Jack's and People's Organic cafes reviewed

It's not just joe at Jack's: The pesto fettuccine

It's not just joe at Jack's: The pesto fettuccine

Coffee culture is said to be evolving in waves. The first breaker washed its coppery crest over the United States and made coffee drinking commonplace: a can of Folgers in every pantry. The second wave, for which Starbucks likes to take credit, though it was actually predated by Peet's, saw the darker hue of espresso-based drinks that seemed to proliferate as fast as the coffeehouses themselves. Today's third wave positions coffee like wine—an artisanal foodstuff, with beans sourced from individual farms and brewed to highlight their specific flavor characteristics.

Here in the Twin Cities, a fourth coffee wave is already upon us, based on the concept that the beverage is powerful enough to spawn its own restaurants. Lynn Gordon, founder of the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe and an early adopter of sustainable eating, recently expanded into the organic, fair-trade coffee business, and after collaborating with European Roasterie to create the People's Organic Coffee brand, she opened a café and wine bar of the same name in Edina's Galleria shopping center.

Following French Meadow's expansion into several airport-based locations across the country, People's represents Gordon's third variation on a chic, eco-conscious theme. The new cafe's counter-service setup and modest pricing echo Meadow's casual vibe, but the environment feels more sophisticated. Where Gordon built Meadow on a tight budget—"I bought chairs for $2 and grouted the floors myself," she recalls—a team of investors made possible People's lovely aesthetic details, including artist-designed vessels and a colorful, hand-cut tile bar. The interior design, which Gordon developed with the help of Shea, combines mossy green hues with royal purples and a few black-and-white photos of global coffee workers that might make the comfortable a little less so.

People's can provide the day's first caffeinated eye-opener at 6 a.m. but also stays open into late evening for a final wind-down with a glass of wine. Busy retail workers dash in for quick takeout lunches, but there's enough space for mom to park the pram, set down the Pottery Barn bag, and catch up on email while baby takes a nap.

People's signature beverage appears in several specialty drinks, including a Caramel Sea Salt Latte that takes some getting used to. Coffee may be combined with dairy alternatives like hemp and almond milks, and tea comes in pots so enormous that some of the wispy staffers struggle to heft them onto the table. There is also a nice selection of local craft beers on tap and several biodynamic wines.

Gordon has a background in macrobiotic cooking, so People's menu of prepared and made-to-order foods has a healthful focus, with many vegetarian and vegan options. The cafe is an easy place to stick with your diet—the mostly egg-white "zone" omelet, for starters—or blow it, with a grass-fed-beef cheeseburger or fabulous tumbler of raspberry panna cotta. It's perfect for diners who like to conserve calories with a salad, then splurge on dessert.

For those trying to work more whole grains into their diet, People's offers spelt porridge—and no, you don't have to know exactly what it is to enjoy it. The wheat-like species is reminiscent of oatmeal, with a nuttier flavor and creamier, stickier mouthfeel. Order it topped with fresh or dried fruit, cinnamon and sugar, or, better yet, thick shards of caramelized coconut.

Among the sandwich offerings, there's a mayonnaise-less curried chicken salad on a buttery croissant and a gooey veggie burger that would be better without its tofu/sundried tomato spread. But the dish closest to a dinner entrée, a moist, parchment-wrapped wild salmon with ginger and tamari, is among the cafe's best. Unfortunately, when I ordered the plate, an inattentive employee had scooped a handful of spring mix without checking its freshness—my side salad was riddled with slimy, decaying greenery clumps. Gordon wouldn't have lasted decades in the restaurant business without a focus on details and careful intentionality, but maintaining a strict quality control with an ever-expanding staff may be the growth-minded restaurateur's ultimate challenge.

Gordon had to relax her ideals a bit to accommodate the tastes of her Galleria clientele—the Diet Coke addicts complained loudly enough that she recently started carrying mass-market soft drinks. But People's is largely an evolved version of the typical shopping mall's food-court offerings, and its whole, fresh foods are a civilized alternative.

LAST FALL, the former Java Jack's coffee shop at 46th and Bryant in south Minneapolis dropped the drink reference in its name and expanded its food offerings. After Rustica bakery left the space it shared with Java Jack's and decamped for the shores of Lake Calhoun, the coffee shop's owners decided to reboot. While the coffee business did well during daytime hours, the concept was hampered by low check averages and a lack of evening business.

Jack's joins several new neighborhood restaurants that have cropped up all over the city's underserved southwest quadrant in the past few years. Café Maude carved out a somewhat upscale niche with its full liquor license and live music. Kings went for a more community-oriented, beatnik vibe. And Jack's chose to focus on families, which make up one of the largest demographics in the area.

The space looks mostly the same. The outsize windows are as lovely as ever, and tall-backed, olive-colored banquettes on each end of the room contribute to a slightly more formal ambiance. Java Jack's previous collection of afternoon coffee sippers has mostly cleared out, and the space seems a little less buzzing. But for all the hours those folks spent hunched over laptops or newspapers, the modest revenue they generated for the shop might not be missed.

Jack's isn't trying to compete with the neighboring foodie temples Piccolo and Corner Table, but is going for meals that are more accessible and affordably priced. Chef Stephanie Hedrick, a veteran of Table of Contents, the Independent, and the Sample Room, among other restaurants, focuses on scratch-made, American comfort foods, from cheese curds with buttermilk-dill dipping sauce to silky butternut squash soup.

On the homey end of the spectrum, there's house-made linguini topped with a tender, braised meatball the size of a tennis ball. The simple red sauce has a nice depth—Hedrick credits the humble green pepper—and makes a comforting dip for the sweet, soft breadsticks. For something fancier, Hedrick was serving sockeye salmon with blue-cheese risotto in a modest portion appropriate for its $17 price, but has recently replaced the fish with scallops.

One of the most lovable things about Hedrick's menu at Jack's is her liberal use of raw kale, despite the challenges of selling it to an audience outside of, say, Berkeley, California. Hedrick chiffonades the leaves, blends them with other greens, and dresses them with something so zippy that diners hardly realize they've been tricked into healthful eating. The vegetable has a texture and heft suited to the season—Hedrick calls it "stick-to-your-bones salad," if such a thing is possible.

The kale is found in a hearty, wild rice-stocked Farmer's Pantry Salad and accompanying a curried vegetable pasty. The latter version comes drizzled with a sharp, addictive blend of yogurt, dill, tahini, cumin, and garlic (remember that recipe come CSA season). It's a rare chef who dares to serve raw kale for breakfast and convinces her diners to like it.

The Mason Butternut Squash Pie might have been ripped from the pages of Martha Stewart Living for its cute, country allure. The squash custard, which tastes rather like soft pumpkin pie filling, is served in a mason jar, garnished with soft cream, candied pecans, and tiny crust pinwheels. And aw, gee shucks, is it good.

Pastry chef Joanna Biessener makes Jack's morning baked goods in addition to the desserts. Her éclairs are fine, but she's probably better off sticking with scones and banana bread than trying to compete with the offerings of the nearby Patisserie 46 French pastry shop. At 11 a.m. on weekends the kitchen offers full brunch service. While Hedrick's egg bakes and pancakes are good, they're not so different from what a decent home cook might serve. But Biessener's pillowy, cream cheese frosting-topped cinnamon rolls could easily go head to head with the standard bearers at Isles Bun and Coffee. They're certainly worth trekking on over for, even if that means getting everybody's hair combed, jackets zipped, and boots rustled up.