The Audacity of Youth

Michael Dvorak
3 Muses
2817 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 870-0339
Hours: Sunday tea noon-5:00 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:00 p.m.-10ish or, you know, whenever; appetizers till 11ish, and the place definitely has to close by 1:00 a.m., but otherwise, who knows?


We all have our individual trials and fires we must undergo, but there is truly a very, very specific sort of hell reserved for newbie restaurateurs who open on a shoestring budget to an effusive Star Tribune review: "This entitlement thing is really driving us crazy," said 3 Muses' young owner, dishwasher, menu developer, and occasional pastry chef Tamah Burke through clenched teeth the morning I talked to her on the phone, which happened to follow a particularly brutal Saturday-night rush. "But I just keep telling myself these people will weed themselves out. People keep coming in thinking we're attempting to be a fine-dining restaurant, but we are not attempting to be a fine-dining restaurant by any means. We are a simple neighborhood place. If people want to go to Goodfellow's, they should."

But isn't 3 Muses, with its enormous wine list and menu of highfalutin' dishes such as nori-wrapped swordfish, isn't it throwing its hat in the ring with chef-pedigree restaurants such as Alma and Lucia's? "No!" snaps Burke. "Everyone walks in the door with suggestions: 'It's really sterile in here.' 'Why don't you get some nicer plates?' Would you walk into someone's home and say these things? We'd like nicer plates too. Give us a minute. We'll get there. The premise was to have a place for the neighborhood, a place that speaks of the area."

Instead, the staff is on the phone all day trying to explain where north is. "Nobody can find us. I guess people in the suburbs don't learn the whole north-south direction thing."

And in the front of the house, Kairos des Rosiers, who would be called wine program manager in another sort of restaurant, is just as blunt: "We're sort of European casual," he says. "Affordable food plus wine we like--it's just about having fun. And if you can't take the joke, fuck you. We're not going to sit there at the tables with a towel over one arm, bowing and scraping. We asked one woman to take her cell phone outside, again and again. She said, 'Sonny, I'm talking to my friend.' We picked up the table's $80 tab and asked them to leave. They got in their Cadillac and left. It's a neighborhood place."

Defensive? A little. But you'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to cut these big-dream youths some slack: Ten tables, a closet full of wine, and good intentions are hardly enough to supply a city hungry for the hot new thing. The first time I went to 3 Muses I jotted in my notebook, "It reminds me of a rent party. Or possibly Rent, the musical. Or, I've got some wine, you've got a smile, let's put on a show!"

A couple of visits later, my impressions hadn't much changed. The room is brick-box spare, though it won't be once rotating art shows start next month. The wine selection is a treasure. The simplest dishes are perfect. Once the place finally fills out its britches, I'm guessing it's going to be neighborhood-perfect: A bargain-for-what-you-get wine bar with gourmet snacks, a gourmet garage with lots of artsy homeowners lolling about. So it's really no wonder the "grovel now!" crowd is finding no safe harbor.

How gourmet are those snacks? Pretty dang gourmet: The cheese plate ($10.95) is exemplary: three sorts of cheese, served with sticks of olive-oil-swabbed grilled bread and fruit, usually grapes and apples. I've had a fresh, crumbly sheep's-milk cheese, a potent Stilton, one of those super-buttery Super-Bries, an aged British Cheddar, and four or five more. I've had this plate three times and three times it's had completely different cheeses. (Isn't that a smart neighborhood-restaurant thing to do, keeping boredom at bay?) A wilted salad of turnip greens ($5.25) with walnuts and herb-marinated feta cheese had perfect flavors: The greens were bright, and a dark vein of balsamic-date reduction ringed the plate. Roasted beet salad ($5.75)--stacks of red and yellow beets cut into sticks, dressed, and presented alongside some herbed chèvre--were as pretty as jewels and simple as beets. Perfect.

The smoked-fish plate ($12.75) is also dreamy: a big, soft fillet of white lake trout; a piece of bright, peppered smoked salmon that was reminiscent of bacon; and a soft, flaky, pale smoked salmon with a delicate edge. It was all piled around three sorts of olives, marinated mushrooms, slices of grilled beet, and more grilled bread. To confess a personal weakness: Grilled bread is about my favorite thing ever, so 3 Muses had me early on--with grilled bread and wine before me, I'd hardly ever complain.  

And yet, watch me go: I'd never get the mushroom pâté again ($8.75), for I found the mound of too-winey mushrooms to be off-putting and over-flavored. The fava pâté ($7.95) will appeal to some; it's basically an entrée-size portion of hummus, served alongside good tabouli. Which is fine, but seems to come more from the Emily's Lebanese Deli/Falafel King continuum than the wine-bar one. Maybe I'd like it more if it weren't called pâté--pâté in my dictionary is meat. And the kitchen does go a little nuts calling things by fancy names. I loved the "melon carpaccio" ($4.95), thin slices of honeydew melon layered with big flakes of Romano cheese and drizzled with a buttery avocado dressing, but it was actually a melon salad and bore no relation to actual carpaccio--paper-thin slices of raw beef drizzled with olive oil and served with lemon, capers, and onions. I mean, I'll get on board for tuna carpaccio, even scallop carpaccio, but if we start calling anything sliced thinly carpaccio, there will be rioting in the streets. Mark my words.

Also, it doesn't help you navigate the menu, and my experience is that as soon as you start getting into the fancy, more ambitious dishes at 3 Muses things begin falling apart. Instead of delicate puffs of fresh potato dumpling, the gnocchi ($10.95) were more like sticks of polenta, cut into bite-size pieces and fried; they arrived in a bowl of broth that was far, far too salty. "Pecan-smoked Amish chicken" ($14.75) was memorable for being burnt outside, raw at the bone, and vastly overseasoned; it was like putting a charred stick in your mouth. Nori-wrapped swordfish ($14.95) in a broth flavored with miso and kaffir lime leaves was dreadful: The seaweed wrap soaked up the broth and gained the consistency of a moist towelette. It tasted soapy and salty, and the edge of fermentation from the miso combined with the fish and the seaweed gave the whole thing a tide-pool scent. (And yet white miso is very hot on the coasts, and the white-miso-marinated black cod at New York's Nobu is one of Heaven's gifts to Earth. Go figure!)

Overall, my impression of the kitchen was that amateurs were reaching for the sky. Being an amateur who reaches for the sky herself, I sympathize; being the possessor of hard-won dollars, I say devote those pennies to the wine. A whopping 30-plus wines by the glass create the backbone for a 50-bottle list of mostly high-acid, food-friendly wines, a good chunk priced under $30 a bottle. The choices tend to be European, tend to skip the California big name (and big wine) trap, and mostly reflect wine-guy, poet, and drummer Kairos des Rosiers's taste for clean, distinct wines with clear flavor--as well as des Rosiers's daily bargain hunting. Des Rosiers says he talks to his distributors every day and accepts deliveries two or three times a week, making 3 Muses your local source for bargains from bin ends. Say a distributor has a single case left from a larger shipment, a big restaurant can't take it because there's no way for them to insert it onto one of those leather-bound wine lists and remove it 12 tables later, but des Rosiers can. He can take half a case, he can take two bottles. So he takes it at a steep discount, and simply runs a new list off the printer in the backroom. The place has been open merely 11 weeks, and it's on its fifth wine list.

So you get Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru nonvintage Champagne for $50 a bottle. I swear I've paid $40 for it retail, and counted the toasty, biscuity stuff a bargain. "Our overhead isn't as high as something like Oceanaire," explains des Rosiers. "We're the ones back there scrubbing the floors. There aren't all kinds of people on the payroll you're not seeing. So if we make $15 or $20 on a bottle, that's enough." I've had plenty of good experiences already at 3 Muses to trust des Rosiers's taste: $26-a-bottle, $6-a-glass 1997 Mondalino Barbera del Monferrato is a perfect round and acidic food wine; clean and pure Didier Champalou Vouvray (also $6/$26), has such a prettiness you could float away in a bubble of pleasant mouth-feel and nice finish.

Do people like 3 Muses' wine list? Boy howdy. My last two visits I made a point of counting how many tables had wine: All of them. The last time I talked to the folks at La Belle Vie, they said probably 85 or 90 percent of their tables get wine, and they're a nationally regarded food and wine destination. 3 Muses is just, like, a box on Lyndale with a couple of couches and a couple of tables and a couple of owner-worker-vintage-shirt-types.  

Albeit owner-worker types with a couple of tricks up their sleeves: 3 Muses has a very nice shortbread for dessert ($2.75), which goes perfectly with its dessert wines. They've got Reidel stemware behind the bar, but you have to know to ask for it; and they'll even "flight" wine with your meal, pairing small glasses with each course and only charging you, say, the price of one glass for two. But you have to know to ask. Or at least, you have to be friendly, and then they'll offer it. You have to not glare at these poor overwhelmed kids and want them to treat you like you're shelling out $80 a head for dinner. Which, um, you might be.

But what of it? For now, all you need to remember is that they're as scared of you as you are of them, and in a couple months this place is going to fall into the identity you want for them, and the identity they want for them: egalitarian wine bar and gourmet light-meal restaurant, hangout of artists and the art-minded, giver of no directions to the scary and imperious.

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