1600 W. Lake St., Mineapolis., (612) 827-5710
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. daily; lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; limited menu at other times.
By all rights there should be a new-restaurant riot going on outside Uptown's new Café Barbette, which recently opened in the space once occupied by Café Wyrd. You know the kind: blondes in capri pants stacked up like monkeys in a barrel, head to head, lip-gloss smearing on the plate glass; SUVs run up on the sidewalks resting on local baby strollers. I mean, a confident chef who's sure to be a local star, an accessibly priced menu, a lovely wine list, new, sexy, vaguely 1920s Paris-circus décor, and still I walked in there at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday without a reservation and was immediately seated? What gives?
Ingenuity? A softening economy? Whatever the reason, Kim Bartmann, longtime Bryant-Lake Bowl owner, has pulled off what I would have thought impossible: a quiet restaurant opening in a town that's often starving for high-quality food. And I can think of no better example of the high quality going on here than Barbette's amazing salade niçoise ($9.50). Salade niçoise was about the last thing I expected to be dazzled with in this lifetime--how many times must you see a gray slab of tuna surrounded by hard-cooked eggs and lettuce before you give up?
But here it was a joy in every detail. At the core of the plate were greens with a dressing of buttery olive oil from Crete, fresh lemon juice, a hint of anchovy, and sea salt. To one side, a little firewood stack of delicate steamed haricots verts, crisp and perfect in every way, a few halves of salted, boiled quail eggs that melt in the mouth, a wee pile of imported niçoise olives, carefully pitted by hand and tossed with a bit of fresh tarragon, and a few waxy slices of astonishingly bright purple potato. All of these lovely things were arranged around the pièce de résistance, a glorious piece of tuna, sushi grade, seared without, red within, absolutely delicious in every way.
The first time I had this salad, I couldn't stop gasping and purring and clamoring over it. I've had it twice since then and think I could have it once a week forevermore and purr each week anew. The menu gives no hint that this salad is so good; it sits in modest company with unspectacular-sounding casual French food like a croque madame, crêpes, and quiche. And yet nearly each of those yielded unexpected joys.
Generally, I can't stand quiche. To me it always tastes like some combination of sulfur and cheap cheese, and I often wondered why anyone ate it. Now I know. Here the quiche (ingredients change daily; $6.25) is a white, moist, bubble-light brightness that cleaves at the touch of a fork into silky chunks that caress the tongue. It's served in a rough-hewn butter crust that is a model of the form. The crêpes ($8.50) were good enough--made with a dark, irony buckwheat batter and filled with your choice of such fillings as fresh spinach, smoked salmon, and Gruyère--but how do you order crêpes once you've tasted Barbette's salade niçoise?
Of course, such a perfect dish doesn't come out of thin air. The kitchen here is headed by Lisa Carlson, a Twin Cities native who has climbed her way through some of the most prestigious kitchens in the world, including London's two-Michelin-star L'escargot, and most recently she was chef de partie at Lespinasse in New York. I spoke to Carlson on the phone for this review, and she says she's trying to instill a few touches of Lespinasse's exactitude in this inexpensive and casual restaurant. Look for touches like a dainty fingerling potato piped with a bit of crème fraîche and set with a row of pearl-size salmon caviar on the seafood-tasting appetizer (this appetizer is $9 for one, $17 for two, and really a marvelous spread, holding smoked salmon, fresh oysters, marinated salmon tartare, and smoked trout). Oysters are ordered fresh every day (always perfect on my visits, served cunningly on a bed of rock salt, star anise, and pink peppercorns; $4 for three). Likewise, fish comes in daily and Carlson orders only enough for the night's dinner.
If you've never heard of real haricots verts in the Twin Cities, here's why: The dear little things cost $30 a case. "With haricots verts and things like that, I really hope people notice that I'm spending a lot of money on the food," says Carlson. "I did a lot of investigating in terms of getting the best products, and I just don't know yet if people know their food well enough to recognize the difference." For example, the tomatoes in the croque madame (fancy grilled cheese, served with salad, $6.50) are oven-dried for 12 hours, and the mushroom stock for the deeply flavored wild-mushroom risotto ($14.50) cooks for a full day.
I think people will notice. One night I tried an appetizer special of forthright pork shumai dumplings arranged on a big platter with a picture-pretty steamed pea shoot, and a friend of mine I've dined with a dozen times actually appeared to sit up and pay attention to his plate for the first time ever. On that same visit, I enjoyed an appetizer special of a chunky, marinated shrimp cake served with preserved-lemon tartar sauce. The clear flavors were so well balanced and harmonious, the plate so lovely--it came with a bundle of watercress sprouts tied together with a grilled ramp--I immediately vowed to start dining earlier, in hopes of getting to the restaurant before the nightly fish specials sell out.
As I've come to expect from a Kim "Bryant-Lake Bowl" Bartmann restaurant, the wine and beer lists are delightful: The 50-some-beer list holds all the food-friendly Belgian ales plus all the bar-friendly bigger-flavored ones; the dinner-priced (most $12-$45) wine list was designed by sommelier Annette Peters and is a marvel of well-chosen bottles for both adventurous and timid palates. There are a number of under-$20 bottles worth taking a flyer on.
Desserts, made by pastry chef Tahani Al-Busairi, were uniformly good. I particularly liked a slice of warm strawberry-rhubarb pie ($4) and a rich, truffle-like flourless chocolate torte ($6), though the banana and Nutella crêpe ($6) needs sweet crêpe batter instead of the buckwheat batter it's now made with.
Truthfully, the only edible I didn't have luck with at Barbette was the soup. French onion soup ($4.50 a cup, $5.50 a bowl) was an oddly sweet, light, un-caramelized version of the dark classic. Daily soups at lunch, such as a cold watercress or hot asparagus, did nothing for me. While I'm quibbling, the frites that come with the steaks could use a little tweaking, and the macaroni gratin with Black Diamond Cheddar didn't thrill me, though I suspect mac and cheese is on the menu not for me, but for children. And in many ways Barbette is a perfect place to take kids, especially for late-afternoon tea parties or, um, cocktails: The still-sort-of-a-coffee-shop has a laudable selection of nonalcoholic drinks, including a wine-bottle-size juice-based "mimosa" ($5) which arrives with wine glasses and feels very festive. There are no table minimums at the restaurant, which certainly encourages lengthy explorations of, say, an Italian soda ($1.75) and a brownie ($2).
Which I'd like to come out strongly against.
I'm only partly kidding. Actually, I was being a little disingenuous up top. I know perfectly well why Barbette isn't mobbed, and it has to do with one pretty basic problem. When smoky, casual coffee shop Café Wyrd made the transition to hip bistro Café Barbette, it didn't totally morph, keeping too many of its coffee-shop attributes: tiny, two-coffee-cup-size tables; way too much smoke tolerance; way too much coffee-shop-customer tolerance; and servers who don't give evidence of having had any training whatsoever.
I had an absurd exchange with each and every server I encountered at Barbette. The first was the breathless kid who interrupted the meal every 30 seconds to inquire as to basic points of service: "So, do you want the appetizers together?" Yes. Runs off. Returns. "Before the other stuff?" Yes, and the other stuff is called entrées. Run. Return. "And you still want the entrées?" Darling, if you've never been to a restaurant before, I can't remedy it through this game of 20 questions. And then there was the time I sat at a table for 20 minutes until a woman arrived, wild-eyed, demanding, "What do you want from me?"
The overall impression that I left with was not the typical bad service, but more like being in one of those New York diners where the server and the force of their personality is in charge, not the customer. Actually, most of the time I probably wouldn't have so many objections to a server's-personality-driven quirky Uptown restaurant. As owner Bartmann puts it, "How is it you have life in a restaurant? Because the people working there are alive and have personalities. In a corporate place, a lot of how they make things work is to take the personalities out."
Except that here some of these personalities seem to be actively getting in the way of Lisa Carlson's marvelous cooking. I won't soon forget the time a server told me that a quiche made with one of springtime's most prized delicacies, wild, scallion-like ramps, was onion quiche. To put it bluntly, I think the people who appreciate a slice of purple potato drizzled in a rare, rich olive oil are not the same people who chain-smoke at a table all through the dinner hour, and Barbette has to choose between them. Clearly, it's time to tote this baby in front of some wise king who can offer to split it with his sword.