For good food and a sense of calm, turn to the neighborly cafe.
The couple ahead of me are pushing all my buttons.
In the few minutes that we have been in line at the Birchwood Cafe, I have read every word on the wall of chalkboard menus. Twice. Mr. and Mrs. Oblivious have been chatting, and now having reached the counter are completely clueless about what to order. Endless discussion ensues. Samples are nibbled. The guy behind me clears his throat in a way that suggests, "You people are losers."
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, it's my turn. I order, pay and take a seat. I'm fidgety with hunger. Six minutes later my dinner arrives, and after several soul-restoring bites I glance at the talkative couple. Suddenly I can imagine them as my new best friends.
That's the effect the B'wood has on me, and I'm grateful. Owner Tracy Singleton's 11-year establishment has always been a refuge of simple food made well. Lately, particularly following the addition of chef Marc Paavola, its ambitions have grown, and this anchor of the Seward neighborhood is better than ever.
Vegetarian with flavor
One of the kitchen's most admirable traits is its We Take Vegetarians Seriously mindset. Take the pizzas. Where other, lesser restaurants would be satisfied to offer a four-cheese or, if they're feeling generous, a Margherita pizza, Paavola and company turn crisp, nutty brown crusts into showstoppers: a crimson swipe of red beet hummus was dappled with sweet roasted cipollini onions, nicely mellow chèvre and a handful of fresh arugula, and a golden butternut squash purée was topped with chunks of Camembert, tart apple and caramelized onions.
Daikon and miso were behind the kick -- and an edamame purée and cilantro pesto dialed up the color -- in a crunchy sandwich layered with cucumbers, onions and sprouts. A gigantic black bean burger, stuffed with cheese Juicy Lucy-style, was crowned with avocado and a snappy corn salsa. Woodsy mushrooms and taleggio cheese -- and a dash of truffle oil -- put a red-carpet touch on everyday mac-and-cheese. Most memorable was a fantastic turnover, all flaky crust on the outside, all creamy pumpkin inside, with a bit of aged goat's milk cheese to give it a flirty tang.
Imagination and quality
Not that meat eaters will feel out of place. Although Paavola is working with relatively modest ingredients, his cooking demonstrates a rich imagination. For starters, he does delicious things with the exceptional pork from farmer Tim Fischer in Waseca, Minn., and an incredible smoked chicken from birds raised at Wild Acres Game Farm in Pequot Lakes, Minn.
His turkey burger, piping hot and flavorful, was dressed with a dream team combo of Camembert and a cranberry relish and squeezed into a pepito-studded pumpkin bun; its current incarnation is Southern barbecue sandwich-style, and it's even better. A motherly turkey meatloaf, sharing the plate with a homey corn pudding, made for a perfect cool-weather meal. Ditto a lusty gumbo stew brimming with hominy, okra and spicy sausage.
Paavola's daily specials are models of quality and seasonal ingenuity: a creamy pumpkin risotto jazzed with Honeycrisp apples, bacon and toasted pumpkin seeds; chicken with orzo, roasted squash and Swiss chard served in a gentle, Parmesan-kissed broth; and more orzo tossed with plump shrimp, leeks and a pretty yellow tomato sauce. (Top price? A shockingly low $13.)
Singleton also has started a new let-us-bus-your-table rule and has launched what she hopes will turn into a monthly series of table-service meals. Last month she hosted a five-course Belgian-beer-tasting dinner, and it was a minor triumph.
First meal of the day
Breakfast can't be beat. I'm always in the mood for the gently scrambled eggs with a few slices of Tim Fischer's thick, wickedly smoky bacon or a side of the kitchen's zesty wild-rice-pork sausage. Quiche (served with thin-cut, skin-on roasted potatoes that actually taste like potatoes) is rich and hearty.
But I almost always go for the waffles. On weekdays it's a basic buttermilk formula -- nicely tender, with a fruit compote -- but on weekends the variations can swing from sweet potato to banana-nut, and they're great.
Baked goods continue to be a strong suit. In a town where many restaurants fall back on wholesale product, Atom Wolf's hearty, distinctive breads add a welcome dimension. Day in and day out, pastry chef Sandra Sherva cleverly fills the bakery case with more than a dozen different slice-of-Americana desserts. Her repertoire rivals the collective efforts of a half-dozen Lutheran church ladies, which makes it a treat -- literally -- to drop in and see what she's up to.
Maybe it's a gutsy gingerbread topped with a hefty dollop of real whipped cream, or an autumnal brown sugar-apple cake. Sherva clearly knows her way around fruit pies and crisps, and her layer cakes rank among the best in town. Sometimes I'll stop by just on the hope that she's found time to crank out a batch of her unbeatable chocolate chip cookies. It doesn't matter if there are a dozen people ahead of me in line. I'll wait.