Grand Cafe gives new life to neighborhood eatery

Cafe comeback: Chef Jon Radle (right) with owners Dan and Mary Hunter
Fred Petters

At the Grand Cafe in south Minneapolis, a reminder of the space's previous occupants sits squarely in the center of the room, its broad, white girth exerting its presence from behind the bar like a butcher commanding his meat counter. The vintage oven has been there for more than 60 years, baking basic sugar cookies for the Grand Bakery, and, in more recent years, delicate scones for the Bakery on Grand. Since the bakery became a restaurant about five years ago, it's had its share of fits and starts, its glories and inconsistencies. But after everything—the fussy French fare phase, the more consistent country-cooking phase, three shifts in ownership, and nearly twice as many chefs—come hell or condo developers, I'm convinced that nothing will stop 3804 Grand from being a place where people come to be fed.

The latest incarnation, Grand Cafe, is owned by Dan and Mary Hunter, who met while cooking and waiting tables, respectively, at the legendary Faegre's restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Years later, the two were working as private chefs, and, while looking for a commercial kitchen space in 2006, they ended up with a restaurant. Mary had fallen in love with the space when she worked as a server at Bakery on Grand, so they hardly changed a thing. It still feels warm, worn, and a little like the old country, with light streaming in through the multi-paned windows and onto the scuffed hardwood floors.

Grand Cafe is just the sort of restaurant everyone wants to have within walking distance. The kitchen serves straightforward fare made with good ingredients, abiding by a philosophy dating to the days when people rolled their own pastas, cured their own meats, and pickled their own vegetables—a time when the pantry, not the TV room, was the most important place in the house. The cafe is versatile enough for a business dinner or a family brunch. It's nice enough for a date, but not so formal that a guy can't show up in a Taco Bell T-shirt.

Since the Hunters took over, many people have been distracted by all the buzz-worthy new restaurants nearby—Cafe Maude! Heidi's! Blackbird!—and were slow to realize that, with Jon Radle in the kitchen since last August, the Grand is cresting once again. Radle's restaurant career had humble beginnings, starting with a teenage stint as a busboy at Perkins. But by the time he met the Hunters, Radle was one of the most well-résuméd chefs in town without his own kitchen—he's worked at California Cafe, the Bayport Cookery, Auriga, Corner Table, La Belle Vie, and Solera. Like his peers at Cafe Maude and Cafe Levain, Radle is among a new generation of chefs who have trained at the top local restaurants and are now taking the reins at neighborhood places, applying standards of fine dining to affordable bistro fare.

The Hunters replaced the old bakery case with a small bar, which makes the place more welcoming to those who might drop in for a glass of wine or, say, a plate of the daily-changing assorted canapés. I found the toasts topped with gravlax and goat cheese to be fine yet unremarkable. But the boquerones, or white anchovies, which Radle discovered at Auriga, were a delight. Unlike the pungent, super-salty cured variety, these silvery jewels are preserved with vinegar, and they added a tart, briny slap to a little bundle of peppery arugula and crisp, julienned radish. The summery golden beet and chèvre terrine, layered to look like a slice of lemon icebox cake, was another simple combination with more flavor than fuss. The earthy taste of the cheese and beets played against the salad greens and thin-shaved fennel dressed with an assertive apple vinaigrette. A plate of gnocchi, too, felt like a farmhouse kitchen had merged with a professional one. The little handmade puffs were dainty yet hardly fragile, with a chewy heft and a lightly browned edge, and were tossed with carrots, fava beans, roasted onions, and a buttery Parmesan broth.

But you really should sit down at a table (if you're a twosome, take one of the booths) and order one of Radle's entrées, European comforts with distinguishing details. The roast game hen, for example, is served with a toothsome stew of white beans—big as thumbs, as if demanding they be given the attention they deserve—fava beans, carrots, fennel, and preserved lemon, along with an artichoke barigoule (artichokes braised in a white-wine broth, Provençal-style) to lighten the dish. As good as the hen is, the duck confit may be better. Far too rich and salty on its own, the meat was mellowed by smooth, starchy roasted potatoes; the grassiness of ramps and asparagus; and a bitter, sweet-tart orange marmalade. The addition of hazelnuts was the dish's smart subtlety, and bites that went "crunch" were as pleasant a surprise as pulling on a pair of jeans and finding money in the pocket.

If those entrées seem too heavy for the summer heat, the fish special—I loved the Copper River salmon served with sautéed spinach, sassy snap peas, and garbanzo beans—is probably a better fit for the season, as are the fruity desserts. Quotes around the words "Key Lime Pie" on the menu were a hint at the dessert's nontraditional nature. While the stack of graham-cracker cake, lime mousse, and blackberries was an interesting idea, the proportions need tweaking before I'd call it an improvement on the original. The vanilla bean panna cotta, though, with a rhubarb and raspberry compote, tasted just like summer, dissolving instantly on the tongue in a way that ice cream could only aspire to.

A true neighborhood restaurant is one that pulls off a bang-up brunch, and several of the Grand Cafe's dishes are good enough to rouse oneself from a lazy weekend slumber. The French toast consists of two pieces of downy brioche, splashed with an orange caramel sauce, dolloped with whipped cream, and sprinkled with pistachios—a beloved childhood breakfast refined to something rapturous. The eggs en cocotte are another holdover from Bakery on Grand—poached eggs submerged in truffle cream sauce, flecked with bits of ham, and topped with squares of puff pastry like throw pillows on an overstuffed couch. It's the sort of dish that could kill you, sure, but at least you'd die happy.

The cafe serves lunch, too, which bears the quality of brunch and dinner without the crowds. Early one afternoon, my party was the only table in the place, which made it easier to pretend the cafe was my living room, and Radle, in the back, our personal chef. The Reuben sandwich reprises the house-cured corned beef from the breakfast hash, which is so tender it seems it would crumble apart if it weren't bound together with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and mustard aioli. The Cuban-style sandwich layers pork confit (from the huevos) and Italian ham (from the coquette) with a spicy pickle relish. Again, it's the details that make it delicious: The meats are seared so the shredded pork and thin-sliced ham are crisp on the edges; the bread is baked in-house; the clove-tinged pickle wedge is the handiwork of sous chef Benjamin Pichler (pronounced "pickler"), based on a family recipe. The meal's one misfire, an open-face beef sandwich, shows that the devil is in the details, too. The combination of Thousand Hills beef, red peppers, onions, and cream cheese should have been a winner, but when I tried it, the meat was tough and liver-like, and the bread tasted acrid, like the fat it had been grilled with had gone rancid.

With some things, time is an enemy, but with the Grand, I think it is an asset. As the cafe takes on the patina of age, its rustic qualities—the thick slices of meat, the mismatched rummage-shop dishes—feel elegant. Signs of wear don't seem sloppy but honest, like a wooden bench that's worn with rump prints. When the Hunters moved in, they hung a local artist's painting on the cafe's north wall, a visual expression of this ethos. The work is a boldly brushed impression of two waitresses setting a table, a mundane act transformed into an extraordinary one of devotion to craft and human connection.

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Grand Cafe

3804 Grand Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55409


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