Levain Unleavened

A work in progress: Levain's veal osso buco with pickled kumquat, Bhutanese red rice, and star anise
Sean Smuda
4762 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis

Success is a bedeviling concept. The things that constitute a successful day for a newly divorced mom with the flu, a surgeon in a field hospital in Afghanistan, or a field mouse are all very different, you know. Yet, as a restaurant critic, you--and by you I mean me--you are required to judge whether this or that establishment is successful, be it a pizza tiki bar, a neighborhood bistro, or one of the most expensive white-tablecloth restaurants in the state.

Imagining these different kinds of success with which to judge these different sorts of restaurants is a bedeviling process itself. So you come up with some rules that cut across issues of price, class, or what have you. For me, my one make-or-break question that I come back to every week is, did this place make me happy?

And so it was with increasing discomfort that I noted that I never left Levain feeling happy. Now, Levain should be very happy-making. The place is owned by Harvey McLain, whose work and integrity I have praised roundly in these pages over many years, as I think his bakery has some of the best breads in the country. The kitchen is headed by the wildly talented Stewart Woodman, who came to Minneapolis to raise a child with his wife, a Minnesota native, after a terrifically successful early career in New York City, where he was the opening sous-chef for Alain Ducasse's Essex House, executive chef at Zoë, and generally has a résumé the likes of which this town has never seen.

Dishes that Woodman sends out are sometimes of the highest imaginable quality. On a good day, the appetizer of duck foie gras torchon is as intense and balanced as possible. This dish ($15), made of a duck liver poached in Sauternes, ground, chilled, and served as a perfect pink circle on a wide, white plate near an oval of fig chutney, offers a beautiful study in elements that both enhance and entrance one another. The silk of the duck liver plays against the grainy elements of the fig, the fig brings out the fruitier qualities in the liver, the liver points to the gaminess of the fig, and you smear your torchon on your brioche toasts with oohs and ahs.

Lobster poached in butter and paired with cèpes and black trumpet mushrooms ($32) is a concoction of such expansive, ghostly subtlety that you feel that it might start to fog up and float from the plate as notes of the sweet sea and forest earth whisper to each other through the nutty pools of browned butter.

A snowy white pheasant poached in cream ($26) and resting on a bed of Napa cabbage, the whole of it topped with a scattering of fresh herbs, is another subtle triumph. Each bite of the fork-tender bird ushers in a whole realm of questions: Was this really what people ate in those country clubs in the 1930s? And if so, how lucky they were! Each bite is as if a meadow were made with cream.

The desserts, by Khanh Tran, are elegantly fanciful and show real talent. Tran makes a lemon soufflé ($10) served in a hollowed-out lemon rind that had such a heady lemon scent it was healing just to be near it. Lift a spoonful of the pale froth and it tastes clean and pure. A crème brulée was topped with grapefruit and surrounded by a dense caramel sugar cage. The brisk citrus and deep caramel were a perfect foil to the understated custard at the heart of the dish.

And yet, on a bad day at Levain, there is many a slip between cup and lip. An appetizer of sweetbreads ($12) had lingered so long before serving that what arrived was a ball of rubber bands resting on a congealed lump of port wine goo. The lovely torchon was one day made by someone who wasn't paying attention, and both liver and chutney reeked of wine that wasn't cooked off, and the alcohol note was like a badly played trumpet right by your ear.

I'd be very surprised if anyone in the kitchen had tasted the lamb shank I had one night that was as tender as a custard and looked utterly charming, surrounded as it was by tiny little carrots the size of spring peas, but which tasted as plain as boiled mutton. It seemed like it hadn't even been salted. I wondered if it was meant to go out like that, or was it just a casualty of the servers rushing back and forth and crashing into one another like they do? Either way, it made the $25 price tag sting.

When I visited Levain and was not recognized by the staff, the ratio of perfect dishes to poor was about 70-30 (although when I was recognized everything was nigh flawless). Which is enough problems to keep you nettled and on edge, and prevent you from ever slipping into any kind of reverie. And for me, once there is no reverie, price starts to loom larger and larger as a factor. And I can't help but think that at a restaurant where you can expect to spend 60 bucks a head, without beverages, and usually more like $80 or $100, the standards for success are higher.

That said, after enough lackluster meals I even grew to dislike the dining room at Levain. It is one big, spartan, candlelight-colored hall packed to the gills with white-tablecloth-covered tables and heavy chairs. It looks like the cafeteria of a monastery. It's uncomfortably crowded, and servers are usually jostling you or getting you to duck and bob while they do their thing. Whenever I visited in winter and the vestibule-free door to the street opened, the temperature in the dining room dropped 10 degrees. I spent two meals in my coat. This, too, detracted from the general reverie.

As did the stressful wine list. The list is short, expensive, and odd. It's populated by lots of well-known budget standbys, like Bonnie Doone's sprightly Pacific Rim Riesling, which I love to buy in stores for $10, but couldn't quite stomach to impress guests with at $41. Levain's strange list focuses mostly on very pronounced and concentrated varietal wines. However, it offers almost nothing in the realm of useful dinner wines under $50, things like white Burgundies or Pinot Noirs that work well across categories.

These wines are needed particularly because with Woodman's ever-changing menu you can expect at any one time to have on the table such a variety of flavors--from subtle cream foams to salty bacon baked oysters, and to sweet-and-hot Asian combinations--that wine pairing becomes a true headache. There are without doubt some great wines on the list, for example the Smith Wooton Cabernet Franc ($79) is a potent, chocolatey, figgy charm in a glass with more heady perfume to it than a carful of debutantes, but on one week's menu I counted maybe only one appetizer and two entrées that would go with it, so good luck putting that on a table for four.

Only four non-dessert wines are offered by the glass, and again, good luck pairing from that, especially as the two reds are a Cabernet Sauvignon and, of all things, a Malbec. I found acting as a host here to be exceptionally stressful because it is so difficult to find a wine for the table. Of course, I asked the servers for help, but they tended to have even worse ideas than I had.

In fact, when I wasn't recognized service was startled, addled, and generally unfamiliar with the point and habits of ushering guests through a meal. Questions about the wine were met with bafflement, plate auctions were routine, some diners' courses were left in the kitchen and forgotten, dirty silverware was returned to the diner or removed at random, and so on. In short, there was never any evidence of training. I had my dinner reservations mysteriously lost on two occasions. Bread-servers interrupted conversations routinely. I am forced to say that, with the exception of my last visit when I was abundantly recognized and worked with an old pro, a career fine-dining waiter who deeply understands how service is done, table service at Levain is almost exactly like the counter service at Turtle Bread. And it should be very different.

And so you--and by you I mean you--run the risk of paying $150 or $200 for your big birthday dinner while you sit in your coat, after they lost your reservation, while you are jostled by servers who left your entrée to chill in the window, and your only solace is an overpriced wine that goes with a quarter of the foods you've tried, and the knowledge that the chefs in the room are deeply talented.

As Daniel Boulud says in his recent book Letters to a Young Chef, people "only think that they come to a restaurant merely for the food." In fact, Boulud has concluded that we really go to restaurants for emotional well-being. For me, my well-being would be being better if Levain would get the front of the house together already.

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Cafe Levain

4762 Chicago Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55407


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