Restaurant Alma's starters and sweets are a steal for less than $12

To kick off 2012, we're highlighting 12 of the best dishes under $12 in the Twin Cities. Scroll down to view the complete list.

It's a chilly January evening, but the soft yellow walls, honey-colored wood, and blond exposed brick at Restaurant Alma make it feel warm and cozy. We're sitting at the bar chatting with owner and executive chef Alex Roberts, but we can't help notice the man sitting a few seats away.

He's sipping a glass of red and lingering over a plate of food, which is nothing particularly out of the ordinary--except that he's Bryan Morcom, the chef de cuisine, and this is his night off.

So what on earth is he doing here? It doesn't seem like a social visit--he's not chumming around with his colleagues--and he's certainly not working. Is he spying on the crew? Or kissing up to the boss?

Roberts smiles and says, "We encourage our cooks to sit down and eat whole dishes--better yet, get a table in the dining room and have a glass of wine."

When seasoning a dish, he explains, the temptation is to sample a single spoonful and then adjust accordingly (something he refers to as "one-bite seasoning"). The levels may be perfect for the first bite, but over the course of an entire entrée, could become excessively rich or salty. By experiencing a full meal, chefs better understand how to calibrate and create balance.

It's an insightful and thoughtful approach, and indicative of the way Roberts runs his businesses: Restaurant Alma, Brasa Minneapolis, and Brasa St. Paul. Having spent time in New York (at Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Bouley, and Brooklyn's Cucina) as well as abroad, Roberts is well-traveled and a serious student of cuisine. But he's also extremely down-to-earth--a guy you'd gladly grab a beer with. And even though he's the James Beard Foundation's 2010 Best Chef Midwest, we doubt he'd ever go Ron Burgundy on us: "I don't know how to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal."

But perhaps most notably, he has an incredible respect for food. Roberts' menu--which changes every six to eight weeks--is stocked with local, organic, and sustainable ingredients. But he makes room for other products as well: "I want to serve local food, but I also want to support artisanal ingredients--like Parmigiano-Reggiano, marcona almonds, pimentón from Spain. We don't make those things here, and I want to make sure those traditions stay alive. As a chef, I think that's important."

By remaining true to culinary customs, Roberts also pays homage to the people who call them their own. "That's a big part of my cooking," he says. "I want people to feel honored." A while back he was featuring a kimchi and fish dish, as well as another entrée with sesame oil, garlic, and pickled items. A group of heart surgeons from Korea was visiting Medtronic and happened to come into the restaurant. "They appreciated the use of the ingredients," Roberts remembers. "I was really happy they picked up on it. They thought it was complementary, but didn't downgrade their food--and it was so interesting to see it in Minnesota."

But for Roberts, tapping into cultural equities doesn't necessarily mean adhering to rigid standards. Take for example his vegetarian Masa Corn Crêpe--which we're happy to say fits our $12-and-under budget. "It's not a traditional dish, but really honors a tradition," he says. "And the combination isn't too far out."

Roberts begins by making a crêpe with masa flour and then turns his attention to the filling: poblano rajas.

He roasts and chars poblanos over the burner and sautees onions until they barely begin to caramelize. The vegetables are combined, and he folds in a bit of house-made crème fraiche, marjoram, and oregano.

The mixture is spooned into the crêpe, which is then topped with petit basque cheese, chives, and cranberry beans. The rajas have a nice peppery and slightly sweet onion flavor, without being too spicy or creamy. And they go beautifully with the cheese--which is made of sheep's milk, like Manchego, but tastes milder.

"It's almost like a piece of pizza--it's kind of funny," says Roberts. "It has strong Spanish influences and Mexican flavors, however it's not traditional anywhere. But if someone who grew up on rajas quesadillas ate it, I think they would say, 'This is my food.'"

Another evolved classic appears on the dessert menu (which is $8 across the board), courtesy of Roberts's pastry chef, Ann Bridges. Bridges recently joined Restaurant Alma from D'Amico and several of the Bartmann houses (e.g., Red Stag Supperclub, Barbette).

Her Sweet Potato Soufflé is baked in a fanciful bowl of phyllo dough, layered with butter and sugar. It's then paired with a puree of fresh cranberries, a goat's milk and brown sugar glaze, and ice cream spiked with Grand Marnier.

The airy soufflé and crispy thin phyllo come together in delicate harmony and are accented with the sweet ice cream, tart cranberries, and caramelly glaze. It's delectably exquisite.

And to officially add another item to our list of $12 or less, we are selecting yet another soufflé--but this time it's savory: the Chard Soufflé with Smoked Portobello, Crème Fraiche, and Jalapeño.

Despite the periodic menu changes, soufflés commonly appear as starters. But when Roberts is working with vegetables, he uses a markedly different approach than the sweet treat we just devoured. A traditional French soufflé (similar to our dessert) would have more cream, fewer vegetables, and perhaps more egg/egg white. But for the Chard Soufflé, Roberts relies on the Italian technique, which typically calls for béchamel, more vegetables, and less egg/egg white. It's still soft and tender, but doesn't have the stereotypical "poof."

The benefit of the Italian version--referred to as "sformato"--is that it tends to amplify, rather than dilute, the primary element. "Let's not make a vegetable that doesn't taste like a vegetable," Roberts says. "If it's chard, I want to enhance its chardness."

To make the soufflé, he begins by blanching the chard and sautéing it with shallots and butter. Then it's combined with béchamel, porcinis, and a semi-soft cheese (fontina). The yolks and beaten whites are added. And finally, it's plated with a sauce comprised of guajillo chiles and tomatoes.

The earthy and nutty notes from the mushrooms and cheese are seemingly suspended among individual bits of chard, with an underlying smokiness from the chiles and tomatoes. It's extremely fragile and light, but somehow still manages to be satiating and meaty--a truly extraordinary blend of texture and flavor.

In the world of food, tradition can be applied in many forms. It can range from classic to modern, or lie along a spectrum of fusion. But regardless of how it's employed, the sheer act of utilizing it is a tribute and sign of respect--to its culture as well as its people.

Top 12 dishes under $12 112 Eatery: Tagliatelle with Foie Gras Meatballs Bar La Grassa: Gnocchi with Cauliflower and Orange Haute Dish: Biscuits and Gravy Heartland: Cheese Course La Belle Vie: Pappardelle with Rabbit Bolognese Lucia's: Farmers' Salad Meritage: Crispy Roasted Chicken Thighs Piccolo: Scrambled Brown Eggs with Pickled Pig's Feet Restaurant Alma: Chard Soufflé Saffron: Fried Cauliflower and Slow-Cooked Green Beans Sea Change: Arctic Char Tilia: Potted Meat

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Restaurant Alma

528 University Ave. SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414


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