Café Barbette, 1600 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.827.5710
"Colonel Mustard is in the kitchen with a knife!" crackled the static-heavy answering-machine message from Café Barbette owner Kim Bartmann, before cutting out. Still, I didn't need another clue; there was only one thing it could mean. Landon Schoenefeld was back. From where? From the nowheresville purgatory of being an international-media joke of the day.
Now a quick Schoenefeldian recap, for those of you who spent early spring embroidering mailbox covers or polka dancing with lepers or whatever it is that people who are not reading this column do.
So, Landon Schoenefeld is the young chef who created the dining sensation of Minneapolis this past spring, in, of all places, a bar-bar called the Bulldog N.E. in Northeast. Why was it a sensation? The food was a dream: steak tartare as silky as satin, pork pâté as real as rent, salads as elegant as couture. How'd he do that? With his best friend and sous chef, and by working 24-hour days, catnapping in a cot in the storage closet with the whiskey bottles.
Then, one dark and fateful night, a bartender—and continual Schoenefeld irritant—attacked! He lunged at Schoenefeld with an order for a salad...with dressing on the side! Schoenefeld retaliated in kind, unleashing the fury of an improvised mustard device upon said bartender. So, he was promptly fired. This tale was picked up by City Pages, and, in turn, the echo chamber of international media, including, but not limited to, the daily version of that variety-section juggernaut News of the Weird.
When I heard Schoenefeld's mustard-capade used as a trivia question on the NPR quiz program Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, I felt as if I could picture a thought bubble arising over the food-loving noggin of all Minneapolis: Would this poor kid ever cook in this town—or anywhere—again?
Yup, he sure will: Schoenefeld has now been heading the kitchen at Café Barbette for about two months. Barbette, of course, is the all-day Uptown cafe that had become, paradoxically, both the heart and soul of Uptown, and a culinary also-ran. A distant also-ran. Happily, however, Schoenefeld isn't just cooking at Barbette, he's cooking memorably.
For instance, let us remember the gnocchi—actually, let us memorize the gnocchi. Elegant little pinches of potato as pale and golden as sunrise mist that catch between the teeth like tubby little bubbles—are you memorizing the gnocchi? I am. I saw them in two different guises, once in a light entree with rock shrimp ($10), and once, gorgeously, in a $15 lunch special. There they were, cozy beside the fat first green peas of spring nestled into a sort of cream sauce, with salt and depth coming from pitted bits of Nicoise olive.
But that wasn't all! The little darlings, tucked in with handfuls of fresh greens, supported a perfectly seared fillet of wild, rich, scarlet Copper River salmon. I know this combination of fish, olive, greens, and cream sounds suspect, but it was delicious in the most surprising way, with the meaty olives somehow uniting the dish along notes that were wild, gamy, and lush. It was so good I tried to order another plate, as if it were dessert, but sadly learned the kitchen had run out. Oh well, I'll be back.
I'll be back for lunch, because that's when the kitchen serves its remarkable cheeseburger, the "royale with cheese" ($9), a house-ground burger made through the same technique Schoenefeld perfected at Bulldog. Namely, he briefly cures the fresh meat with a generous amount of salt, peppercorns, and fresh thyme, then brushes off the cure, and puts the meat in the grinder. This carefully seasoned meat is seared hard and served on a toasted bun beneath a thick layer of creamy caramelized onions and gooey melted brie. Each bite is gooey, beefy, funky, craveable, and just enough too much, if you know what I mean. (If you're a burger fiend, you can also do a back-to-back comparison of the current Bulldog N.E. burgers and current Barbette burger—I did. The Barbette burger is my current favorite, as the last Bulldog N.E. burger I tried, in late May, struck me as both greasy and underseasoned.)
This burger is by no means the only must-order at Barbette for the meat-lover: At lunch, during happy hour, and at dinner, Schoenefeld's remarkable house-made pâtés and terrines are available in various arrangements. The thriftiest is the $5 pâté available during the late-afternoon and late-night happy hours (from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. weekdays, and 10:00 p.m. to close Sunday to Thursday). Here you get a pink slab of sturdy pâté, mustard, and a pile of grilled bread to smash it upon—all very French.
At dinner the elaborate charcuterie plate ($14) is a showstopper, with a generous portion of the house-made terrine presented alongside a wealth of other treats: two spicy kinds of saucisson sausage, lots of good olives, paper-thin slices of cold cured ham, cornichons, a chicken liver pâté served with preserved cherries, and more. It's the kind of plate that, when paired with a date and a good glass of wine, makes the world fall away. A roast Schultz farm chicken ($19) from the dinner menu was seared in such a way that it had bacon-crisp skin and tender, but game-bird, herbal-tasting flesh. It came with a creamy square of potato gratin, and complements of roast shiitake mushrooms and spring asparagus. So comforting, so competently done, it was one of those rare dishes that made me think: I could eat this once a week for the rest of my life, with delight.
I didn't love absolutely everything at Barbette. There was a peculiar salad of mache with mint and either fava beans or edamame ($9) that had a kind of cleaning-out-the-icebox dissonance to it. And the desserts, like a lemongrass panna cotta drowned in red raspberry coulis, are no better than grocery-store versions. However, according to the restaurant, the desserts will be seeing major upgrades soon, which is good, because I'm guessing a new generation of Barbette customers will soon discover the place. And when they do it would be nice if the restaurant had all those ducks in a row. Or perhaps I don't even mean discover, perhaps I really mean rediscover.
After my recent series of delightful Barbette experiences, I was puzzled as to why I stopped going to the place—after all, in 2001 and 2002 it was one of my favorite Minneapolis restaurants. Then I looked into my dining notes from the bad old years of 2004, 2005, and 2006, and found a string of observations like "fallen downhill," "coasting," "sputtering," and "hope this is an awkward adolescence." Happily, it seems to have been just that. All of Barbette's greatest strengths remain: its powerful, un-manufacturable sense of place and energy; its pop, sass, and cats-eye glasses and Champagne charm.
Among those steady old charms is the cafe's wine list: 90-odd offerings, mostly French, that provide more bang-for-the-buck than almost any list in town. On the low end, a glass like the $6 white Aramis, a lemony blend from France's Cognac-making region, goes perfectly with sitting outside and eating oysters during the late afternoon happy hour, when $5 buys you three oysters. On the high end, things get pretty marvelous: premiere cru Burgundy, exquisite Champagne, small estate Bordeaux, and all sorts of jaw-droppers cost $60 or so, and are wildly underpriced at that.
In the past I've had problems with Café Barbette's service; even in the best of times it tended to be distracted. But lately, on each and every visit, I found the servers—all, coincidentally, women—to be uncommonly alert, informed, calm, and aware of the needs of their tables. It really made dining there a delight. I innocently asked one of these servers one night if there was a new chef, and she volunteered that there was, after a long rough patch, and that morale among the servers was higher than it ever had been.
All you upscale Uptown types who gave up on Barbette, feel free to wade back on in, the water's fine.
For all you other Uptown types who are cursing me for potentially ruining your favorite French fry haunt (they're still great), take solace in the long view: There is a greater life lesson for all of us in Landon Schoenefeld's strange journey. You see, when I first talked to young Schoenefeld, then 25, now 26, about his cooking at the Bulldog N.E., all those scant months ago, he told me that he didn't plan to flip burgers forever, that he had bigger plans, greater dishes, more to show the world. Like any jaded critic, I thought: you and everyone. But life has a funny way of throwing a lot of life into the mix. And then came that dark and fateful mustard moment.
"I honestly considered moving after all that," Schoenefeld told me last week by phone. "Just head out west, stage [volunteer in ambitious kitchens] in Boulder, Seattle, San Francisco.... And it's all over this issue of salad dressing on the side. I certainly don't want people thinking I'm some kind of kitchen Nazi, because it really had very little to do with that. It was mostly about bartenders being dicks."
Speaking of dicey interpersonal relations, one element of this drama that didn't get wide attention was the fact that Schoenefeld's best friend and sous chef, Erik Emery, got Schoenefeld's job after he was canned. I asked Schoenefeld if the two were even speaking—whereupon I learned that they are, believe it or not, such good friends that Emery recently moved in with him. "But I tell him: I don't make burgers anymore, I prepare 'royale with cheese.' He calls me Colonel Mustard, and I call him Professor Plum."
I suppose Kim Bartmann, Café Barbette's owner, gets to be Mrs. Peacock or Miss Scarlett—but who is Mr. Boddy? All of us? I don't know, rightly, though I do know that when the weapon is mustard in the barroom, sometimes it's fate working in its famous mysterious ways to help a young chef, a not-so-young restaurant, and all us gnocchi-eaters.