basic points of table service. At one meal my waitress plucked a dirty fork from the tray on her shoulder to return it to its original owner. Still, as someone who has become enamored with returning Twin Cities structures to their original identity, I've been especially happy to note that this two-story, pretty northeast room has returned to its identity as tops among cheap-date destinations. I first wrote about these rooms in 1997, when they belonged to the Mighty Fine, a restaurant that started out cheap and good, and got increasingly bizarre as time wore on. Now, a coat of paint and a couple of tons of potatoes later, a true classic--a classic concept, a classic space--has been restored to its original glory. Best of all, and at least on this side of the kitchen door, it didn't require a single trip to the lumberyard.


THE MYSTERIOUS MR. C.: Heard the one about the guy who bought a Winnebago specifically so he and his friends could travel to and from La Belle Vie and sip Champagne as the chauffeur drove? I did, but when I called Josh Thoma, co-owner of La Belle Vie with chef Tim McKee, to confirm, he said it wasn't strictly true. The guy had other reasons for getting a Winnebago. But did I know about Mr. C.? No, I did not. Well get this. It turns out that one Mr. C., a retired captain of industry who resides in Chaska, has a biweekly standing reservation at La Belle Vie for Tuesday-night tasting menus. He is spirited out there in a rented limousine with his new bride, because he loves McKee and Thoma's cooking just that much. "He followed us here from D'Amico Cucina," says Thoma. "He was here the first night we opened, and ever since. He used to drive out by himself and stay at the Lowell Inn, but this past fall he got engaged, and then married, so now he and his wife take a limo from their house."

Why should you care? "Anybody that comes in on that Tuesday night for a tasting menu gets what Mr. C.'s getting," says Thoma. And that includes the unheard-of rarities that McKee has overnighted from Chicago or the East Coast. How rare? How about Spanish baby eels (anguilas), which I've never seen on a local menu, Atlantic wolf fish (which I've never even heard of before, but which James Peterson, in his definitive Fish & Shellfish, calls "wonderful to eat because its flesh is lean, relatively firm, and very delicately flavored"), or even wild Scottish wood pigeons, served with liver and morels. Also, Thoma notes that while he and McKee work stations during the weekend, each responsible for certain dishes, on a quiet night like Tuesday McKee will just work on the tasting menus, giving him even tighter control over the plates.  

But can you be as nice as Mr. C.? Apparently Mr. C. writes McKee and Thoma notes after his meals, mailing them praise and constructive criticism. Thoma read me one: "Bravo Tim, bravo Josh," it began. "The food, wine, and presentation continue to knock my socks off. My particular favorites this evening were the red pepper and chorizo, the Perrier Jouët, and the Ribero del Duero..." No wonder there's a discreet brass plaque in the back room at La Belle Vie commemorating Mr. C.'s old table. (He eats in the more formal front room now that he's hitched.) And what did La Belle Vie give Mr. C. for a wedding gift? Printed copies of his 80 tasting menus, bound into a book. Want to horn in on the love? Call for reservations: La Belle Vie, 312 S. Main St., Stillwater; (651) 430-3545.

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