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Café Levain

By Lavender July 3, 2008

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Driving by 47th Street and Chicago in Minneapolis, it is very easy to miss Café Levain. Its location—tucked directly behind Turtle Bread Company—is the only conceivable reason the place isn’t packed on a Saturday night. However, if one seeks a calm, quiet dining experience without the fuss of reservations or waiting an hour for a table, Café Levain should be the next dining stop…before word spreads.

Dining table.

Chef Adam Vickerman arrived at his post very young (he graduated from high school in 2003), but his innovative approach to cuisine garnered the title of Café Levain’s chef on February 1. He is a perfect fit for the establishment, which is a bistro-style revamp of the pricier Restaurant Levain. With a focus on fresh, locally grown ingredients, it was important to the new chef to keep his menu accessible and appropriately priced for the neighborhood, without sacrificing an artistic viewpoint. Therefore, entrées like hanger steak and Kadejan Farms free-range chicken are priced at $20 and under. They come with an increasing rarity: an accompanying side dish.

Vickerman says, “We try to keep our prices fairly low, considering the local products that we use.”

Café Levain retains the elegance of its parent restaurant, while adding a bit of bistro flair. The masculine, dark wood paneling is punched up with butcher paper table treatments. Rustic door and mirrors frame the pass to an open kitchen. The overall effect is that elusive informal elegance so many dining establishments seek, but so few manage to achieve.

Photos by Hubert Bonnet

Lulled by the ambience, I found myself casually chatting with my dining partner, entirely forgetting that I had to browse the newly updated menu. Thankfully, our server was amenable to our leisurely pace.

We had frog legs as a starter ($9). Prepared with a buttermilk-thyme brine, and served over local greens with a lemon brown butter aioli, it is the epitome of Vickerman’s innovative style. The robust, zesty aioli was the perfect complement to the delicately fried frog legs, biting through the rich taste of the meat without overpowering it.

In addition to regular menu items, Vickerman regularly incorporates local farmer’s market finds into Café Levain’s weekly specials. From this list, I sampled a soup of baby artichoke puree, raw fennel, pea tendrils, olive oil, and chives ($8). The creamy base ordinarily might have been heavy enough to upstage the rest of the cast, but in Vickerman’s hands, even the delicate pea tendrils pop.

Another weekly special I was pleased to try was the Alaskan red king salmon with braised baby artichokes and fennel, garnished with local mustard flowers ($28). The salmon was astonishingly fresh, and flaked perfectly on the fork. I was grateful to be served just a taste of it, for I already had ordered the beef short ribs entrée, and to have to push aside such a gem as the salmon would have been a culinary discourtesy.

Photo by Hubert Bonet

It is for this very reason that not sampling Levain’s burger ($12) was probably wise. Vickerman assures me it is a customer favorite, and I can understand why, considering its makeup of Thousand Hills ground beef, gruyère fondue, charred onions, and local greens.

Vickerman explains, “The Thousand Hills beef from Cannon Falls is grass-fed, as opposed to corn-fed. It makes for a chewier cut, and the natural beef flavor really comes through a lot better. The price is definitely worth it. You’re supporting a local purveyor, and their practices are sustainable and natural and free-range. These guys do it the best!”

Despite not sampling the burger, I still could not finish the braised beef short ribs ($19), served in its own juices with charred greens and a sherry vinaigrette. It was one of the few times in the past eight years that I have been happy to be an American. Here, I am not reviled for requesting a doggie bag, and one should not let such fork-tender beef go to waste.

If other diners should be in the same predicament, then find another occasion to try Café Levain’s desserts. I sampled the traditionally prepared crème brûlée served with fresh berries ($7), as well as the Valhrona truffle torte dolled up with tangy Italian cherries and caramel sauce ($9.50). The torte is made for the die-hard chocolate truffle enthusiast. Its intensity makes it the perfect sweet to share over coffee.

For an even better deal than Vickerman’s regular menu, Café Levain offers a three-course meal for a shoestring budget every Sunday: Vegetarians sup for $20, and courses including meat are priced at $25.

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