Cafe Maude's wine bar has everything but customers
What does it feel like to be a server, with pen and notepad poised, or a chef, with knives sharpened and jacket buttoned, standing inside an empty restaurant waiting for a crowd that never arrives? I imagine it would hurt one's heart as much as throwing a party and not having a single guest show up. And it raises a philosophical question: Can a restaurant be a restaurant without any customers? Or in the case of the Armatage Room, can it be a wine bar?
I worried about this during my first two visits to the Armatage Room, when my friends and I were, literally, its only customers. There was nothing particularly unusual about either night—no raging blizzard or power outage to keep people hunkered down at home. Across the street, Cafe Maude was packed, but Armatage was empty.
Kevin Sheehy, owner of the southwest Minneapolis sleeper hit Cafe Maude, opened the Armatage Room this fall as a way to expand on Maude's success and accommodate customers he'd previously been forced to turn away. (Sheehy, who grew up in the area, snapped up the second space after a decades-old hair salon his mother used to frequent finally closed.) Sheehy initially intended the Armatage Room, which is named after the neighborhood, to be used as a private event space. (Cafe Maude often receives requests for large parties, but only allows reservations for up to eight to keep tables available for neighbors.) But with Maude typically booked solid during peak hours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, Sheehy decided to use the Armatage Room as a wine bar on evenings when it wasn't reserved for a party. Yet a month or so after its soft opening, Armatage was still defining itself as a distinct yet complementary companion to Cafe Maude—and working just to spread word of its existence.
Not that we minded: the Armatage Room is a lovely place to have all to yourself. As I pushed my way through the thick velvet curtain in the entryway, the first thing I noticed was the room's intoxicating smell. It was as fragrant as a cedar-lined sauna, a woodsiness mixed with coffee and wine, as if the scruffy guys in the J. Crew catalog were scratch-and-sniff. Long, hefty tables—their reclaimed timbers stained nearly black—anchored the room, looking capable of feeding a threshing crew. Against a backdrop of slate-blue walls, dog-eared black-and-white photographs in mismatched frames made the room feel as intimate as a private home. In fact, it could almost be mistaken as such if not for the curved banquettes beside the front windows, the wine glasses and bottles lining the back wall, and the window into the commercial kitchen.
While the Armatage Room's menus are different from Maude's, they feel similar enough to be interchangeable. Armatage's wine and beer lists are brief but varied, including both familiar names (Newcastle, pinot noir, syrah) and those less commonly seen at local bars and restaurants (Sri Lanka's Lion Stout, an Italian nebbiolo, a Spanish monastrell). The small plates evoked Maude's simple yet sophisticated approach, ranging from a generous bowl of thick-cut French fries served with a tart, harissa aioli to an elegant pairing of seared scallops with roasted cauliflower and pureed butternut squash. The beet salad—little purple cubes served with a snarl of frisée and ping-pong-sized pearls of goat cheese—didn't live up to its potential, perhaps due to the cheese's chalky texture and lack of distinct, pungent musk. But a plate of duck wontons reminded me of why Cafe Maude has become not just a neighborhood restaurant but destination dining. The pockets looked deceptively plain, but they packed layer upon layer of flavor: rich duck confit and root vegetables (bitter, earthy notes of turnip, parsnip, and celery root) coated with a creamy goat-cheese sauce. Without the distraction of shouting patrons, blaring televisions, and high-decibel stereos, we could give our food and conversation the attention they deserved.
When I returned to the Armatage Room a week later, I found more people—a party of three men—but less food. This time, a tabletop chalkboard contained a short list of snacks: cheese plate, meat plate, olives, French fries, and a combination plate of Brie, walnuts, and apple slices...not really enough to cobble together a full meal. These were plates not so much cooked as assembled (I didn't see a chef in the kitchen that night). Another couple arrived, took one look at the menu, and went back to Maude to wait for a table.
Had I not been on a mission to review Armatage's food, I probably would have done the same. Or followed the lead of the three men (who turned out to be members of the band that was playing later that evening at Maude) and toted takeout containers from across the street. Instead, I worked my way through a few dishes as the evening's soundtrack faded from frenetic melodies (was David Byrne touring with a Klezmer band?) to what sounded like deep tracks from The Birth of Cool. I hated to disturb the charcuterie plate's beautiful display—a Jenga-style stack of crostini, a mosaic-like array of meats—but I dug into hunks of spicy, maple-tinged chorizo, paper-thin slices of prosciutto, sopressata, and salami, slathered them with mustard, and topped them with caper berries. I was particularly delighted by the bright-orange, pâté-like sobrasada, a Spanish pork sausage creamed with paprika, which the kitchen had spiked with olive oil and sherry vinegar. It was equal parts rich, salty, and piquant—and addictive enough for me to call around town to see where I might buy some.
After spending the holidays awash in cocktail wieners and Christmas cookies, I decided the meat plate counted as "dinner" and moved on to desserts. A vanilla panna cotta drizzled with blood-orange gastrique tasted like a deconstructed Creamsicle; a chocolate mousse semifreddo arrived with a bit of homemade dark chocolate candy bar, cardamom poached pear, and a scatter of nutty streusel. Considering that the neighbors may already have their own wine cellars and stocks of fancy cheeses, these are the sorts of dishes I think Armatage needs to lure people out of their houses.
On my third visit, I experienced Sheehy's vision for the Armatage Room's future. The restaurant has started offering three- to five-course tasting menus (reservable at two seating times each evening), while leaving a few seats available for walk-in guests to order from the wine-bar menu. For Cafe Maude's chef, Aaron Slavicek, and his sous chefs, who all share Armatage Room duties, the setup offers a chance to flex their fine-dining chops (Slavicek's résumé includes stints at La Belle Vie, Solera, and Zander Cafe) and craft dishes with more care than time allows at the high-volume cafe. Slavicek, for one, says he's looking forward to pairing a slightly more upscale version of Maude-style food with Armatage's relaxed ambiance. "It's not something we can offer at Cafe Maude because we're always so slammed," he says of the new coursed menus, and he notes that his staff is eager for the challenge. "There's a huge amount of talent that hasn't been tapped."
With 2009's economic outlook uncertain, I think Armatage will give Sheehy the flexibility to adjust his business model between private parties and public dining room as best suits the neighborhood. Its small scale offers both room for experimenting (Sheehy hopes to offer soup-and-sandwich lunches soon, and Turkish feasts after he and chef Slavicek take a trip to Istanbul this spring), and reduced risk (with a set number of tasting menus, the kitchen staff can order more expensive ingredients without worrying whether they'll be able to sell them).
The night of my third visit, the room felt as if it had finally become what it wanted to be. It was New Year's Eve, and the place was full, with twosomes and foursomes sharing communal tables, a setup Sheehy admits is "pushing it a little bit in south Minneapolis." With awkwardness abated by freely flowing bubbly, people seemed to appreciate the chance to meet their tablemates and expand the scope of their conversations.
The courses flew by—a tiny amuse of crabmeat atop a dab of corn chowder, a thicket of arugula with Roquefort cheese and pear, a choice of a delicately crisp salmon fillet with a seared puck of polenta and tempura-battered vegetables or beef tenderloin with truffled mashed potatoes. By the time we made it to dessert—either a chocolate pistachio torte or an ethereal, salty-sweet cheesecake glazed with lemon curd—I found myself happy to be sharing the Armatage neighborhood's hidden gem with a whole roomful of contented diners.
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