“This is quite an upgrade,” said the man seated at the table to my right. No kidding.
Turns out we were both marveling over the same two dishes. One was an array of roasted cauliflower florets and pickled and roasted beets, all brushed with a crimson harissa. A lively pesto — made using beet greens — sneaked in pops of springlike green.
The other was a brilliant exercise in compare-and-contast duos: a confit of oyster mushrooms against pickled hon-shimeji mushrooms. Butter-caramelized, cumin-kissed heirloom carrot medallions opposite sweetly crunchy baby carrots. Frisky chermoula vs. cool, curry-scented yogurt. The tender bite of couscous-scaled Sardinian pasta, cooked in mushroom stock, countered by the opposing crispiness of wafer-thin lavosh.
Both dishes were so impressive that I didn’t even notice the absence of animal protein. Had I just stumbled upon a great new vegetarian restaurant?
Yes, and no. I was one of many lunching that afternoon at Grain Stack, the recently re-branded restaurant at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and while surveying the crowd I reflected upon what I’ve come to think of as the Fika Factor.
That’s my theory based upon the cafe at the American Swedish Institute. From the day it opened nearly two years ago, the sensationally popular Fika has been nothing short of a powerful people magnet, sweeping a welcome vitality into a drowsy 85-year-old cultural institution.
Why wouldn’t the MIA jump in on that crowd-building action? To that end, the museum has tapped Stock and Badge, the up-and-coming partnership between Rustica and Dogwood Coffee. Smart move.
It’s not a local rah-rah-ism to rank Rustica among the nation’s best bakeries, which is why any additional venue for baker Steve Horton’s breads and sweets should always be viewed as an opportunity to make this world a better place.
This attitude is not lost on Stock and Badge food director Sam Kanson-Benanav and Grain Stack chef Rueben Lange, who wisely channel their access to Rustica’s output to exceedingly good use.
Better baked goods
Rustica’s delightfully nutty rye-spelt loaf, each nibble pocked with crunchy sprouted rye berries, became the foundation of a terrific do-it-yourself platter (like many Grain Stack dishes, it’s easily shared) that also boasted a silky cured salmon tossed in a refreshing dill-aquavit dressing.
Rustica’s peerless baguette is sold as-is, with a thoughtful array of accompaniments: local honey, ultra-creamy butter, sweet house-made fruit preserves. It’s also diverted into copper-colored croutons for a beauty of a salad, a haystack-shaped toss of kale, wild rice, roasted butternut squash and a sublime Beaufort-style cheese. Perfect.
A daily soup, with flavors obviously nurtured from the ground up, is enhanced by two gorgeous foccacias. The bakery’s pan de mie, a soft, Pullman-style loaf that puts all other white sandwich breads to shame, provides the foundation for an excellent croque monsieur, proof that the kitchen isn’t allergic to meat. And an extravagantly buttery brioche bun is the centerpiece of a brunchlike fried egg sandwich, garnished, as always, by lovely little salads of ultra-fresh microgreens cultivated in the museum’s basement.
As for dessert, smaller cravings should stick to the exceptional cookies, starting with tender, crackle-topped bittersweet chocolate versions, so intensely chocolatey that they induce thirst. Plus-size bouchons, those delightful cork-shaped brownies, reveal a center packed with top-shelf Scharffen Berger chocolate bits. An ultimate iteration of carrot cake is bested only by golden frangipane, its subtle almond aura pocked with juicy tart cherries.
Grain Stack’s work-in-progress nature leaves room for improvement. The menu’s under-a-dozen choices can feel limiting. Sometimes the cooking can be too Minnesota Nice; how about inserting some kick in that tame harissa, or ramping up the bland tomato sauce in a toss of orecchiette and slow-braised lamb?
As for the line of fellow diners that I frequently encountered, the blame can be laid at the feet of a guy named Henri Matisse. A retrospective of his work is currently drawing throngs into the galleries, and the restaurant. But the tortoise-like pace is also dictated by the counter’s one cashier. A cashier with a lovely and helpful manner, but a cashier flying solo nonetheless.
Kanson-Benanav and Lange are relatively recent Stock and Badge recruits. Both originally hail from St. Paul, but left home for their culinary training: Kanson-Benanav in Madison, Wis., and Lange in Portland, Ore.
Kanson-Benanav oversees the company’s overall food-and-drink operations — which includes Parka in south Minneapolis, as well as the savory lunch items served at the Rustica mothership — while Lange manages the day-to-day cooking at Grain Stack. They’re part of a wave of young talent — both are 24 — that’s invigorating the Twin Cities dining scene. The MIA is fortunate to have them.
Stock and Badge’s other improvements include a superb first-floor Dogwood Coffee outlet, which has transformed the formerly sterile lobby into a lively gathering place for meticulously brewed beverages, local beers and, of course, a full phalanx of Rustica goodies.
Meanwhile, the notion of a kids’ cafe seems a bit half-baked, but the adorable Half Pint is anything but. The young (and the young at heart) will enjoy its fruity-and-fizzy house-made sodas, Izzy’s-made ice cream treats, a sly (and tasty) twist on the Lunchable and a handful of beyond-cute cookies. Don’t miss the crisp, gently lemony cutouts (I’d like to think that their gingerbread-man form is Rustica’s salute to the Doryphoros, the museum’s monumental Roman statue) or the supremely addictive ode to the Oreo.
Looks-wise, Half Pint could pass as a snack-bar prototype for Pottery Barn Kids. Dogwood Coffee is similarly stylish. Unfortunately, Grain Stack still bears a remarkable resemblance to its drab predecessor.
An easy overhaul could start with adios-ing the funky half-moon-shaped chairs. A remarkably durable chrome-and-pleather callback to the room’s Me Decade roots, they’re as uncomfortable now as they were then, and perhaps it’s time to bid them farewell.
Semi-dreadful as it is, the Grain Stack name is a logical shout-out to the museum’s “Grainstack, Sun in the Mist,” a Monet canvas of a wheat field shimmering in the rosy morning light.
The Impressionist masterpiece will never hang in the restaurant, but perhaps Grain Stack could follow the example of the coffee bar, a similarly all-white space that’s dominated by a blowup of a 1927 Japanese woodblock print. It’s a total eye-grabber, one that not-so-subtly celebrates the extraordinary Asian art collection housed on the floor above.
Imagine taking a lunchtime seat beneath a billboard-scaled Monet knockoff. It may be a tad literal — a grainstack in Grain Stack — but there are worse ways to spend an hour.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib