Pining for Levain? A trip to its replacement, Cafe Levain, will certainly help.
You remember Levain, right? Critics' darling, foodie favorite. I was all over it when Stewart Woodman ran the place. Ditto the Steven Brown era. I mourned its passing. But you know what? It's been nearly a year since the doors closed. We all need to move on.
To his everlasting credit, owner Harvey McLain has. As promised, he reopened the restaurant as an affordable neighborhood bistro. When he joked last winter that he might call Levain 2.0 "Peasant Food Only," I half-believed him. But then he went with Cafe Levain.
It's a name that suits the enterprise's new approachability. Out-of-towners bearing gold-plated expense accounts probably won't be hopping the No. 5 bus for the trek to 48th and Chicago -- although, let's face it, did they ever? But I suspect that plenty of locals will add McLain's latest venture to their dining calendars. If there's a place for a spur-of-the-moment Tuesday night dinner, this is definitely it.
That's because chef Eric Sturtz has a talent for coaxing flavors out of everyday ingredients -- chicken, less-expensive cuts of beef and pork, root vegetables -- and then treating them in time-tested ways.
"Maybe they should have called it Cafe Brown," observed my friend, and he was right: The low-and-slow methods that Sturtz has at his fingertips -- roasting, braising, browning -- brush a golden glow of goodness onto so many plates. There's a reason why they call this stuff comfort food.
Short ribs, so fall-apart tender that each forkful literally melts in your mouth, have such a primal appeal that the minute you take a bite you know you won't be sharing a morsel, not even if your beloved threatens banishment to the guest room. Gnocchi are served with an apple-squash combo (and bits of fresh and fried sage, a lovely touch) that's tailor-made for cool autumn nights. There's a fine rosemary-kissed roast chicken, the leg and the breast still on the bone, the skin crispy, the meat juicy.
Coq au vin -- sadly missing in action from the current menu -- was a triumph, a rich, flavorful and utterly satisfying meal-on-a-plate; its return tops my Christmas wish list. A hearty beef stew, brimming with carrots and potatoes, hit just the right balance of blended and distinct flavors. A hanger steak has an appropriately robust bite, heck, even the two-fisted burger is a fine example of how well-prepared basics genuinely hit the spot.
Even the back-to-basics salads are a pleasure, particularly the arugula jazzed with delicate celery leaves and pert lemon. And I love the homey, generously portioned side dishes, each a well-prepared sidekick to the main attraction: skin-on fries, sauteed Swiss chard, deeply caramelized Brussels sprouts, sweet corn finished with a dollop of creme fraiche. The bread basket aims to please, not a surprise given the restaurant is part of the Turtle Bread Co. family.
There are weaknesses. Practice does seem to make perfect, because I never encountered a daily special that I admired. A creamy bouillabaise lacked the expected garlic and saffron kick. Tagliatelle tossed with tomatoes and greens was a flat-out bore. Desserts don't stand out, with the exception of a marvelous, multi-layered chocolate-hazelnut cake and a fine tarte Tatin.
Service is another weak spot. One sweltering August evening I witnessed what I hope, for their sake, was the restaurant's rock-bottom night, a bonafide meltdown. The house was packed and woefully understaffed, the kitchen wasn't putting out plates and the dining room was in revolt. After clocking an hour and 20 minutes between courses, a ridiculous wait, I was tempted to leave and finish my dinner at Chipotle. The table to my right did just that; actually, I don't know where they ended up, but they beat an exasperated exit.
"I will not wait 90 minutes for a hamburger," growled my neighbor as he tossed his napkin on his table. I haven't seen that kind of public display of anger in button-downed Minnesota since Jesse Ventura sat in the governor's office. Ouch. Fast-forward two months, and many of the kinks had obviously been massaged but not entirely eliminated. The kitchen seems to have shortened those interminable pauses, and the service staff feels far more accomplished. Here's another question: If it's truly a neighborhood-centric joint, shouldn't the restaurant be open every night?
Two thumbs up on the room's slight overhaul. Dark wood paneling now rings the still-inviting space, and a new pair of counters makes it easier for drop-ins to, well, drop in. Levain's old, weather-beaten red door, a curbside signature, has been relegated to a kind of art work, hanging in the dining room over the kitchen's open counter. It's a little reminder of what once was, and this Levain fan -- yeah, I'm getting over it, OK? -- is grateful.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
Rick Nelson • firstname.lastname@example.org