Walk into Restaurant Alma — and its delightful new kid sister, Cafe Alma — and the collaborative nature of the restaurant business is immediately apparent.
One reason why chef/owner Alex Roberts has added an all-day cafe/bar and a hotel into his existing dinner-only restaurant format was to create opportunities for his colleagues to shine. They’ve proven themselves to be up to the challenge, and then some.
In the restaurant, chef de cuisine Lucas Rosenbrook, an Alma veteran with a decade of service, has elevated an already singular dining experience. In the cafe, Matt Sprague, another young chef who’s an old Alma hand, is channeling his 11-year tenure into overseeing what has quickly emerged as a first-rate casual dining operation.
A bakery counter now acts as a salutation to cafe guests, and it’s a dazzling platform for the myriad gifts of pastry chef Carrie Riggs and bread baker Tiffany Singh.
At the center of this talent vortex is, of course, Roberts.
Highly engineered culinary pyrotechnics have never been his forte. Instead, his measured, low-ego cooking style has forever been about respecting the integrity of the ingredients he gathers into his kitchen — whether it’s Minnesota-raised duck, heirloom dent mill corn from South Carolina or prized pasilla de Oaxaca chile peppers — and placing them in the service of diners walking through his door.
“The average person doesn’t get tired of a nicely seared scallop,” said Roberts. “A scallop has so much natural sugar in it that when you sear it, it caramelizes naturally and beautifully. The first time anyone has a scallop cooked that way — especially when it’s basted in butter and shallots and thyme — it’s transcendent. Why wouldn’t you want to share that experience, and the truth of that ingredient?”
The restaurant retains its create-your-own-adventure format, offering five choices among three courses. The first is relatively vegetable-centric, the middle often ventures into grains, pastas and stews, and the final celebrates seafood, beef, poultry and other animal proteins.
Under Rosenbrook’s guidance, the changes-with-the-seasons menus continue to quietly delight and impress. Those bored by endless winter root vegetables will be bowled over by carrots, roasted in the whey the kitchen culls from its ricotta-making process.
Punchy fermented chiles were the just-right response to a cool, clean bison tartare. Chewy chard — fueled by a sneaky jalapeño bite — proved to be a brilliant substitute for creamed spinach in an Alma specialty, a tender masa crêpe.
When my craving for crispy-skinned pan-seared chicken makes its presence known, I can’t think of a more satisfying solution than placing myself in Rosenbrook’s skilled hands. Yes, Restaurant Alma, after 17 years, remains a colossus on the prairie.
The cafe next door
Let’s see: Alma’s sensibilities, funneled into an all-day, lower-priced cafe setup? I’ll take it.
This is the place for a sizzling, bone-in pork chop. Or a juiced-up lamb burger. Or a heaping plate of rigatoni tossed in a feisty, olive-oil-rich tomato sauce. Or a restorative, nutrient-packed broth, lovingly built on duck or chicken bones.
Little gets lost in the details. Macaroni and cheese, a throwaway if there ever was one, is a revelation here. So are the addictive baked russet potatoes, broken in pieces, drizzled in duck fat and fried.
One of the cafe’s many appealing traits is its role as a placeholder of Alma culinary history.
This longtime Alma diner broke out in a grin after spying tomato-bread soup on the menu, a brightly acidic, garlic-infused wonder that Roberts featured on his first menu. It’s an Americanized version of an old Florentine formula, and it’s a must-have.
Ditto the masa cakes, hominy rounds smothered with succulent, flavorsome lamb (a favored Roberts protein, this time smoked over oak) and a sauce that capitalizes on the powers of those dried pasilla chiles.
Miso-glazed black cod, a perennial Alma Greatest Hits chart-topper, has also returned, although Sprague has made a budgetary concession, substituting an appropriately fatty (but more price-conscious) salmon. It remains a wondrous exercise in Alma’s constant yin-yang of simplicity and complexity.
A vibrant clam and chorizo stew is another oldie but goody, as is a slab of dense, turmeric-scented mahi, bathed in a clever marriage of the classic and highly aromatic northern Thai chile sauce and a supple French beurre blanc.
Insiders know to show up after 8 p.m. on Thursday for Sprague’s magnificent double-patty cheeseburger (it’s available in limited quantities) and on Wednesday, post-3 p.m., for his pan pizza collaboration with Singh, the kitchen’s bread whisperer.
Breakfast’s boundary-pushing scrambled eggs will lure anyone in, a bowl of goodness that’s alive with contrasts, both in terms of texture (the creamy eggs, the crunchy fried tortilla strips, the chewy creamed kale) and flavor (earthy mushrooms, sharp pickled onions and the slow-burn chile sauce borrowed from the masa cakes).
My current go-to grains bowl is Sprague’s wise approach to snowy white grits, topping them with tender, spiced-up pork, more of that kale and a runny-yolked egg. Another destined-to-become-a-classic is a spectacular tartine, one that lavishes radishes, potatoes, a smoky Lake Superior whitefish and an egg upon a slice of Singh’s singular sourdough.
Naturally, Riggs’ handiwork plays a major role in the a.m. At the restaurant, her agile approach to sweets has always impressed. But this new venue seems to have really struck a chord, because she’s killing it.
From savory galettes with flaky, impossibly buttery crusts to admirably delicate squares of puff pastry filled with an ingenious array of seasonally attuned ingredients (last week it was slightly sweet roasted red peppers with salty queso fresco and crunchy pepitas, a swoon-worthy combination), Riggs is giving early risers all kinds of reasons to start their day at 6th and University.
Her approach to croissants is that of an expert, and she turns out scones that magically manage to be both weighty and light. As the day progresses, she’s turning out All-American, not-too-sugary sweets, from puck-shaped, ultra-moist (and darkly bitter) brownies to macaroons that are taken to a bronzed crispiness on the outside, with a chewy, profoundly coconut-ey interior.
A brick-and-mortar beauty
Roberts collaborated with James Dayton Design of Minneapolis (and local designer Talin Spring) to re-imagine the 112-year-old former firehouse that has housed Alma since the day the doors opened on Nov. 4, 1999.
A longtime renter, Roberts purchased the building in 2014 and embarked on a lengthy and thoughtful visioning process, one that resulted in a new, three-part business model. On the first floor, the dinner-only restaurant was scrubbed-up and the kitchen was handed much-needed breathing room, and the all-day cafe replaced a former Dunn Bros. outlet. The second floor’s offices were repurposed into an adorable/chic small-scale inn.
Even Alma superfans would have to reluctantly admit that the restaurant’s dining room was feeling tired and looking a tad forlorn. No more.
A proper entrance and an expanded bar (still my favorite Alma perch, in part because it’s the native habitat of James Hirdler, the maître d’ whose nose for wines rivals a Parisian perfumer’s) are just two reasons to appreciate the sensitive remake, along with handsome dark walnut accents and a rich navy blue palette that’s brightened by pops of color.
The cafe, understated and obviously designed for comfort, has a timeless beauty. The building’s rough, sand-tinted bricks pair naturally against mellow, intricately grained alder — it’s also Roberts’ favorite fuel for smoking fish, a lovely culinary connection — and gleaming white tiles.
Enormous northeast-facing windows flood the space with morning light, and the open kitchen provides a welcome bit of show and tell. The room’s anchor, a long and inviting bar/counter, is so very Alma, because rather than being outfitted in chilly stainless steel or zinc, it’s covered in a golden brass that radiates a built-in warmth.
Although pointing this out feels somewhat sacrilegious, Alma 2.0 is not without its faults.
For all of its approachable daytime prices, the cafe’s dinner entrees can soar into the upper $20s, a reach for a casual enterprise. Treasures notwithstanding, the bakery counter’s selection can feel slightly scant. More, please.
As for the restaurant, being seated on the cramped balcony still feels like you’ve been marked as a D-lister. How did such a second-best setting survive the renovation? Also, the dining room’s service staff doesn’t always mirror the kitchen’s performance. That said, it’s a crew that’s also operating on a level far above what frequently masquerades as service in many local upscale establishments.
And while $58 for a three-course dinner might at appear steep at first glance, consider this: Roberts’ pricing structure has barely outpaced inflation — in 2006 it was $42, the equivalent of $50 in today’s dollars.
That increase is more than justified, because in the intervening years, Alma has blossomed into an even more reliably remarkable experience.