"I feel as if we're eating at the airport," said my friend.
It was easy to see why. We were dining at Peoples Organic, and the Galleria's latest restaurant tenant bears more than a passing resemblance to the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The similarities are no coincidence, since both are the work of French Meadow mastermind Lynn Gordon.
In many ways, Peoples is the food court that the Galleria has never had. Or, to be honest, probably never wanted; a Sbarro, or an Orange Julius, within browsing distance of Tiffany and Louis Vuitton? I don't think so. Gordon has forged a democratic and affordable format that caters to a huge demographic, including the breakfast-all-day crowd, the beleaguered shopper in need of an impromptu pick-me-up, the mall worker looking for a grab-and-go meal and the book club settling in over desserts and a glass of wine. Speaking of accessibility, Gordon is also injecting words -- and practices -- such as local and organic into the mix, a depressing rarity in Panera Bread-land.
Here's why I patronize Peoples: It boasts a decent quick-service breakfast, kicking off at 6 a.m. and serving it until the doors close at night. It's not the same-old, same-old a.m. menu, either. A pair of porridges -- garnish them with the flavorful house-made coconut marmalade -- are a welcome change from the usual oatmeal routine, although the oatmeal is pretty terrific too. For something eggier and carb-ier, there's a daily strata, and they're a treat, a kind of crustless quiche but better, and a total reason to make frequent drive-bys to 69th and France. For dessert, I was all over the half-slice of brûléed pink grapefruit, the burned sugar adding a crunchy sweet note to the fruit's mouth-puckering tartness.
In addition, the kitchen wisely puts a deliriously delicious ham, from Fischer Farms in Waseca, Minn., front and center, and with good reason: It's a product so good that it makes me proud to be a Minnesotan. It's shaved thin and layered between tender biscuits or English muffins, or cut into strips to beef up (sorry, pork up) those eggy-cheesy strata, or served with eggs, fresh guacamole and roasted tomatoes on a croissant. Whatever the dish, it was always roasted to perfection, the meat deeply pink and juicy and flavorful, with bits of chewy caramelized edges, and I can't get enough of it. Ditto the crisp, smoky, thick-cut and absurdly delicious bacon, also from Tim Fischer's highly productive family farm.
Expanding the menu
As the day progresses, soups become a major highlight. Among the changes-daily selection, I encountered a spectacular wild rice soup, where the nuttiness of wild rice took center stage among perfectly cooked vegetables and a pristine stock; no overbearing cream base here. Another winner was a hearty chili, its spicy heat sneaking in without becoming the sole flavor note. Best of all are the two standards, available daily. One is a steaming bowl of deeply flavorful chicken stock filled with a colorful blend of avocados, carrots and green onions, the other a bracing ginger-scented broth with carrots, pea pods and brown rice. Both act as meals in and of themselves, and the next time I have a cold, I'm going to soothe it with a one-two punch of these two soups.
There are several pleasant little pick-me-ups for those who have been struggling into the latest Marisa Baratelli gowns in a Dugo dressing room or mall-walking the Galleria's seemingly endless corridors. I like the full-bodied spreads -- harissa-laced hummus, a hearty olive-cream cheese -- and the little rye toasts topped with ricotta and radish or prosciutto and a drizzle of lavender-scented honey. There are perfectly fine cheese and salami plates, and the kitchen turns out a half-dozen nibbles (sunflower seeds roasted with a hint of tamari, wonderful little olives) that pair well with the bar's well-chosen wines and beers.
Perhaps too healthful?
A handful of salads are noteworthy more for their fresh ingredients and plentiful portions than for any category-changing recipes. A large sweets selection runs 50-50, at least for this sugar hound. So many of them fall in the good-for-you category of treats, and where is the fun in that? For every wonderfully chewy peanut butter cookie or delicate vanilla-lavender cupcake, there's a dull apple crisp that's really little more than a glorified baked apple, or an overpriced, barely chocolatey panna cotta with a gluey film over its top, suggesting that it had sat forlornly all day, waiting for a buyer.
I'm also half-and-half on the grill items. That glorious Minnesota ham was born to be paired with gruyère and a hearty swipe of rustic mustard, but wedging it into one of the kitchen's buttery croissants is exactly the kind of overkill mentality that's missing from so many of the desserts. The grilled Rachel was a beaut; ditto the simple and satisfying grilled cheese, built with a chewy ciabatta, and the sweet-hot curried chicken salad sandwich. But the burgers -- drab, underseasoned, overdressed -- were a disappointment, and I rarely encountered an omelet that wasn't greasy and overcooked. An earlier menu featured other, more substantial dinner items, including a swell salmon pot pie and a pair of robust lasagnas, but, alas, they seem to have disappeared.
Other quibbles? Maybe it's just me, but I found that it took a few visits to figure out just exactly how the service line works, a process that should be instantly intuitive, but isn't. I'm not much of a coffee drinker, but I wasn't impressed by the staff's latte-making skills. As for the service, everyone is nicer than nice, but is it too much to ask that someone working behind the cash register be familiar with its operation? As long as I'm carping, why could I never find any orange juice? Oh, and for an enterprise that trumpets its green cred, there's an awful lot of plastic packaging in that grab-and-go cooler.
The setting is an energetic mix of aubergine and chartreuse, augmented by contemporary furnishings and playful patterns in tile and fabric. Everything about the place feels as if it's calculated to reproduce faster than the latest Charlie Sheen vociferation, and for the sake of Gordon's retirement nest egg -- and for mall shoppers everywhere -- let's hope it does. The sweet and attentive woman behind the bar confirmed it for me, although it really didn't need to be said.
"It's designed to be franchised," she said as she refilled my iced tea. "This is the first one, but it won't be the last."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757