Cafe Maude adapts with sophistication
The fact that our first visit to Cafe Maude's new location in Loring Park took place on the same night as the first presidential debate proved to be fitting in two ways. First, in the sense that perusing Cafe Maude's menu sparked a lively back-and-forth about what everyone should order. Should we opt for French? We could, but a little Norwegian flair might make for a more neutral platform. Going Roman might be a fine rebuttal, but perhaps the best strategy is to play it safe and stick to the American South. Believe it or not, that whole tête à tête only got us through the cocktail menu, which features some of the most sophisticated drinks in town. But Cafe Maude was also a fitting choice because of its patron saint and namesake, Maude Armatage, who was a progressive thinker and inspiring local politician in the early 20th century.
You might already associate the Armatage name with the south Minneapolis neighborhood (near the restaurant's first location) that her family helped to establish beginning in the 1870s, but Maude was also politically active as a member of the Park Board. In 1921 she made history when she was elected to be the board's commissioner at large, becoming the first woman elected to a Minneapolis municipal council. She went on to have a major impact on the parks system and made a particular mission out of linking the Department of Education and Board of Recreation. She was thrifty, smart, dedicated, and reportedly liked to have a good time. Basically, Maude Armatage was the Leslie Knope of Minneapolis, and much like Amy Poehler's character in Parks and Recreation, the restaurant named for Armatage has good energy, myriad achievements, and, occasionally, a tendency to overdo it.
After just two steps inside Cafe Maude's doors, it's impossible to recall the space the way it was as Nick and Eddie, its former resident. For one thing, there are many more customers seated in the dining room, toasting one another in dimly lit booths, feeding their toddlers bits of squash, and hanging at the bar chatting with the talented team of drink-makers as they mix a sweet but sturdy Kentucky Pilgrim, a cocktail made with bourbon, cranberry shrub (fruit preserved in sugar and vinegar), cranberry bitters, and soda. The bar program, headed by Adam Harness, formerly of Town Talk Diner and the main man at the helm of Maude's original location, is outstanding. Though unique components like Earl Grey honey syrup and hopped grapefruit bitters do make an appearance in his creations, Harness doesn't have to rely on oddities to produce an interesting cocktail, just good balance. The bar program is a major draw for the restaurant, especially in this location, where Cafe Maude will need to cater both to a younger general audience and, because of its proximity to the sculpture garden, the Walker, and the Basilica, a big-time Sunday brunch crowd.
Several dishes are new to this location, and Maude's staff and owners seem to be putting their focus on dinner as the main event. A handful of dishes from that menu were executed beautifully, while others suffered from being overly busy. One example was the monster lamb shank, which had loads of robust fall flavor — beets, chevre, risotto, chunks of Merguez sausage, truffle, mushroom jus, marsala wine — but too many of them were competing with one another. The result was a bit of a muddled mess that overpowered the otherwise tender and tasty bone-in lamb. It was nice to see that portion sizes were generous, and I always like to have leftovers for the next day, but the dish could have benefited from a bit more restraint and (I can't believe I'm saying this) a little less truffle. Given the $24 price tag for fish and chips (albeit a rather dressed-up version that replaces fries with gnocchi and comes with English peas, which are so out of season they're almost back in season again), I'd prefer to get the real deal all good and greasy from the Anchor for about a third of the cost. The small plate of calamari la plancha had similar issues. It came with so much hot pepper oil dressing the plate, and squid ink saturating the greens, that our lips were left stinging and, when we wiped our mouths, scarily black. To boot, some mystery component made the dish so overwhelmingly salty we couldn't really enjoy the delicate sauteed rings of squid.
But dinner hit lots of soaring high notes too. The small plate of deep-fried yet still perfectly juicy quail with crisp pancetta and lots of fresh, sweet, barely cooked corn had all the elements of a satisfying, down-home summer supper in a smaller portion. The bone marrow starter was also exquisite, balancing out the richness of the scraped-out spread with sweet, tart, and smoky elements and a good amount of nicely charred bread. In the larger plates, simple pleasures continued to be the clear winners. An exemplary dish of steak frites featured a beautifully done piece of rib eye, a pile of truffled fries, and a little ramekin of textbook Bearnaise sauce for indulgent dipping. The unassuming-sounding "brick" chicken was the favorite dinner dish of all. The seared crust, produced by pressing the chicken down with a heavy object, which in some kitchens is literally a foil-wrapped brick, is a thing of beauty and keeps all the flavorful juices sealed in. Served with some slightly bitter but bright Swiss chard, a chewy pilaf made from farro, and an almost buttery, fragrant puree of apricot, this dish made me think some of the not-so-great plates were anomalies.
Service was helpful but not very chatty. Most of the schmoozing seemed to be going on with customers at the bar, whereas certain late or in-between meal hours meant that only one server was handling an enormous section. It didn't cause a problem for us, but with the price of a dinner for two ticking up to the triple digits very easily, special-occasion diners may be looking for a bit more introduction, explanation, and suggestions.
Maude Armatage's pledge to live a life of "civilized leisure" is also the guiding principle at the new Cafe Maude. With refined and well-balanced cocktails, the right combination of small plates, and a window seat (or a chair outdoors, for the hardcore among us), you can eat, drink, and live by Maude's motto, all while enjoying lovely views of Loring Park, part of her lasting legacy. How fitting is that?
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