Nowhere but Here
2307 Riverside Ave., Minneapolis; (612) 333-5692
Hours: Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Saturday 9:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Sunday 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.
Remember Bali Hai? Remember that bizarre underground Polynesian pleasure palace replete with tiki masks, bamboo bridges, and a near-nightly hula and comedy floor show? Well, remember it to your heart's content because the place has been bulldozed, replaced with a mallish spread of retail including--you saw this coming, right?--a Starbucks. I kinda, sorta knew this was coming. (The way the place bolted its doors and stopped answering the phone a year and a half ago tipped me off.) But mostly I had been in denial: It's not possible that the world would prefer curvilinear countertops to clamshell waterfalls, right? Maplewood wouldn't rather have new Milder Dimensions coffees more than flaming drinks with two-foot straws, would it? In some ways, I'm glad it was Starbucks that done it: It's such an easy, telegraphically neat cliché.
I guess it's not all bad that Bali Hai is gone. It lets me devote more time to being in denial over the coming need for all citizens to carry satellite transmitters and GPS devices so we can tell where we are as we ricochet around a landscape of such repetitive sameness that Maplewood, Minnesota, and Maplewood, New Jersey, become indistinguishable.
This all occurred to me sitting at a table in the window of Melody Livingston's Cedar-Riverside coffee shop-cum-hair and tanning salon-cum-ice-cream parlor, a place with such a dramatic Minnesotan sense of place it's like the sound of a thresher heard through a lady's slipper. It's got such an outstate feel: Casual, lefty, unstylish, inexpensive, good-hearted. It opened a year ago, when Minneapolis native Livingston realized that the hair salon she had run for 18 years in that same building was doomed to economic obsolescence. "It had gotten to the point where I either had to upgrade and put the word spa in there and charge $40 for a haircut, or become part of a chain," she says. "Neighborhood beauty salons are a thing of the past now. And I didn't want to do either. I fought against that my whole life."
So Livingston ripped out all of her haircutting chairs save one, took the makeup out of the display case and instead replaced it with pastries, took the shampoos off the shelves and replaced them with handmade jewelry and pottery, bought a cappuccino machine and an industrial ice-cream maker, and called the place a coffee shop.
Of course, there were pitfalls. For one thing, Livingston knew she wanted to make ice cream from locally produced milk, but she had no idea how to do it. So she connected with Minnesota Organic Milk, a 28-cow herd and dairy based in Gibbon, Minnesota, and got them to deliver cream and ice-cream base to her coffee shop. Then she started experimenting: "It took me all last summer to figure it out. We ruined so many batches. One time we made chocolate butter. It was absolutely the ugliest thing you've ever seen--slimy, terrible." Now she has the hang of it, though, and you can reliably find two flavors on hand: Vanilla and chocolate. You can order a little dish of the stuff straight up in a cup; on a sugar or cake cone ($2-$2.50); resting on a brownie or a warmed apple dumpling; in a sundae with espresso; or floating in a glass of Sprecher root beer, Sprecher cream soda, Jackie D's strawberry soda, Buddy's orange or grape soda, or Italian soda ($3.50).
That ice cream, sold for $7 a pound at the counter, is, Livingston claims, the only certified organic, Minnesota-grown ice cream available in the state. She makes it now every week, and it has a distinctly clean, fresh taste to it. In the vanilla ice cream, you taste the vanilla like a shadow of spice running through pure, pure milk. The chocolate tastes old-fashioned, in an unadorned, pre-imported-Belgian-chocolate-chunk way. Livingston's ice cream is nowhere near as gooey and creamy as a pint of super-premium grocery-store ice cream. It's also not as rich, mouth-coating, and luxurious as the other single-herd ice cream I know of, Pam and Dick Bowne's Gemini Guernsey ice cream, available at the Minneapolis Farmer's Market. I suppose that's because the milk that Livingston uses isn't as rich in butterfat as that which comes from Guernsey cows. And while the first thing that hits you is that Livingston's ice cream isn't overpoweringly buttery, the next thing that leaps forward is how incomparably fresh it tastes, with all the background of perfumes and flavors that come from the freshest milk. You can almost, almost smell clover, rain, and humid spring air in it. It's something that everyone should try at least once, it seems so evocatively historical. And it's good.
If you come out of your ice-cream experience still craving more butterfat, by all means consider the moment golden for sampling one of Livingston's to-die-for Danish or turnovers. These Danish ($2) are amazing, made with an airy yeast dough threaded with cinnamon. I think this is the only Danish I've ever had where the pastry is as good as the topping, and this is really good topping: whole, baked sour cherries, salty cream cheese that tastes, again, incredibly fresh and real. Even the sugary drizzle that unites the different regions is good. As an avowed Danish pooh-pooher, I can now attest that I have seen the light. This sour-cherry Danish has explained to me, for the very first time, why people would ever eat a Danish: They're simply remembering or imagining one like this. The blueberry turnover ($2) is also excellent, bubbly and misshapen as it is, but nowhere near as pretty. Here a flaky pastry unites fresh, whole, baked blueberries and cream cheese. I had thought the highest attainment a blueberry could achieve to was life in a muffin from a certain inn in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Now I see a rival path of
Sad to say, not all the pastries here are wonderful. I sampled an icky piece of cherry pie ($2) that was cornstarchy and gummy. And I have to come out against the crazy, ten-inch-long, four-inch-wide biscotti ($2), a boomerang-size slice of that Italian, twice-baked cookie that, here, is iced with chocolate and coated with powdered sugar. I just can't handle the thing; it tastes fine, but it's so big it's unseemly, like one of those five-pound, eat-it-all-and-get-it-for-free steaks. Melody Livingston doesn't care, though; she has handpicked all the pastries in her case, from small bakers she admires.
Most of the baked treats, including the amazing Danish and turnovers, come from A Baker's Wife, a south Minneapolis business too small to make deliveries. Livingston also picks up her whole wheat, lumpen, utterly old-fashioned apple dumplings ($2.75) from a "grandma with a stand and an orchard" on Highway 169.
And Livingston prides herself on relationships like the one with the apple-dumpling lady. For example, she gets her coffee from a family farm in Mexico. It came about one day when a brother from the farm came into the coffee shop and explained how the family roasted the coffee beans over a fire made from the trimmings from the coffee plants. As soon as she got a taste of the well-balanced, smooth coffee, Livingston says she knew she had to have it. "That's what I believe in, buying products right from the hands of the people who baked them, the people who picked them," she says. "It feels so empowering to be able to do that, to not pay a middleman and make sure that everyone's getting a fair price for what they do. Do you realize you have to pick one coffee bean at a time? That's how coffee's harvested, and they get paid squat--except my guys. I just don't think it's right. It's like today, there's two economies, one for the worker bees who do all the work, and another one where people make money almost magically. I'm with the old economy, I'm sitting here working, working, working, and all these young kids just went zoom ahead of me. There's a lot of anger in society about it."
If you're in a mood for a good dose of such homespun wisdom, my advice is to grab an ice-cream soda or a cup of coffee--priced from a $1 a cup for eight ounces of plain-brewed java to $2.95 for a 16-ounce organic-milk latte--and settle in at the door to Livingston's hair salon and eavesdrop as she spars with the handful of longtime clients she's kept trimmed for the last two decades. One afternoon I got to hear a failed romance dissected, complete with bitter punch lines and raucous laughter. Soon enough, another local hobbled in on her cane, and was greeted with a shout of "You're walking! Wow! Good for you!" As I sat there watching the leggy houseplants rattle in the wake of trucks rumbling down Riverside Avenue, my great-grandma-style farm-fresh ice cream dissolving in my great-grandma-style, Wisconsin-raw-honey-infused root beer, I was overcome with that rarest of contemporary feelings: This was unmistakably nowhere but here.
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