What's more useless than a drowned rat? What's more useless than a squashed hat? What's more useless than a bike with two flats? This restaurant review, because it's about Café Maude, a remarkable new neighborhood bistro in Armatage, the neighborhood in the very bottom corner of southwest Minneapolis, and you are never, ever, ever going to get in there.
Well, never, unless you have the ability to call a few days in advance and reserve a table, which, if you are a typical Armatage resident knee-deep in kids, dogs, and teenagers, not to mention teenagers who are supposed to be watching said kids and dogs, and—wait. How many Razor scooters did the Comcast truck run over? Wait, wait. Who gave themselves a haircut? What time is urgent care open till? Where is the hamster? Wait—I thought you were picking up the cookies for National Night Out! Oops! Where was I? I mean, Armatage is not a neighborhood where most people know what life will hold in the next six hours, so how the heck are they expected to make a dinner reservation? Well, score another one for the empty-nesters. Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth, but if he lived south of Minnehaha Creek, he'd think differently.
Since you're never going to get in there, let me sketch a picture of what you're missing at Café Maude. You drive up on a quiet stretch of Penn Avenue and see a big, blank box with a red awning. It looks like it might be a carpet showroom, a design studio—something tasteful and domestic that closed a few hours ago. You haul open the front door and confront a small anteroom full of magazines: glamorous magazines, European magazines, the kind of magazines that supermodels hurl at their assistants, the kind of magazines that you'd read if only you had two years off, a MacArthur genius grant, and underlings to blame for things. You can take them to your table to read, if you like.
Forging past the magazines, you open a second door, and you confront what feels like a million people—a million particularly Minnesotan, particularly prosperous people. Men are wearing glasses fit for Danish architects, women are glistening with artist-blown beads, tweens are hiding their braces behind elaborate pouts, hipsters are sipping martinis while their fathers unfurl plans for the new kitchen expansion. Everyone is seated in a whirlwind of excitement: A live band, a pianist, or a DJ plays nightclub-worthy music, just loud enough that you have to really want to say anything you're going to say, but not so loud that you can't be heard; servers in floor-length aprons hustle purposefully; and, of course, couples cluster at the door, staring longingly at your table. The intense garnet walls and the high bar contribute to the restaurant's intense vibe of energy, sparkle, and center-of-the-world bustle. Don't you feel like you need to be there? Of course you do. And good luck to you.
Me, I am lucky enough to have some very organized friends who secured reservations. Then, when I visited the place, I found that it's not any particular dish, any particular drink, any particular anything that makes Café Maude so popular—the place just has the certain pop and sizzle that great restaurants have. This is bad news, because if it were merely a special dish or a special drink drawing the crowds, someone would knock it off and the buzz around Maude would fade. And then you could get in there! But I don't think that will happen, so you'll just be stuck with useless written accounts such as this.
Now, the food at Café Maude has a distinct style, in which rather sophisticated elements are showcased in a forthright, understated manner. Arancini (Italian rice and Parmesan croquettes, $6), were rustic and homey, with their crunchy rice crust, but also heartily flavored with a rough-chopped toasted-hazelnut-and-lemon sauce. A brown-edged, gorgeously fried egg served atop sautéed spinach which was itself on top of basmati rice flavored with Greek feta cheese ($5) was both incredibly simple and incredibly craveable.
Paper-thin flatbreads (all $10) are neither too flashy nor too plain. One is made with sugar-sweet oven-roasted tomatoes, chewy mozzarella, and a basil pesto in which the licorice aspects of the herb are emphasized by using floral almonds in place of all the traditional pine nuts. Crab cakes ($12) are light and fresh, and perked up with watercress and a pickle-flecked remoulade sauce. Café Maude's cheese plate is charming. Order it and you get four elegant little islands—a chewy Greek Haloumi, grilled and topped with a robust tomato jam; a tangy Saint Pete's blue drizzled with honey and decorated with a sprinkling of pine nuts; a fresh, creamy goat's-milk cheese, Bucheron, its chalky elegance complemented by a tiny pool of fig molasses; and gooey, pungent Pont L'Eveque, topped with a spoonful of wild mushroom conserves. (Each cheese can be had individually for $3.50; all four together costs $13.)
Not everything from Café Maude's kitchen was delightful—I thought the wood-smoked baby-back ribs ($9) were overwhelmingly sweet and marred by an overpoweringly dark, molasses-like taste. The chorizo hash ($7), a Spanish tapas-like dish of grilled baby octopus, fried rounds of potatoes, lumps of chorizo, and spicy red harissa aioli, was made of too many big items with big flavors. I longed for it to be chopped smaller, or united by egg—somehow made to integrate with itself.
Yet, I didn't care. Enough of what Café Maude makes has such a tasty, homey, elusive quality that the cooking seems not quite the point—you know the quality I mean. The one that makes you say: I don't care what's in it, I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to analyze it, I just want it, and I also want it maybe tomorrow or definitely next week, so get out of my way. The bun-brown, house-cut fries ($5) could inspire such thoughts: each misshapen, unique, and lovely as potatoes should be, made addictive by the accompanying little dish of cheese fondue. The wood-grilled burger ($7.50) is meaty, solid, good. The hangar steak ($12) is livery and rich, as a hangar steak should be; the gaminess of the cut is tamped down a bit by a sweet grilled-onion-and-cognac sauce.
And that's about it. There's nothing too terrifically ambitious on the menu. I wouldn't think of recommending that anyone drive here for dinner from, say, Shakopee, Hudson, or other points afar—but it's all very welcome in the neighborhood.
As are the cocktails and the lovely wine list. Café Maude has a number of unique cocktails worth the time of any highball connoisseur. A cherry black bourbon ($8), for instance, is a nice variation on a bourbon sour; "figs of paradise" ($9.50) is an admirably black, raisiny, almost chocolaty concoction made of fig-infused vodka, espresso, and syrupy Pedro Ximenez sweet wine. A long section of non-alcoholic drinks makes Café Maude the destination for daddy-daughter cocktail hours. I didn't try the rubber ducky ($3)—sparkling blue-raspberry lemonade with a peep floating in it—because I am waiting for a 10-year-old critic to give me her more authentic take on it.
The wine list, though, I am prepared to comment on. It's immensely affordable, mostly in the $20-something range; global, mostly Spanish, French, and Italian, with a bit of California and Greece thrown in; and very well chosen. Cremant de Bourgogne, for instance, is a delicate, small-bubble French sparkler that is rarely seen in this country, but Café Maude offers a stunner: Simmonet-Febvre Cremant ($8 glass, $24 bottle), which just froths from the glass like lace made of lemon and toast.
So, you see why you're never going to get in there. It will probably be even worse as of September 4, when the place starts serving a full breakfast and lunch.
What's the secret to all this success? Well, the price point is right. Café Maude brilliantly answers the question of what a better-than-casual but cheaper-than-formal restaurant might look like: It looks like an every-night party. More than that though, I think the reason for the crowds massed at the door has mostly to do with heart. Yes, I said heart.
You see, one of Café Maude's owners, Kevin Sheehy, seems to have an almost psychic knowledge of exactly what people want in the prosperous, kid-harried, abundantly blessed but abundantly overwhelmed environs south of Minnehaha Creek. Sheehy told me that his understanding of the neighborhood might just stem from the fact that he grew up mere blocks from the restaurant. "I was born and raised on 55th and Emerson," he told me. "I went to Kenney, Anthony, Washburn, the whole drill. Fishing in the creek, digging up crawfish, innertubing with a pack of other kids. We'd get all the way down to the falls, then call my mom. She was fantastic; she'd come and pick us up in a 1950 Dodge rust bucket.... We always entertained, my parents just liked everybody, so this hosting business was probably in my blood. I'm amazed, though, at the crowds. I don't know what we tapped here. I think it's political."
Political? It turns out that Sheehy named the restaurant after Maude Armatage, the namesake of this part of Minneapolis and, more importantly, a woman who, mere months after women were granted the right to vote, decided to run for public office. She landed a seat on the park board and occupied it for 30 years, guiding the creation of our city's crown jewels, its park system. "This place is about politics," explained Sheehy. "It's about getting back to the values that shaped this city. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and to me it means the values that I grew up with right here: No bigotry allowed, no sexism allowed; if you work hard you can carve out a really good life, and when you do it's your duty to ensure that fairness, equality, and justice prevail for everyone who comes after you, or next to you."
For instance, Café Maude had a particularly hard fight in getting its liquor license, with a year's worth of public meetings and much local skepticism. "People thought this might be a rocking bar, with people urinating on people's lawns," Sheehy told me. "It was a difficult process, but if I owned a house and someone was opening a bar near it, I'd want to look them in the eye and see what they were about, too. You know, there are places in this country where you give someone $200, get your license, then you buy all your liquor from them. But I'd never want to live in a place like that—I'd rather have due process, no matter how difficult."
So, are the crowds at Café Maude massing because the deep, old Minneapolis values of family, community, fairness, and affordable fun are calling out to them? Or are they simply massing for good bubbly, a $12 steak, and genuine cool? Whichever it is, they're massing—and for you to be dilly-dallying around reading about it when you could be dialing the phone is about as useful as a drowned rat.