Pretty on the Inside
Bakery on Grand
3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
Have you ever been to a little kids' soccer game, I mean really little kids, the kind that forget which side they're supposed to be kicking the ball toward, and maybe some of the kids kick the ball the wrong way, one starts to cry because people are yelling, a few start playing tag, and one lies down and blows spit bubbles? That was, generally, the way that Bakery on Grand opened. The restaurant was supposed to be a humble French country kitchen, the kind that roasted legs of lamb in the bread oven and served everyday people real food at everyday prices, and it got plenty of advance publicity as such. The neighborhood was delighted.
When it opened, however, it did no such thing. Instead, it seemed to change menus and ratchet up its ambitions hourly, and took to serving preposterously overdone French haute cuisine dishes that it had no real ability to pull off, alongside exorbitantly priced bottles of wine. Servers seemed generally either perturbed or perplexed by customers' inconvenient and grasping interruption of otherwise absorbing lives of the mind. The neighborhood was appalled.
Time passed. A sister restaurant, Au Rebours, opened in St. Paul, and the sisterly relationship was subsequently severed. (Nowadays Au Rebours and Bakery on Grand have only their bread in common.) More time passed. Now Bakery on Grand is finally fulfilling its mission: good, simple French country food, at everyday prices. The neighborhood has no idea.
Which has been nice for me, because I've been able to waltz right in and get a table anytime I've wanted this fall, and when I've done so I've enjoyed some lovely meals. One night the highlights were a butter lettuce salad dressed with a silky vinaigrette, pretty golden fried oysters discreetly touched with a Champagne beurre blanc, and cassoulet as rich, various, and comforting as a snowy French farm seen from a fireside window. One morning I lost track of conversation as I contemplated which was more delicious, my salty, rich, creamy eggs en cocotte, baked in a bowl with chunks of ham and truffle cream, topped with a lid of brioche and melted Gruyère cheese, or my still-warm apple galette, its cinnamon-apple slices clinging to the bits of crisp butter pastry which had been folded around them. (Yes, I had an apple galette for breakfast. They were pulling them out of the oven, and who could resist?)
Most memorable, however, was a Sunday night prix fixe, during which $28 nets you three courses: soup or salad, appetizer, and main dish. The soup, of long-roasted beets perked up with a spot of crème fraîche and given texture with a sprinkling of toasted squash seeds, was perfectly understated. A pork and duck pâté studded with bright green pistachios and dark dried cherries was light from being just made, sweet from the pork, deep from the liver, subtly spiced, and constantly amusing with the buried bits of nut and fruit. Never do I taste such a nice pâté without contemplating what a triumph of human art and ingenuity it is over the ever-present trouble of leftover ends and bits.
Slices of intense hanger steak were paired with an equally robust red wine reduction, and given a softening frame by mild, buttery mashed potatoes. And then there was the duck. The duck! Roasted until it was black as pudding, as tender as a brownie, and just as rich; perfumed with orange and given a distinct bit of fire with black pepper, paired with a squash puree of almost distracting concentration, it was an absolutely wonderful concoction, a bit like eating a romantic fireside midnight.
By the time my little group did damage to a butterscotch pudding and layers of different chocolate cakes and mousses piled into a double truffle torte tower, everyone was exclaiming that it was one of the nicest meals had in south Minneapolis in modern memory. Now, if you live in south Minneapolis, you are probably reading this with deep skepticism, but I think you might consider giving the place another go: Bakery on Grand has become much better than you, your neighbors, or your friends think it is.
What's behind the big change? Simplicity, mainly. The restaurant has become extraordinarily simple. It's simple in its staffing: They run now on a skeleton crew of less than half as many people as once worked there, and all the front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house management is done by the head chef, Andrew Zachow, who also cooks six nights a week. Zachow has distilled almost all the menu to utterly French country scratch cooking.
Consider his roast duck. While many fancy upscale restaurants simply buy shrink-wrapped duck breasts from their wholesaler, letting the farmer figure out what to do with the rest, Bakery on Grand takes dozens of whole birds. They stuff them with oranges and rosemary, splash them with red wine, and roast them in giant pans in the bread ovens for five hours. Then they pull them out, let them cool, pull the ducks apart, chill the pan juices, remove the fat, and, adding water and wine, return the stock base to the oven, to roast and reduce the sauce for a few more hours. Finally, they restore the duck to the pans of stock and roast them some more, until the skin of the duck becomes crisp. They use the endlessly roasted duck stock to make the sauce for the duck, and use what's left over to enrich soups. Such as one made of cannellini beans, butternut squash, and pieces of high-quality locally grown Berkshire pork, which they can afford to put into soup because they cut up their own pork sides to use in their house-made sausages, pâtés, Irish bacon, and more expensive pork entrees.
Now, if there happen to be any 18th-century French ghosts reading this column, I'm sure they are now smacking their heads and crying, Zut alors! How else would you cook? But the reality of life in Minnesota today is that only a very few local kitchens cook this way. (Heartland and W.A. Frost in St. Paul are exceptions that come to mind.) Why? Two reasons: One, the labor investment is enormous. It's far cheaper for a restaurant to let some immigrant working for minimum wage in a rural Minnesota meat-packing plant piece out the premium meat, shrink-wrap it, freeze it, and send the other bits to various sausage companies and livestock-feed operations. Then all your $18-an-hour guy in chef whites has to do is cook the meat to order and whip up a (usually regrettable) sauce using canned or powdered stock.
The second reason that most restaurants don't cook this way is because they can't. Many, many independent restaurants operate with kitchens only about two or three times the size of an average home kitchen, and even if they wanted to roast 30 ducks for, say, cumulatively eight hours, either there wouldn't be anywhere to do it, or they wouldn't be able to do anything else. Of course, the difference in taste between a dish made with real stock and meat roasted for eight hours and one made with the typical frozen plus canned junk can't be calculated. And I, personally, find the "everything but the squeal," or in this case, the "everything but the quack" approach more spiritually and macro-economically appealing as well.
It should appeal to you on a micro-economic level. The reason Bakery on Grand can afford to sell this duck as part of a $28 prix fixe meal is because the economics of making it are so thrifty. In fact, the restaurant could afford to be far thriftier: In France, you'd probably get about half or a third as much duck as Bakery on Grand serves.
Speaking of France, one reason I am more agog over this style of cooking than I might be ordinarily was that I got to travel to Paris in September, and had one completely mind-altering meal at super-super-superstar chef Alain Ducasse's French country restaurant Aux Lyonnais. And as I feasted on great bread, cheese, trout, and various "everything but the quack" dishes like blood sausage and super-fancy coddled eggs, I couldn't help but notice that the products of the northern French farm are in fact nearly identical to the products of the upper Midwestern farm.
So why are we so egg-phobic around here? On another Parisian night I spent more than $20 on a martini glass filled with another superstar chef's oeuf cocotte with mushroom cream (at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon). $20! An egg! A divine, delightful, surpassingly wondrous egg. But it makes you wonder, Why does gas-preserved red-tuna mush star on so many Minnesota appetizer lists, and eggs on almost none? Don't even get me started on duck eggs. Truly, I have no idea why, in the land of 14,000 lakes, where almost every farm has a pond, and domesticated ducks are far easier to raise than, say, our ever-present ostriches, it is child's play to find fresh Chilean sea-urchin reproductive organs, and nearly impossible to buy a fresh duck egg. (That's what the uni in sushi bars is, darlings; aren't you glad this isn't a sushi article?)
But I digress. Okay, I digress wildly. But my point is that northern French farm foods--mainly dairy, poultry, eggs, pork, root vegetables, greens, nuts, apples, grains, and, occasionally, beef--are essentially Minnesota farm foods, and Bakery on Grand is right now one of the only places exploring that natural connection.
Speaking of eggs, and grain, and dairy, I am happy to report that Bakery on Grand's pastries, by Amanda Leopold, are as good as they ever were. And the breads, by Jeffrey Truman Olsen, are better than they've ever been. Leopold has a particular facility with meringues and whimsical cookies: One time I had big, cakey, domelike pumpkin cookies fastened together into sandwiches with rich cream cheese frosting; they were cute as cupcakes, but with just enough savory pie spice to keep an adult's attention. Her pine-nut cookies, in which the pale nuts are packed onto a rich, sticky almond paste base, are positively lovable. With dinner I tried a few remarkable desserts, including a cheerful chocolate Pavlova, an airy, crispy dark cocoa meringue filled with a gooey, rich patty of chocolate ganache, topped with a scoop of fresh strawberries in strawberry sauce, and finally playfully crowned with peaks of whipped cream.
Olsen's baguettes were always good, but they have improved remarkably over even that high standard. Now their russety crusts seem to segment into layers, protecting the light but big-tasting bready interior from intrusion from the external world of dehydration and other such depredations. When you crack one open it has a truly excellent combination of light and crisp. His country boule, made with 25 percent rye flour, has both a gorgeous weight and a hearty, nuanced, profoundly developed flavor. The giant bread plate that accompanies dinner could be considered a course on its own.
The last element of Bakery on Grand I'll single out for praise will be the wine list, which is now engineered by Johnny Imgrund, who's also a main night server. The list is global, and singularly chosen to complement the dishes that the restaurant actually serves. They've got $24 bottles of good French Muscadet or $29 bottles of white Graves to pair with shellfish, rose-scented red Lirac by the glass for appetizers touched with winter fruits, and, somehow, affordable Grand Cru St. Emilion for those wanting to dine like royalty in the humble bakeries of south Minneapolis. The list is clearly the product of someone who has been answering the question, "And what goes with this? And what goes with this?" 20 times a night for years.
It definitely seems as though one of the things Bakery on Grand lost in its new incarnation, along with the attitude, was any form of ego. I spoke on the telephone with both head chef Andrew Zachow and sous-chef Gerard Boissy for this story, and what was remarkable was that each spent the majority of his interview trying to give credit to the other and to the rest of the staff.
"We've got a really good mix of people now; in the bad old days we were kind of running out of control, but in the last couple of months its grown into a place where I really love the people I work with, we try to have fun," says Zachow. "I think we recognize that every little part of the house is as important as any other part of the house. I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn't do myself, and I think lately, even if we're all misfits, there's a high level of trust between us, and we have a lot of fun."
Have you ever been to a soccer game not played by very, very little kids? If so, I think you get the idea.
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