Safe and Sound
4762 Chicago Ave. S, Minneapolis
Now that we no longer have roads in the Twin Cities, picking restaurants has gotten a little trickier. Oh, I know that technically we only lost one road, but I think that with summer highway construction still going full-throttle, with the way all the I-35W detour roads, official and unofficial, are now hosting 140,000 extra vehicles, and with the way news reports keep relentlessly pointing out the terrifying and ghastly conditions of the rest of our bridges, we can all agree that we have entered a golden age of staying home. And since it's too late to put in a vegetable garden, we'll also call it a golden age of fasting. Air is the new onion soup. Wind is the new roast chicken. Thoughts are the new crème brûlée.
Mmm, onion soup, roast chicken, and crème brûlée. Don't you just love them? Don't you just hate fasting? Well, let's call the time for fasting over, because if you live in south Minneapolis—or, you know, parts of Edina, Richfield, and so forth—you should know that if you plot your route correctly there is one landlocked new restaurant you could get to without hazarding too many road miles, and it's a place that has onion soup, roast chicken, and crème brûlée beyond reproach. The place is Café Levain, the simple bistro that has replaced dear, departed Restaurant Levain.
Restaurant Levain, of course, was one of the most adventurous fine-dining restaurants in the history of the Midwest, but it closed last New Year's Eve after a long battle trying to fill the house enough days of the week to break even. Owner Harvey McLain's response to the Icarus-like fate of his highfalutin, high-profile erstwhile restaurant was to hire a young line cook who used to work at Restaurant Levain, Eric Sturtz, and charge him with developing a menu of affordable, French-influenced comfort foods. The resulting spot risks little but succeeds.
One of the primary reasons to visit Café Levain is its truly fantastic French onion soup ($7.50). It's all a French onion soup could ever hope to be—the stock is a rich mahogany brown and nearly as beefy as a steak, the onions are sweet and slurpable, the lid of cheese on the well-browned crouton, made with both Gorgonzola and Swiss Emmentaler cheeses, is gooey, piquant, devourable, craveable—really, just perfect. It's going to be one of those restaurants, I think, where six people sit down and order six onion soups—though that's partly because there aren't a lot of other options.
The restaurant serves only three appetizers, including a very good version of pork rillettes ($6), in which mild, rich pork is treated in such a way that it's nearly as soft as custard and spreads like butter on Turtle Bread's famous baguettes. I didn't think much of Levain's mussels; when I tried them they seemed fishy and underseasoned. And I didn't much love their frogs' legs ($8), which were well-breaded and deep-fried to the point that they might have been anything—a cheese curd, say, or a jalapeño popper.
Café Levain has a few salads that change seasonally. The ones I tried were good, though a little more tart than they needed to be. Leaf lettuce in a simple mustard vinaigrette with breakfast radishes ($6), all from local Riverbend Farm, was uncomplicated and appealing. Arugula with celery leaves, roast haricots verts, and an artichoke heart ($8 for an appetizer, $12 for an entree) was promising but needed its dressing toned down.
I trust that the 26-year-old chef, Eric Sturtz, will have that in hand soon. He seems to have very good instincts when it comes to making customer-friendly food. For instance, I called him up to find out a few things before writing this, such as whether there was any orange zest in the broth for one night's remarkable special of an orange bouillabaisse, and learned that the two dishes I liked least at Levain, an eye-crossingly dull tagliatelle pasta ($12) and a dry, plain hangar steak ($18), had been pulled off the menu, and that the remarkable bouillabaisse special had been tweaked and put on permanently. That bouillabaisse ($10) is a stunner—a creamsicle-orange version made with red peppers, mussels, and, when I had it, California sea bass. The addition of orange and cream to the bouillabaisse broth made it as rich as a dessert, as lively as a sunset, and unforgettable.
The two entrees Café Levain will become famous for are its roast chicken and its short ribs. Both are must-orders for anyone with even the slightest sense of self-interest. The chicken ($14) is amazing. A partly boned-out half-chicken is slathered with fresh thyme and rosemary and roasted at 500 degrees, a technique that lots of cooks, including Barbara Kafka, recommend because it makes an uncommonly tender bird with skin as crisp as bacon. However, I have tried this method myself, and I can tell you that Barbara Kafka has little to say about the fact that if you do this, all of your fire alarms will go off and the bird's skin will splatter and pop so much that you'll have to clean the whole oven the next day. Also, Barbara Kafka has never lived in an apartment building in a Minnesota February, forced to confront neighbors evacuated from their homes because of her bright ideas. In any event, report to Café Levain to marvel at the excellence of high-heat roasting, as they have used it to make a bird so crisp, tender, and sweet that you just want to fall upon it with two hands and your bared teeth, forks and knives be damned.
The short ribs ($18) are also spectacular. For these, Sturtz sears a boneless piece of beef from the area near the short ribs, called the chuck-flap, and then cooks it for six hours in a pan filled with red wine and vegetables, all of which renders the meat fork-tender and stupefyingly flavorful. Don't think of them as short ribs, think of them as super-duper-mega-hyper pot roast.
The entrees, even the pasta, all come with your choice of side dish, though the side dishes can also be ordered à la carte. Of those, the Brussels sprouts ($6) are well caramelized, buttery, and delicious; the French fries are crisp and good; the macaroni and cheese gratin is creamy and dull; the new potatoes with malt vinegar and crème fraiche were sweet, perky, and pure.
And that's about it! The kitchen also makes a forgettable burger ($10), a nightly fish special, and a pasta that frequently changes (as I mentioned, the one I tried is gone). A handful of appetizers, a handful of entrees, that's all. Well, there are a few desserts—all good but dull. An oversized, over-sweet tarte tatin ($7) lacked any real apple flavor or any truly satisfying caramel; a chocolate torte ($9.50) was competent but really no more special than what you'd get in any good coffee shop. The crème brûlée ($7) was a beauty, though—creamy, ethereal, and fresh.
One shocker at Café Levain is how good the wine list is. I tried a deep, dark, and gorgeous Bridlewood Estate syrah ($10 a glass, $32 a bottle) with intense layers of blueberry, rosemary, and chocolate, and a gratifyingly elegant, cherry-edged Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($11/$36). The bottle list is a dream—lithe Trefethen Riesling for $30 a bottle; spicy, smoky Qupé Los Olivos Syrah-blend for $19; fresh, pink, dry, strawberry-scented Spanish cava from Mont Marcal for $21. For people with bigger bank accounts, Levain's list has all kinds of high-prestige offerings at bargain prices—2004 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch chardonnay at $79; 1999 vintage S. Anderson Blanc de Noirs bubbly for $65; 2001 Jordan Vineyard cabernet sauvignon for $95. As I marveled night after night about these wines, I have to admit some frustration crept in—this was the wine list Restaurant Levain needed to succeed!
Silly restaurant critic, pooh-poohed owner McLain, when I asked him about this. This was indeed Restaurant Levain's exact wine list, now simply discounted by a third. That Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon used to cost $55 a bottle, where now it was $36—and why didn't I recognize how great it was at $55? And so the two of us were left figuratively gazing at one another in astonishment over the telephone lines, him not understanding how I could be in such a state of Emperor's New Clothes about his wine list, and me not understanding how anyone could not see that price is the essential difference between a wine list that's useless and one that's irresistible.
Well, I'm chalking our difference in perception up to McLain's anti-elitist soul. "Right now," McLain told me, "Levain is the kind of restaurant I've always wanted—a place to go that's not so fancy, not quite so—" with that McLain broke off, as if groping for the right word. "I don't want to call it snobbery, but some of our customers were always over-involved with wine. I love wine, but I think it's for drinking with food, not for talking about."
I didn't bother telling McLain that dropping his wine prices is actually going to result in more wine people going to his restaurant, not fewer. Well, until they burn through the old Levain's back-vintage list, anyway. Still, this new version of Levain feels infinitely more comfortable than the former one. High, dark-wood wainscoting now rings the room, giving it a sort of old northern European sort of feel, and a bar dominates one wall of the restaurant, making the whole thing feel more casual. And that's not all.
I'll let McLain tell it. "We have ketchup on the tables," he explains. "We got rid of the tablecloths. It's just more comfortable. When I go to Paris, or anyplace, I don't seek out the five-star, high-end restaurants. To me those places just mean you have to get dressed up. I always look for the little restaurant that's five steps down in the basement, not as nuanced, not as subtle, but has humble ingredients, well executed. I certainly did enjoy Restaurant Levain, but the casual restaurant we have now is the kind of restaurant that I would seek out. It's simple, humble. I don't want to reinvent the wheel, I just want a place where people can come in in either an expensive suit or shorts and flip-flops."
If flip-flops aren't your style, you could hop on your bike and zip on down to Café Levain wearing bike shorts and a helmet. After all, just because there are no more roads, just because you're on a budget, just because you want to pay less than retail for great wines, why should any of this stop you from dining well?
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