At Restaurant Alma, a collaborative effort yields four-star results.
It's a restaurant critic's plight. When someone I'm meeting for the first time finds out about the unorthodox way in which I make my living, here's what invariably happens: My brain turns into a YouTube.com download. As the opening credits of "60 Minutes" flash the stopwatch's tick-tick-tick, I count down the seconds -- usually it's less than five -- before my newfound friend asks, "What's your favorite restaurant?"
I hate to disappoint my new pal, but the answer never waivers: I have not one but many, depending on both my mood and, more important, on who's going to pick up the check. There are, however, several spots that occupy a permanent berth on my hit parade. One of them is Restaurant Alma.
This seven-year-old restaurant, built by Alex Roberts and Jim Reininger, has always been a pleasure, but in the past two years their southeast Minneapolis bistro has bumped itself up to a new level of excellence.
Reininger, the restaurant's skilled baker and wine guru, has a distinguished résumé peppered with top-rated Twin Cities names, including ownership at the former Lowry's.
Chef Roberts got his start in the business at age 14, washing dishes. By the time he left for New York City in 1993, the South High School graduate had spent four years cooking for Reininger at Lowry's. After training at the French Culinary Institute and gaining a sweat-equity graduate degree in several bold-face-type Manhattan restaurants, Roberts returned to his hometown with a plan to open his own place. He reconnected with his friend-mentor Reininger, and in 1999 the two launched their remarkable partnership.
Over time, Roberts' menu has evolved into a format unlike any other in the Twin Cities. It's divided into three sections -- starters, grains-pastas and entrees, with four choices in each category. All are available a la carte, but dinner is ideally a tri-course, design-your-own meal. At $42, it is unquestionably the best fine-dining deal in town.
Don't expect mannered, chef-as-architect fussiness. Roberts doesn't waste his time with the experimental, the overwrought or the arch. Delicious is easily the most overused word in the food-writer's vocabulary, but that's what Roberts' work is all about: achieving maximum deliciousness.
Fresh from the farm
It starts with an emphasis on seasonal, locally sourced ingredients (many originating from the Wisconsin farm of Roberts' father). Then he finesses those ingredients into seemingly improvisational combinations that in reality hum with an inevitability. They are all anchored in Roberts' consummate technical skill, a rambling curiosity and a healthy obsession with perfection. No doubt about it: the highly original restaurant everyone shorthands to Alma is a sure-fire antidote to diners suffering from Chronic Chicken Caesar Salad Fatigue Syndrome.
Last week I found myself swooning over ricotta-filled pasta triangles peppered with horseradish and tiny cubes of enticingly sweet beets. Gently braised rabbit and a robust soppresatta stood proudly alongside tender pillows of potato gnocchi. Saffron, slightly crunchy fava beans and tender spring onions added dash to spaghettini. Cumin-dusted prawns were cooled with cucumber and mint. Beef tenderloin, achingly tender, was finished in an expert bordelaise.
Two menu iterations ago, the sweet pop of a plush hominy corn soufflé was the perfect foil for mellow trout. A beaut of a salad of arugula, strawberries and onions skillfully introduced June's first tastes. Traces of lemon added depth to a colorful knockout pairing of pink salmon and green avocado. Salty anchovies and cool, sweet oranges were a marvelous contrast to perfectly grilled swordfish. Grilled bread topped with chicken livers, apricots, bacon and sage made for a highly memorable bruschetta.
An April meal pretty much tiptoed toward Nirvana. Black cod was cured in sugar and white miso and then broiled until it literally melted like an expensive Godiva truffle. A pristine raw lamb, dashed with aioli, was a surprise twist on the usual beef tartare. A toss of radishes, peas and herbs -- in a spicy lime dressing -- was a flirtatious introduction to spring.
Roberts has a knack for slipping in touches of citrus, and his halibut sautéed with fennel was jazzed up with Meyer lemon. A delicately nutty heirloom varietal rice laid the cornerstone for sweet crab and simmering curry. And it's always a treat to indulge in Roberts' signature dish, a savory stew with chorizo, clams, chicken and white beans.
Desserts are lovely. An ever-changing chocolate assortment hit all the right don't-make-me-share marks. Traces of early summer rosemary teased their way out of chocolate ganache-filled crêpes. A superb lemon cake nimbly crossed several texture and flavor barriers. A deliriously buttery triple-cream French cheese was paired with hickory nuts and a doozy of a honey.
The wide-open dining room has its dead zones, especially the tables in the rear and the cramped, Siberia-like balcony. Recently I've found myself gravitating toward the bar, primarily because its front-row-center seats offer unobstructed glimpses into the deeply collaborative nature of restaurants, with Roberts and his longtime sous chefs Ricardo Saltos and Bryan Morcom spinning their way through their highly focused, deftly choreographed nightly cooking dance.
That's another reason to admire Alma. In a pressure-cooker industry plagued by notoriously high employee turnover, the fact that Alma's staffers stick around for years speaks volumes, and their loyalty to and enthusiasm for their work filters down to the customer experience. It's especially inviting to be greeted at the door, year in and year out, by James Hirdler, Alma's gracious general manager. Because they've been with the restaurant for what feels like forever, servers Nat Bursheim, Hannah Drehmann and Jennifer Wallevand practically possess an ESP-like ability to anticipate most questions or needs. Heck, even dishwasher Manuel Jimenez has been on the payroll since day one; how many workplaces can boast that kind of track record?
Alma isn't for everyone. The bare tables, the sturdy commodity dinnerware, the wide-open kitchen and the staff's Casual Friday attire are comfortably honest rather than elegant. The deliberately leisurely pace may nudge Type A types into fidgety despair, and the sane portion sizes could send coupon-clippers back to their local all-you-dare-consume buffet. No matter. The word restaurant has its roots in restore, and alma is Spanish for soul. The name fits, like a glove.