Tweaking the Natural Order
3311 E. 25th St., Minneapolis; (612) 722-4474
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Saturday 8:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Sunday 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m.
In front of the Birchwood Cafe is a beautiful, copiously flowering plant, a tasty, tasty purple-flowering plant of extreme interest to bees. What this plant is I could not say, being an urban child and generally clueless in the ways of nature. But, after many years of life in the mean streets of Minneapolis, I have built up my powers of observation so finely that I can distinguish in an instant the difference between an area of no bees and an area roiling, teeming, and buzzing with masses of happy bees. And then I go on my way, because bees are not only noble, but famously well-armed.
Not so for other urban children, as I recently learned at the Birchwood, where I spent a morning breathlessly watching a girl who was about ten years old repeatedly lunging at, swatting, and otherwise terrorizing a clump of bees as her mother sat by and chatted with a friend.
This was almost indescribably disturbing.
My head ached with the incongruities: Don't people learn to avoid bees when they're quite young--like three or four? What kind of parent watches children terrorizing other beings, without saying a word? Also, the bees did nothing to retaliate, contradicting everything I thought I knew about bees. Are these special appeasement bees? Conscientious-objector bees? Then, as the girl continued to assault the bees, it contradicted everything I thought I knew about everything: What could possibly be gained from terrorizing bees? Isn't it against basic human self-interest?
Watching the girl only convinced me of the dire need for more Birchwoods in the landscape, more places devoted to the wholesome and the real, places where everything on your plate is identifiable and attached to the natural world: Onion soup is full of irregular pieces of onions, carrots, and celery; lemonade is tart with lemons; peach pie is buttery and full of peaches. Co-owner, cook, and baker Susan Muskat says that in the five years since her cheerful, gourmet counter-service restaurant opened, the Birchwood has grown ever more natural.
"We're increasingly organic, increasingly local," says Muskat. "This is our second season working with [organic, local] River Bend Farms, and we take as much from them as we can get. Right now it's rapini, arugula, radishes, herbs, garlic scapes, green-stem bok choy, but as the season progresses it will be everything, from broccoli to tomatoes to cabbage." Muskat says the path toward ever more local, wholesome food has been both customer- and chef-driven. "We've changed partly because customers wanted more food-food than we originally planned on doing, but it's also to keep the cooks interested. When your goal is to make everything from scratch, being fresh and being seasonal is necessarily where your creativity takes you. What's been lucky about it is that because we change the menu so often now, with what's fresh, regular customers tend to come a couple times a week, to try what's new."
Those who came the week of the bee incident would have gotten to sample a new-potato salad made with fresh dill and capers ($3.25), an arugula-and-parsley pesto pizza that embodied early spring ($6.25), and even a salade niçoise ($8.95) with firm new potatoes, the first narrow haricots verts of the season, delicate slices of spring radish, and a slab of fresh tuna.
Fresh tuna at the Birchwood? I told you the place, long beloved for its baked goods and vegetarian fare, has changed. Muskat is a devoted cookbook reader and has served a number of unusual blink-and-you-miss-them dishes that I've missed, like a Black Sea dish of chicken in walnut and cilantro sauce, served with red beans in a sour plum dressing with feta-cheese flat bread. "We run two specials a week, that change weekly, and a lot of dishes won't show up more than twice a year," she says, explaining why one would do well to go often to the Birchwood.
I go often for the desserts--or dessertpetizers, as one of my friends calls them, since you get your desserts at the counter as you order, and them take them with you to a table to wait for the rest of your food. If you can resist decimating the desserts before your entrées arrive, you have more willpower than I--and I guess you must have your reasons, though I can't see them. Why tarry when a slice of orange-chiffon cake awaits? This segment of pale orange fluff was so light and delectable it fluttered to the table, got a four-part chorus of "Oh, wow," and was gone.
Similar fates attend the Birchwood's many versions of bread pudding ($2.95), invariably soft as murmurs, and cloaked in a buttery caramel sauce that makes people stamp their feet in delight. The pies that appear in the refrigerator case are often exquisite. Over the past few months I've had a banana cream pie with a custard so fresh it danced, a peach and spice pie so hauntingly nuanced I had to take the day off and read a novel. Even when the desserts miss their mark, they do it in the right way: A blueberry pie ($2.95) was overcooked and too jammy, but still delicious; a vegan three-berry cobbler ($2.95) was topped with a granola-like topping and wasn't nearly sweet enough to seem like dessert, but it still seemed like a good try, and you can't begrudge that.
The bad desserts at Birchwood aren't really bad desserts. Bad desserts in this town tend to be the overslick, taste-free cynical offerings. You've had them: the ebony-colored but chocolateless flourless chocolate cakes, the airy but empty bread puddings. They tend to be almost-desserts.
Which reminds me of my first assessment of this modest restaurant. I reviewed it about a million years ago when I first took up this page. I thought, after trying what I thought were watery soups and plain-Jane salads: This is a restaurant? Now I look at the delightful composed salads, like a recent offering of tiny mixed greens topped with ripe grape-tomatoes, perlette grape halves, chopped pecans, and an excellent, mild blue cheese and think: This is a restaurant! The best things are simple, good, and confident.
And the pizzas are among those best things, made lately with a sweet yeast dough that crisps so nicely and has such a firm and tender presence that it's completely individual--it's so rich it almost tastes like a brioche. The always-available pepperoni pizza ($5.75) features a robust, chunky sauce, good spicy pepperoni, and just the right amount of cheese to turn the rich, six-inch disc into a full meal. Throw a Sonny's ice cream IBC-root beer float ($3.25) on the side, and you've got an all-American repast that's as flavor-packed as a pound of truffles.
The vegetarian meals have also grown ever-more ambitious: A Mediterranean-influenced creation of Parmesan-topped, broiled, and crusted chickpea croquettes on a bed of sautéed, herb-saturated zucchini and peppers served with a tomato-feta salad ($7.95) was excellent, the nutty croquettes proving the perfect foil to the bright zucchini. A more recent dish of plain quinoa cakes on a vast pool of black beans ($7.95) was prevented from being boring by three delicious accompaniments, a cumin-laced salad of pickled beets and red onions, a sweet, spicy mango-pepper salsa, and a banana raita. There are often dairy accents in the main vegetarian entrées that can be left off for vegans, and the Birchwood always serves a few explicitly vegan dishes, like an awful ginger-miso soup ($2.95 a cup, $3.95 a bowl) that was so overly intense it tasted like salad dressing, or a perfectly good adzuki bean salad with a spicy peanut dressing.
And then on to dessert. Or not. Those were done before the meal even began.
I guess sometimes the natural order can do with a little tweaking--dessertpetizers!--while there are other times--girl stings bee!--it can't. Oh, and the young terrorist, to the amazement of all, walked away from the Birchwood completely unscathed and unchastened. She's probably busy biting mosquitoes right now.
ALMA SWELLS: Speaking of fresh and seasonal, lately diners at Restaurant Alma, the American bistro at 528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis; (612) 379-4909, have been not only eating fresh, local, and cutting-edge (stinging-nettle gnocchi with Love Tree Farms ricotta, cucumber consommé with smoked Star Prairie trout, and frisée salad with Wisconsin fava beans and haricots verts), but they've been drinking like princes: Co-owner Jim Reininger says the restaurant's generous corkage policy--$15 a bottle to bring your own--has, counterintuitively, increased the amount of wine they sell. "Almost to a one, people who bring in wine look at our list and say, 'If I knew your list was like this, I wouldn't have bothered picking out something of my own,'" says Reininger, curator of Alma's wine list and baker of its excellent breads. "Then, almost invariably, they drink a bottle of their wine, and a bottle of ours. And then we've got loyal customers."
The only problem, he notes, is that his wine-savvy clientele is making it nearly impossible to keep rarities on his list: A few bottles of 1997 Kistler chardonnay from the McCrea and Durrel vineyards he picked up recently flew off his shelves. High-end chardonnay buffs know that if you weren't one of the lucky ones who got a bottle of these perennial five-star Kistler chardonnays when they came out, and sold for a mere $45, you'd have to seek it out at auction. A March 31 auction at the Chicago Wine Company (www.tcwc.com) saw bottles going for around $100 each.
Happily, Alma's deep-pocketed customers are financing a coming boon for penny pinchers: Reininger and co-owner and chef Alex Roberts hope to get approval from the city to expand into an area that's currently part of the Dunn Bros coffee shop next door. This would allow them to consolidate their upscale dining area into a two-level, white-tablecloth area in the rear of the restaurant. The front of the restaurant would turn into a cheap and fast casual café. Alma almighty!
Oh--and starting July 16, they're going to open for dinner on Sundays, so those that head out of town for the weekends can have a relaxed evening meal.
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