Whole Foods, Whole Hearts
2610 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
When French Meadow first debuted dinner with full table service and wine two full years ago, I tried it, wasn't too impressed, and flirted briefly with actually saying so. Then I remembered that denigrating French Meadow is sure to add about four lanes of slick asphalt and an entire High Occupancy Vehicle lane to one's road to hell, so I kept my big yap shut. Now that the dinner service has evolved into one of the most interesting budget destinations in town, offering top-flight foods at casual pricing, I'm glad I kept quiet--because now I don't have to retract my words, and I'm probably even going to try to claim credit for discovering this gem hidden in plain sight.
Why the reverence for French Meadow? Mainly because French Meadow has led, articulated, and demonstrated everything right and good about food in America in the last several decades: championing organics before there really was such a thing (and certainly before there was popular awareness of the issues around organics); promoting sustainable agriculture; making and serving slow foods; and generally providing a tasty little oasis of thoughtful and healthy living since the dawn of time. Or 1985, more specifically. That's the year Lynn Gordon, founder and current co-owner of French Meadow, opened her all-organic, yeast-free bakery. (Five years later the café debuted.) In the 1970s Gordon was already one of those moms who would pack tofu sandwiches for trips to Valleyfair, and she was a produce buyer for a small St. Paul co-op, when even knowing what wheat bran was pretty much qualified you as a health nut. Years before that, Gordon's theories about food and wellness were forged in the most difficult circumstances: Her mother died of cancer at the age of 42, leaving 15-year-old Lynn with two young sisters, ages 10 and five, and a father who had a profound belief in the connection between food and lifestyle and health. "They say that when something like your mother dying happens to kids, it builds character," says Gordon. "You get tough and you learn. I knew then that I didn't want illness like that to happen to me, or anyone. I knew that what my dad was saying was right--that there was a connection between food and health. My whole life since then has been organized along those lines. My ex-husband used to say, The house smells like an Indian restaurant. Can't you cook any normal food? But the kids loved it, of course--kids don't know any better. They like things that are healthy."
Well, me too. I like things that are healthy. And evidence says you do too. Every once in a while I join the frenzy of millions that arrive at French Meadow for the justly adored weekend brunches. Those pancakes that offer a counterintuitive blend of lightness and weight, buoyant and springy on the plate, but giving a firm foundation for a day's activities. After those meals I'll usually take a seeded baguette home--I love the way it combines an airy center that offers a whiff of sweet and sea spray with a crust that's satisfying to toy with and eat, like a bread lover's beef jerky.
And the dinner? Well, a year ago the food was good, but eating in felt like getting French Meadow takeout and bringing it to an airplane hangar: noisy, cold, not right. After two solid years of steady improvements, though, manager Matt Kline and server and wine-buyer Debbie Gordon have made the space welcoming, soothing, and warm, established a service staff that pretty much knows what it's doing, and provided a thoroughly pleasant showcase for the considerable achievements of chef Jonathan Grumbles. You should care because all of this has combined into a first-rate restaurant in the woefully underserved category where entrées cluster in the attractive $8-to-$14 range and a full dinner--with wine!--can be easily had for $20 a head.
Enter this cathedral of original organics at night nowadays and you're asked to seat yourself at whatever table suits you. I always found one at either end of the long room, where polished wood tables topped with bowls of candles and flowers make it seem like you're at a winter garden party. Browse the wine list and you find two dozen nice bottles, each chosen with an eye toward value, though the European selections are the best bargains: The $18 French sauvignon blanc Tarral is lemony and crisp; the $30 albariño, Valdumia, is like a soft citrusy blossom in the mouth. (For reds, try the $24 dusky pinot noir from Chartron et Trebuchet, or the beautiful blackberry and cedar Rioja from Vina Alberdi, $39.) Visit on half-price-wine Saturday, and you're in an improbable, wallet-friendly heaven.
Improbable too was the time I actually found myself regarding the arrival of a tempeh cutlet with anticipatory glee--me, who generally thinks all entrées--and most beverages--can be improved by the addition of generous amounts of sausage. And yet one of the entrées on the regular menu is a concoction of pumpkinseed-wild-rice-crusted tempeh resting on two little hills of vegetables ($13.95), and darned if it isn't both vegan and delectable. The tempeh itself is made in little triangles, so that the nutty crust is available in every bite--and that crust is a seedy fried thing that's good in the simple way that, say, almonds are. But it's the two vegetables that slay me: The yams are amazing, a simple spiced maple-yam purée that glows as orange as a fireplace ember and tastes so light and sweet, you practically want to hop into it. They're not like yams I've had before, as they're light in the mouth in an almost liquidy way, not leaden and Thanksgivingish. Then there is kale, bright, crinkly, resilient but silky in the mouth, and glowing on the plate like a little emerald hill of lacquered dollhouse laundry. I've been eating kale my whole life, and I think this is the best I've ever had. Another version of the plate is available with not tempeh but fried chicken ($14.95) and, boy, that's even better. The chicken is a local Kadejan (ka-DEE-zhan) farms chicken breast crusted with a thick layer of cornmeal and fried to that soul-food ideal of crisp and greaseless. The preparation is more like soul-food fried catfish than fried chicken, come to think of it, but it is really incredibly good. My other favorite from the regular menu--though please note that the ever-changing specials are quite good--is the vegetarian wild-mushroom risotto ($13.95), which had the perfect chewiness that risotto is supposed to have. It was loaded with buttery, peppery little slices of mushroom and sweet, nutty chunks of butternut squash and topped with a delicious tangle of forest-dark broccoli raab (also known as rapini). And this was a truly impressive version of the vegetable, a quick sauté preserving all of its irony power without bringing out its potential bitterness. (If I could wish for one thing, it would be that the fantastic vegetable side dishes were also offered à la carte: It is going to pain me in the future to know that there is broccoli raab of this caliber and I have to order a whole other dish to get it.)
I didn't love everything: I thought the rare seared ahi tuna ($16.95) was a great bargain for an enormous piece of fish, but it didn't have the jewel-like quality I want from tuna. I liked all the appetizers but fell head over heels for none of them--I'd share a salad ($4.95-$11.95; most are around $8) before tangling with them again. But with the phenomenal complimentary bread basket that comes with every dinner, it's hard to imagine grumbling about needing more food. For me, one of the joys of eating here was getting to try the diversity of French Meadow breads: I think I had gotten into a rut only ordering my favorites, but now that I've tried the various boules and baguettes, I am more impressed than ever with the bread at this bakery. While I'm tallying bargains, please do note that French Meadow is--especially on Saturday nights--an unbelievable cheap-date destination. Imagine that bread basket, a $9 or $10 bottle of wine, and one of French Meadow's signature bowls of soup ($4.95) and you can almost hear the graduate students begin to stampede.
Though it would be a shame not to set one of those salads on the table, for in them, even in winter, you get a sense of the talent and heart of young chef Jonathan Grumbles, who came to Minnesota after a two-year stint at New York City's vegetarian Candle Café. He is very nearly vegan, and he cooks for two reasons: to give pleasure to the eating public, and to try to help the world through promoting sustainable local farming.
Even in the produce-free winter, you can see French Meadow's commitment to local farms in elements like the blue cheese in the fantastic spinach and apple salad ($7.95) in which the spinach is topped with sweet slices of spiced, maple-baked apples and a local Minnesota blue cheese that has a tang as fierce as the winter wind. This is blue cheese as it's supposed to be eaten--sparingly, because just a little packs a wallop. The citrus salad ($7.95) is another charmer: little lettuces topped with skin-free sections of organic grapefruit and oranges, united by a mustard vinaigrette and animated by toasted hazelnuts and a perky local queso fresco. By the time summer rolls around, says Grumbles, he will be working with so many local farmers that French Meadow plates will boast some 75 percent local ingredients--an amazingly high figure.
"To me," says Grumbles, whom I spoke to on the phone for this article, "cooking is about promoting a sustainable way of eating that's delicious, and that I feel good about. I don't want to just satiate your hunger; I want you to walk away feeling happy. One of the most important roles I can play in my kitchen is helping farmers produce stuff sustainably, and then get it out to people in such a way that makes them really want to eat it, to make the healthy things so delicious you crave them and demand more. I think the Twin Cities are a very health-conscious community--you wouldn't have so many co-ops in such a small area if it wasn't. Yet it comes from a real meat-and-potatoes background, where vegetables are a vestibule for cheese. I think my role is being someone who loves vegetables--I probably eat more produce than anyone in town, myself--and to make people understand what it's like to have something made with love, and good ingredients, and the lightness that comes from eating good, whole things. Typically, the crappier something is, the more weighed down you feel. If food is very doctored, there's a reason for it: More quality in the ingredients means you need less grease and spice to hide the emptiness." Hear! Hear! That's why those yams are so good and light: Less doctoring.
Of course, a few improvements could be made: Servers are an eager and hard-working young team, but if they were taught more about the wines on offer, that would help. If there were some way to dim the wattage of the fluorescent lights in the pastry cases, that would be great. (I never had to sit in those central tables near the bakery items, but I think if I did the place wouldn't have felt so cozy.) I'm not worried, though. Manager Matt Kline says the French Meadow improvements will keep coming: In addition to the amazing Saturday-night wine offer, which he promises will stay, Tuesday nights are going to offer a special whereby if you order two entrées you get a free appetizer, and something similar is planned for Sundays. Other improvements might include a magical device to zap restaurants I don't like into other incarnations of French Meadow. I refer, of course, to the proliferating chains that are massing around the highways like so many maquiladoras, hell-bent on giving the illusion of providing value and amusement. After much thought, I have finally decided that the real point of restaurants is to make the world a better place. I am not even kidding: When you have a nice lunch, or a happy Tuesday-night bowl of organic soup and wholesome bread with a friend, it patches up the raggedy wear and tear we all suffer from the day-to-day, and it gives to every part of you, the cells in your body and the chambers of your soul. It gives you the resources to be nice to your neighbor, to help out a co-worker, to feel mere pity for the jerk who cut you off in traffic. When you have empty food in a cynical space where everything from seating to music to menu has been designed to get money out of you as quickly and often as possible, you return to the world a little worse off than you were before lunch, and negative experiences cascade forth. You argue with the co-worker, avoid the neighbor, sneak past the mirror without looking, and search the refrigerator for something to make the yearning go away.
I agree, it does seem like a lot to expect a restaurant to make the world a better place, a nicer place to live, full of calmer people. It would seem like a lot, except now I've seen it done.
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