Le Town Talk Diner Only Halfway Revives a Longfellow Institution

Chicken and ratatouille at Le Town Talk

Chicken and ratatouille at Le Town Talk

We can likely all agree that letting the Town Talk Diner space on Lake Street remain empty for this long has been an act of local restaurant sacrilege.

So while it's great that someone stepped forward to revive this kitschy spot and metaphorically accessorize it with a jaunty chapeau, it also means that for new owners Emilie Cellai and her husband, Ben Johnson, winning over the audience of customers who remember the original Town Talk with a glittery glaze of nostalgia will be as challenging as sneaking a look-alike replacement into a band after its original frontman leaves for rehab.

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It's not that they've radically overhauled the setting or even the feel of this space. The now-iconic marquee-style sign still lights up this swath of Longfellow. The entryway bar area, with its low-slung, intimate seating, clear view of the top-shelf liquor selection, and access to charming, chatty bartenders, continues faithfully. What has really changed in the years since the original Town Talk Diner closed is that literally dozens and dozens of great restaurants have planted and bloomed in other neighborhoods all over Minneapolis, while this area has struggled to keep up.

But here's the good news about Le Town Talk: The wonderful, well-informed, entertaining servers and the cozy, while-the-afternoon-away style of hospitality that they foster, absolutely remains. That's not a small thing. Sure, there may not be bacon-washed bourbon Manhattans (likely the main thing that was bemoaned when the original TT closed). Instead, drinks all fall into that sort of floaty, feminine category, which is appropriately French.

Many signature cocktails are served in small, elegant coupe glasses, like the P.S. I Love You, a verbena and gin concoction with a slightly vegetal edge from cucumbers. Myriad other drinks arrive in slender Champagne flutes, like the delicate and floral French Blonde, a subtle mingling of trendy Lillet, grapefruit, gin, and St. Germain.

What very frankly needs some of that signature French refinement is the food. We appreciate the concise, smartly planned menu, and though many dishes had good concepts, such as the brandade hot dish, just as many dishes on the menu were poorly executed — such as the brandade hot dish. What seemed, in description, to be a mingling of Mediterranean sensibility and Midwestern tradition, ended up tasting like a pile of odd, cheese-covered leftovers. We loved the idea of the salty, creamy, tomato-sauce laden layers on the bottom and the cold, cucumber panzanella on top for texture. But what happens from kitchen to table is that the huge, rough-cut cukes become rubbery and sodden, and though the first few bites were deemed interesting, the remainder was a salty, mismatched dish. Cheese and fish have almost never worked well together, and this is no exception.

Similarly problematic in the hot-and-cold setup were the mushroom gougeres with mustard cream sauce. The pastry itself was lovely, puffy and cheesy as it should be, and the fungi duxelle inside was tinged with thyme. But the mustard cream was less like a bechamel-based concoction or a warm pan sauce, and instead closer to a slightly savory, softly set whipped cream — cold and with very little mustard sharpness to be had.

The misses unfortunately continued with LTT's boudin blanc — a house-made chicken and pork sausage with caramelized carrot puree and gritty braised mustard greens. As an entree or starter to share it is actually a fine square meal. The sausage itself had a good balance of coarse and soft grind meat to it and ineffable seasoning. But the obvious, teeth-clenching sandiness of the greens is what we took away from the dish. The skin-on, bone-in yogurt-marinated poulet with ratatouille was quite blackened, but the meat underneath incredibly moist and flavorful, so someone back in the kitchen is certainly concerned with taste, if not as much with the details.

This was most obvious with one of the least favored dishes at the table — the vol-au-vent — which confirms that one should be wary of anything that contains lobster and costs $12. Though both the chicken and lobster meat in the dish were nicely cooked, the kitchen-sink approach to the accoutrements was confounding. Bits of broccolini, parsley, and huge pieces of overcooked green pepper that had no business accompanying any of these ingredients swam around in a bland, beige-y sauce over a trio of pale puff-pastry rings. The price was nice for something containing lobster, but we would gladly pay more for a fishy dish with more finesse.

Dishes that worked tended to be the ones that are hard to screw up in any circumstance: steak frites with maitre d' butter melted in the mouth for a very reasonable $22, and the large-cut steak tartare flavored with a bit of Korean gochujang and topped with raw egg yolk did the job (though a traditional French take would have been perfectly at home in this context). Surprisingly, we preferred the simple starter of shaved carrot salad seasoned with warm, subtle Moroccan spices, mint, chili, and golden raisins.

Overall brunch is a much safer bet here food-wise, though LTT's version of a Bloody Mary, misleadingly titled El Diablo, was quite watered down. We had better luck with the sweeter-leaning entrees like the French toast cake, which changes in prep weekend to weekend. On this particular turn, the chef took a very American cue from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, working the battered bread atop a smear of lightened peanut butter, crushed nuts, maple syrup, and homemade berry jam to make a sophisticated kids' dream.

The simple, eggy sweet crepe, filled with jam and topped with powdered sugar, was also a win, if a little on the thick side. The NYC-inspired gravlax sandwich was another textural mess. Bagel chips were promised but never delivered within the mix of cubes of cured salmon and too-thick, too-salty mayonnaise-based sauce. Undoubtedly the gem of the midday meal here is the Madame Benedict, an ingenious mash-up of a Croque Madame and a classic Benedict, with a pressed and fried until crisp Brioche base, spot-on Hollandaise, and a fried, instead of poached, farm fresh egg.

In its current state, Le Town Talk is an admirable revival that needs to pay closer attention to the details. Almost every dish is a good value, and the new LTT is undeniably still a fun place to hang out and feel taken care of. Perhaps the rustic meat cuts and the casualness of the execution are all part of the concept. Fine, but the je ne sais quoi needs to return for this revival to feel truly cemented.

Don't forget to check out the rest of our photos from Le Town Talk Diner...

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