Third And Final Restaurant Opening Of The Century

Finally, the third shoe has dropped! I mean, Restaurant Levain has opened! Levain is the crown jewel in the new Turtle Bread citadel down on 48th and Chicago, the long-planned, long-constructed space where three Turtle establishments cohabit under one roof. In the middle, super-enormous, ultra-artisanal commercial ovens are going to allow Turtle bakers to bake like they never have before, and there's also hot breakfast and lunch, along with all the beloved things you got used to at the original Turtle Bread, like soups, gourmet goods, and the best pies and croissants in town. Off to the north end is a stand-alone Tuscan pizzeria called Pizza Biga, where everything comes from a true wood-fired oven--not one of these crummy faux wood-fired ovens that are all over town, with the gas jets and no wood taste. Finally, and most importantly, on the west end of the place is Restaurant Levain, a 65-seat, four-star restaurant headed by a chef with the most impressive résumé I've ever seen, supported by a staff with background and experience to burn.

The chef is Stewart Woodman, who was the opening sous-chef for Alain Ducasse's super-renowned Essex House, which restaurant-heads will remember because it opened as the most ambitious restaurant in the history of New York City, got hysterically negative reviews as the most expensive restaurant in the history of time, and will be forever remembered as the place that presented a choice of hundred-dollar pens with which to sign the bill--I dunno, I never made it, but everyone did seem to like the food. Hold on to your hats: Before that, Woodman worked at Lespinasse, at Le Bernardin, at Ducasse's restaurants in Monaco and Paris, was executive chef at Zoë, and was about to depart for Paris to work at Jean Georges Vongerichten's Market when September 11th happened. At that point, Woodman and his Minnetonka-raised, Hopkins High-alum wife Heidi started thinking about where exactly they wanted to raise their soon-to-be-born son Isaac, and the answer turned out to be Uptown. So, a few months ago, Woodman dropped by the Linden Hills Turtle Bread, owner Harvey McLain unleashed a regular group of women joggers/Turtle customers on him, and now we have one of Earth's first-tier chefs working in the back of a bakery.

His team of sous-chefs includes David Vlach, who worked recently at French Laundry; wife Heidi Woodman, who has worked at L'Orangerie and for Jean Georges Vongerichten; and, finally, local stalwart Amy Nadeau. In the front of the house they've got Michael Morse, the personality-plus gruff charmer who recently had to shutter his beloved café un deux trois. And I hear the place has been stuffed to the gills with the old un deux trois power brokers, some of whom have been coming back three times a week.

Me, I haven't been to Levain yet, as I'm trying to give them my customary six-week window to get open, but e-mails from readers have been pouring in, gushing about how great it all is. Appetizers run from $7 to $13, a recent one was little handmade ravioli "Barbajaune à la Alain Ducasse," the ravioli filled with Swiss chard, ricotta, and parmesan, served with sautéed spinach and a veal reduction. Entrées start at $12 for a vegetarian dish, and range up to $27 for beef tenderloin. Most are around $20, like the recent goulash-inspired dish of braised and poached chicken with an Israeli paprika and saffron sauce on herbed spaetzle.

The menu will change almost entirely every week, so don't look for those particular dishes--though there is a chance that the spring pea soup, cooked to order entirely from scratch, may be on it, for when I talked to Woodman he told me that one of his new customers threatened to kill him with her bare hands if he took the dish off. Finally, the customers come into their own!

But seriously, what is Woodman doing here? "Minneapolis has a good reputation in the food world," he told me. It does? "Certainly, there are some very good restaurants here, whenever we've been here we've found some very good restaurants. People want this to be a good restaurant town," he continued, patiently. Which people, I asked, suspiciously. "People here, people in New York, food writers. It's Manifest Destiny, you'll see, we'll be a great food town soon."

It's Manifest Destiny, people! I thought I was the only person who believed in that for Minneapolis--well, me and a scattering of local chefs. In fact, I've known about Woodman's imminent restaurant opening--given platform by Harvey McLain, the Turtle Bread owner who has relentlessly, intellectually, and spiritually pursued excellence for so long that he has been an inspiration--I mean, I've known about this restaurant coming for so long that I think it's been coloring some things I've written lately, so I think I'll backtrack and do some long-winded explaining, because I know you all love it so.  

What has been the deal with all this restaurant-of-the-century jazz? Which I started with Solera, the new chef-driven tapas bar, and continued through Cosmos, the downtown restaurant in super-fancy hotel Le Meridien? Here's my thinking: What we are witnessing these few months is an absolute sea change in the level of dining in the Twin Cities, and Solera, Cosmos, and Levain are the proof.

See, for the last decade in the Twin Cities we've had a lot of individual talents, a number of talents who passed through D'Amico Cucina, for instance, like Tim McKee and Doug Flicker, or Lucia Watson at Lucia's, or the Tejas/Goodfellow's team. But there was no coherent scene. Whenever there was a survey of favorite restaurants, out-of-town chains like Kincaid's or no-brainer Italian rip-offs painted a picture of a dining public that didn't know mediocrity from greatness. Chefs were subservient to businessmen or despair, and because chefs were insecure and constantly changing jobs, the dining public learned that the well-reviewed restaurants often stank, because the talent within them changed so rapidly.

Chefs could build no coherent lifework, or customer base. Customers could build no baseline of what was normal--good, never mind extraordinarily good. But the trend over the last six years or so has been for chefs to head out on their own, found shoestring businesses, and build a customer base. Tim McKee had the least shoestring of these operations with the marvelous Stillwater La Belle Vie, and in town we had Alexander Dixon at Zander, Doug Flicker at Auriga, and Alex Roberts at Alma--chefs who stayed put, established relationships with local farmers, local provisioners who found the cherrywood balsamics and smoked oak paprikas they needed to have fun, and, slowly but surely developed a clientele who understood. Regular people now know more about, appreciate, understand, and most importantly, know where to reliably find great food in the Twin Cities.

That was then. Now, lately and just over the past few months, the next phase has been taking shape. Homegrown talents have been establishing the bigger-money, deeply rooted restaurants we need to take this dining scene to the next level. Solera expresses the concerns of a whole community of local food people who have fallen in love with Spanish ingredients. This includes importers like Scott Pikovsky, chefs like co-owners Josh Thoma and Tim McKee, wine folks like general manager Bill Sommerville, and, to me, the excitement of Solera even attaches to chefs who have nothing to do with the place but have been tinkering with Spanish ingredients for the last several years.

Meanwhile, at Cosmos, Seth Bixby Dougherty, who has deep roots here, has established a big-ticket, super-beautiful restaurant where he can showcase the fantastic Midwestern ingredients that our local chefs have been working with lo these many years. Bixby Dougherty, then, is reaching out to the businesspeople, the world travelers, and the community that doesn't know I-494 from I-394, and that is a critical, critical piece of the puzzle.

Finally, as the third leg of this restaurant-of-the-century thing, we've got Woodman and McLain, a chef with an impeccable background and a force of nature who doesn't understand the word no, raising the cooking bar a few notches.

To me, what's finally going on is that a new level of aspiration has finally been added to a really nice, really reliable pack of chef-driven, quiet, food-oriented restaurants we have here now--places like Heartland, Sapor, Zander Caf, Lucias, Auriga, La Belle Vie, Restaurant Alma, and Vincent. And if Solera, Cosmos, and Levain can be the chef-driven heavy hitters that carry, inspire, and drive everyone to the next level, then I think we will really be establishing a secure base camp on this new level of dining, as we move up the Mountain of Dining Greatness!

So where do I figure in the sad closings, like those of Aquavit, caf un deux trois, and RockStar? Well, I can say that each of those places had glaring, elephant-in-the-room flaws that made their closings unsurprising: At Aquavit, they treated non-VIPs and VIPs so differently that the place consistently reminded me of one of those puppets with a face on each side: Which would you get? To me, un deux trois hadnt had a real chef since Vincent Francoual headed out on his own. And RockStar had the most hideous physical environment of any restaurant Ive ever been toand Ive been to the airport. Which feels awful to say, because I feel like Im risking minimizing the jobs that were lost, hearts that were broken, fortunes that were destroyed, and, generally, lives that were wrecked by these closings.

And yet, one cant help but notice that restaurants are opening faster than theyre closing. jPs American bistro has come along to fill the odd-capitalization void left by un deux trois, and with Azia, Tiburn, Mojito, FireLake, and countless suburban restaurants opening faster than one can count, all signs point to a more vital restaurant scene, not a less vital one. And that is my state of the state, and end to this whole run of our various Restaurant of the Century openings. I have really created a monster, and all you publicists that keep sending me me-too notes, thats it! The door has closed. We now must all just sit tight and wait for some kind of coalescing of strengths and trends, and of course we must go out to eat.

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