New faces in familiar places

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2010 - 9:03 AM

Change is good. At least it is at three Minneapolis restaurants, where replacement chefs are shaking up familiar menus.

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Chef Ben Pichler of Grand Cafe.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Change is good. At least it is at three Minneapolis restaurants, where replacement chefs are shaking up familiar menus.

A grand transition

Ben Pichler met his friend and fellow chef Jon Radle when the two were working at Solera. When Radle landed at the top spot at Grand Cafe, he recruited Pichler to join him and, for nearly three years, the two teamed up against the hardscrabble challenges of running a small restaurant. "I think I saw him more than my wife," Pichler said.

After Radle's death in April, owner Mary Hunter promoted Pichler from sous chef to executive chef. A tough way to land a job, surely, but it's not taking away from Radle's legacy to say that Pichler is doing admirable work, continuing the restaurant's reputation as a neighborhood cafe that draws far more than a within-walking-distance clientele.

Here's why: The affordable, tightly focused menu remains seasonally sharp and skillfully rendered. The dinner menu's canapés -- I love that underused word -- remain, a plate of constantly changing small bites that could be roasted beets spooned into endive or gravlax on tiny toasts. They come six to an order, and they're a lovely way to start an evening.

Flatbread makers everywhere could learn from Pichler, who feeds egg-enriched pizza dough through a pasta roller until it's paper-thin, fries it until crisp and then lavishly tops it with farm-fresh ingredients before finishing it in the oven.

Instead of settling for yet another beet-chèvre salad, Pichler inserts the complementary flavors of fennel, hazelnut and orange. A gazpacho started with cucumbers and green grapes, and the beautiful pale-green results were coolly exhilarating and slightly sweet, with subtle heat undertones.

Pichler's best dishes take full advantage of his yearlong stint behind the counter at Clancey's Meats & Fish in Linden Hills. Rabbit hindquarters were braised in chicken stock and white wine until fall-apart tender, a texture that played nicely against chewy Swiss chard and sweet carrots. A cold-smoked pork chop, rubbed with coriander and herbs, was so juicy it melted in the mouth like a soft-serve cone on a sweltering August day. For vegetarians, Pichler filled triangle-shaped ravioli with lemon, basil and ricotta and serves them in a pool of fennel broth, a vastly appealing summer dinner.

Other pluses: At weekend breakfast, it's all about the biscuits smothered in orange-smoked paprika-pork sausage and bourbon gravy. The wine and beer lists are affordable and interesting. The funky setting, with its mismatched furniture and eclectic art, is a tad shopworn but charms nonetheless, particularly at night, when the intimate spaces exude an affable warmth.

3804 Grand Av. S., Mpls., 612-822-8260, www.grandcafempls.com. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

A downtown locavore

Here's what I appreciate most about the latest iteration of Porter & Frye: Chef Sarah Master isn't trying to replicate the work of her predecessors, most notably Steven Brown and the Grade A team he assembled when the restaurant opened in early 2008.

Instead, the Iron Range native is forging her own path, emphasizing the improvisational, bare-bones cooking of her mentor, Susan Spicer of Bayona in New Orleans, and the local-sustainable aspects of the Restaurant Alma-Spoonriver-Barbette side of her résumé. In the formulaic one-size-fits-all world of hotel dining rooms -- Porter & Frye is in the Hotel Ivy -- Master's efforts are a significant accomplishment.

Instead of a beef tenderloin, Master offers Minnesota-raised bison; at lunch it's a hearty bison loaf sandwich topped with a gently sweet onion relish. Deeply flavorful, locally sourced lamb is served with farmers-market-fresh vegetables. Duck and chicken, both roasted and treated confit-style, are sourced from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn. The kitchen puts up a fetching selection of its own pâtés, terrines, pickles, chutneys and ricotta.

At first I wasn't sure whether thick sheets of house-made pappardelle, tossed with zucchini and summer squash, was a trifle dull or a brilliant vegetarian expression of midsummer harvest; after a few eager bites, I chose the latter. Master seems to sum up her entire career in a single dish, a grilled whole Wisconsin-raised trout, split and filled with traces of sweet crab and brazen horseradish. It's one of those rare efforts where taste and looks compete, neck-and-neck, for the top spot.

My favorite starter: a bowl of toothy, marble-sized English peas, tossed with smoky bacon and topped with a barely held-together poached egg. "I'm a sucker for a poached egg," Master said. Me, too. At her exceedingly pleasant breakfast, Master pairs them with a South Beach Diet-friendly medley of sautéed mushrooms, and it's just about perfect. Another fine idea is the wild rice pancakes, tender and nutty, finished with a summery blueberry compote and a drizzle of rosemary-scented maple syrup.

The wine list remains highly drinkable, and the bar still knows how to shake up a memorable cocktail. Although the setting remains incongruously bland for a luxury property -- not to mention given the quirky Moorish-meets-Art-Deco exterior -- there have been a few smart fixes. The lower-level dining room is now a private event space, and breakfast and lunch are now served in the hotel's lobby with its tasteful taupes, beiges, ivories and other second-wedding colors. Dinner guests are seated in the former bar, which possesses a comfortable scale but is stuck with the personality of a small-market TV weathercaster. Master's self-assured cooking deserves better.

1115 2nd Av. S. (in the Hotel Ivy), Mpls., 612-353-3500, www.porterandfrye. com. Open for breakfast 6:30 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily.

Sticking with what works

Nothing seems to have changed at Cafe Maude, yet everything feels -- and tastes -- a little different.

That probably doesn't make sense, but when chef Burke Forster took over earlier this year, he was stepping into a well-established act. His predecessor, chef Aaron Slavicek, had been feeding hordes of happy people on a patented mix-and-match blend of bar snacks, small plates, side dishes and entrees. Even after three years, the place still enjoys a reputation as a coveted reservation.

Forster, a Wayzata native with tons of work experience in New England, has wisely inserted his own aesthetic into that winning format rather than bust the menu wide open and start over. On the small-plates side, he glazes meaty spare ribs with hoisin and ginger, and puts a flavorful char on lamb skewers, finishing them with a mint- and garlic-tickled yogurt. There are hot chile and bright lemongrass accents in a velvety tuna compote, and rice croquettes are perfectly crisp outside, perfectly creamy inside.

The flatbreads -- long ovals with pizza-like crusts -- boast imaginative topping combinations (don't miss the ham-pear-asparagus), and larger plates swing from gigantic seared scallops dressed with bacon and curly Brussels sprouts leaves to a daily vegetable risotto to a sizzling ribeye gleaming with a rich mushroom glacé.

It's obvious that Burke pays close attention to minor details -- for example, a side dish of sweet roasted beets is jazzed up with mint and a finishing splash of balsamic vinegar -- and basics like burgers and roast chicken are handled with flair and care. A new kids' menu -- barbecued ribs with corn bread, grilled chicken skewers with rice -- dares to go beyond chicken tenders and corn dogs. Oh, did I mention the three-course Sunday and Monday night dinner, a steal at $25?

Yeah, Miss Maude is in very good hands.

5411 Penn Av. S., Mpls., 612-822-5411, www.cafemaude.com. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • Chef Sarah Master of Porter & Frye.

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  • Grilled Wisconsin-raised trout at Porter & Frye.

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