Who has the biggest wine list? The cheapest? The best? These are complex questions that have bedeviled and fascinated restaurant critics since the first crème brûlée crawled from the primordial soup.
Well, call two of these three questions settled—and not just settled, but dead and buried under three feet of new soil with a nice flower garden taking root above. Wine-loving world, meet Café 44, the new full-service restaurant attached to France 44, the liquor store. Café 44, the place with a 4,000-bottle wine list—yes, I said 4,000 bottles!—each priced $10 above retail. Yes, ten dollars. Ten bucks, ten buckeroos, ten smackeroos, ten George Washingtons, ten simoleons, ten clams—that's all! You say you don't believe it? Believe it! Old Spanish wines, odd South African wines, unheard-of Austrian wines, and prestige French Bordeaux—they're all here, for $10 above retail. It's the most exciting thing to happen to an overeducated cheapskate since dollar-store reading glasses.
Seriously, here's the drill. First, you steer your bargain-loving little heart into the shared doorways of Café 44 and France 44. You briefly cross the threshold into Café 44, and grab a paper copy of their menu, which shows what's on offer for the night. Then, you proceed into the liquor store and start swooning.
Say you decide you want a Pinot Noir. Well, then you might head into the aisle labeled Pinot Noir, and consider the 130-odd bottles on offer there. Like the rare, precious, unusual bottlings from California's Capiaux Cellars made in teeny, tiny batches—how could you pass up one of the mere 3,000 or so bottles made from the entire production of "Gary's Vineyard," in the Santa Lucia Highlands? Well, you could if you splurged on the new release of Domaine Serene's Evenstad Reserve ($59.99); after all, many call it the definitive Oregon Pinot Noir! Ooh, but there's the ripe, flowery, and festive Claudia Springs Klindt vineyard, clearly a bargain at $29.99. Then you remember that France 44 has one of Minnesota's most thrilling French Pinot Noir selections, or as they call them across the pond, Burgundy—and so you toddle over to that aisle. Why, look at all those premier cru hotsy totsies! Now you can not only pick between, oh, I'm guessing about 200 Pinot Noirs, you can dither away hours reading the shelf-talkers, fondling the bottles, working out your personal internal calculus of bang for buck. Does this sound like fun to you? Do you buy wines and not tell your spouse? Do you search wine-importer websites late at night when you should be sleeping? Do you hang out with people who understand that you don't have to tell someone you love them if you share your club-only limited release with them? Yeah, I'm talking to you, buddy. You know who you are.
So, somehow, you pick one. Commitment made, love professed, legal tender exchanged, you carry your precious package next door to request your table, and, for a mere $10 corkage fee the restaurant opens and pours your wine. (Corkage is the fee a restaurant charges if a guest brings her own wine. Any restaurant with an appropriate license may choose to offer a corkage program, and many do; I know of Minneapolis restaurants charging corkage fees up to $35 a bottle.)
Now, typical restaurant mark-ups for wine in Minnesota tend to be two or three times retail, so a $20 bottle will cost $40-something to $60-something, a $70 retail bottle will cost at least $150, and so on. You see where this is going? And sometimes it goes even worse: One of the little things I always keep an eye out for on wine lists is when $9 retail Spanish sparkling Cava is priced over $40; which happens all the time. Of course, restaurants don't pay retail, they pay wholesale, so they're making $35 or so on a $5 item. I don't want to get into it too much here—whatever the market will bear, the whole restaurant business model is predicated on making profits on the wine, yadda yadda—but it's a problem that deeply affects both the penny-pinching wealthy and those souls unfortunate enough to have tasted the high life who can't afford to pay retail for it. Pity the skinflint wealthy and would-be pampered paupers! Or, you know, don't, but if you identify with one of those groups or the other, report to Café 44, pronto.
So, enough about the wine already! What about the restaurant? Café 44 debuted a few months ago, taking over the former retail and deli space that occupied much of the south section of France 44. They swapped out the towering shelves of sea salts and mustards, bought lots of nice heavy tables and good chairs, debuted nighttime table service, amped up their wine list and glass-pour program, and rolled out a full menu of American bistro classics—roasted chicken, braised short ribs, a fancy burger, and so forth. Fortunately, they left the spectacular cheese selection, and Café 44 now offers some of most beautifully wine-directed cheese plates I've seen.
The Sweet Tooth plate, for instance ($12), is designed for sweet wines, like the lively, fruity Marcarini Moscato d'Asti ($9 a glass). If you have the two together, you'll find that the bits of white truffle in the subtle, elegant Italian cheese Boschetto al Tartufo echo on your tongue like the noise of some magical forest trumpets; then the Carr Valley Cocoa Cardona, a hard, long-aged goat's-milk cheese from Wisconsin, comes in with notes of caramel, chocolate spice, and a deep complexity, and finally, the good Spanish Marcona almonds and Manchego cheese round out the experience with complementary sweet, rich nut flavors and a bit of attractive meadow ferment. How fortunate to have the passionate wine people and the passionate cheese people working together!
The antipasto plate ($10) is another bit of good fortune for the wine lovers of the southwest metro—it's beautiful, full of the best rustic salamis and dry-cured charcuterie, and cries out for something from France 44's brimming Italian or Spanish sections. Alternately, you could pair it with something from Café 44's wine list, like the Alamos Malbec ($7 a glass). If you did so, and fell in love with that deep, dark, dusky wine, you could wind up your evening by toddling next door and buying a case—one of the great advantages to sampling wine at Café 44 is that they make it very, very difficult for you to forget what it was you liked. In fact, a restaurant wine list is posted right inside the door at France 44, and you can simply point at it, or at the printed name of the wine on your dinner receipt, and a sales associate will whisk you to the bottle in question. I can't tell you the number of times people have complained to me about not being able to find the wine they loved at a restaurant, but that can't happen to you at Café 44.
And now we end the uniformly fortunate part of our program, and some of those dreaded unfortunatelies roll on in. Unfortunately, even though the physical space of Café 44 was transformed into a restaurant, the place maintained the soul of a deli, and if you don't care about wine, cheese, wine with cheese, and so forth, you're unlikely to much care for this place. For one thing, there's a TV sized to fit a frat boy's wildest dreams above the open kitchen, and between the televised sports, the triple-height windows, and the exposed HVAC, the restaurant feels impersonal and uncomfortable, like part of an airport. And while the deli items, like the cheeses, are outstanding, the food from the hot kitchen rarely achieves much.
The appetizers, for instance, seem to have been designed to accommodate the most conservative imaginable taste, and they're expensive to boot, leaving the guests I brought so uninspired that they repeatedly asked me if we really had to order appetizers. I mean, that menu in its entirety is crostini for $13, bacon-wrapped scallops for $15, shrimp cocktail for $10, artichoke dip for $9, crab salad for $9, and fries for $5. (Twice I tried to order the crab salad, and twice I was told the kitchen was out of it.) The bacon-wrapped scallops were fine, if uninspired, but they came accompanied by an absolutely tasteless carrot-ginger puree and an undressed and wilted heap of frisée.
While I tried a few good things from the hot kitchen here, I also encountered a lot of flat-out errors in cooking. The "pork mignon" ($15 for a smallish portion, $20 for a very large one)—a pan-seared segment of pork tenderloin—was dry as bones and served in a sherry gastrique of eye-crossing tartness. The braised short ribs ($16 for one short rib; $23 for two) tasted as if the kitchen had forgotten to season them. The burger ($12, with fries) the one time I tried it was overcooked and dry, and any taste in the meat was entirely overpowered by the lovely but intensely pungent Widmer six-year cheddar that topped it. A Saturday night special of a veal porterhouse steak ($25) served upon a parmesan risotto with smoked mushrooms and fresh fava beans was mysterious in that everything on the plate that wasn't the veal was delicious—the ethereal mushrooms, the salty and comforting risotto, the bright beans—but the meat was cooked strangely, so that while the exterior had no crispness, the entirety was equally well-cooked and all painfully tough. Had it been quickly boiled?
Desserts, like a distractingly sweet pistachio cheesecake ($6) or a likable but unemphatic chocolate cake made with Surly beer ($6), were good enough, barely. I did try one thing that was so great, so pretty, so thoughtfully put together that I wanted to leap into the kitchen and demand to know why they couldn't do that more. It was a roasted Amish chicken with spring vegetables ($14 for a quarter-chicken portion, $19 for a half-chicken), and it was marvelously good—the skin crisp; the wee rectangles of zucchini, half-moons of carrots, and sections of patty-pan squash, scallions, corn, and grape tomatoes each cooked to an ideal state of crisp-tender. Another high point was a nightly special of a rough chopped, subtle country pork terrine ($12): It was real, wholesome, and so very French in the best, uncomplicated way. I wish they would add it to the permanent menu. If they did, it would go miles (or at least kilometers) toward making the place a destination for the city's Francophiles, who could pair the pâté with the restaurant's wonderful French fries. These fries are nothing short of adorable; they're brown-edged beauties of such crisp, tender devourability that you could almost justify popping a bottle of bubbly to celebrate them. If you did, you'd have more than a hundred sparkling bottles to choose from. At only $10 above retail! Did I mention that? I think I must have, somewhere.