Let’s begin in St. Paul, where a major bright spot (literally, given its vivid chartreuse color scheme) has materialized, thanks to the recent advent of Bars Bakery.
The recent downtown expansion of Selby Avenue’s sweet spot has elevated the culinary discourse among the capital city’s second-floor Habitrail, big time.
Co-owners (and mother and daughter) Sandy Younkin and Kara Younkin Viswanathan continue to make mornings bright with cinnamon-laced and lavishly iced rolls, spongy madeleines, flaky better-than-Pop Tart pastries filled with fruity jam, lovely little single-serving quiches, creamy scones and a gleaming, pecan-studded caramel roll that pretty much defines the genre. Oh, and premium coffee from Chicago-based Intelligentsia.
The month-old skyway outlet sets itself apart from the Bars mothership by offering a modest lunch menu, just a daily soup ($5), a simple salad of crisply fresh greens ($5) and a handful of sandwiches ($8).
True to form, the sandwiches are fantastic, prepared to order with obvious skill and imagination and worth the steep-for-St. Paul price tag ($8). Another tip: if there’s a savory focaccia ($4.50 to $4.75) or one of the kitchen’s lovely curried potato handpies ($4.50), by all means, order them.
My waistline is thankful that my office isn’t nearby, because the afternoon sweets are irresistible. Gorgeous free-form fruit and berry tarts. Cookies with tops collapsing into themselves, weighted down with butter. Hefty coconut macaroons, their spiky outer shell transformed by the oven’s heat to a dark, crunchy copper. And different plays on the signature house dessert, including a puckery lemon bar that has to be tasted to be believed.
As for the tiny bags of delicate sablés and shortbreads that linger near the cash register, they’re an impulse purchase waiting to lay ruin to the efforts of countless dieters across the 55101 ZIP code. Lucky them.
55 E. 5th St. (Alliance Bank Center), St. Paul, 651-222-2779, www.barsbakery.com. Open weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. An adjacent food court features plenty of seating.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, those staccato thwack-thwack-thwack-thwacks reverberating through City Center emanate from the chopping block at the Salad Bar.
Rather than encountering a slow-moving line of tongs-yielding customers reaching under a sneeze guard for broccoli florets, this newcomer drops the do-it-yourself routine in favor of a nimble crew that efficiently composes salads to order.
Diners can start by choosing from four lettuces (arugula, romaine, iceberg and spinach), enhancing that $6 foundation with a long list of no-additional-cost vegetables, nuts and croutons. There are proteins (bacon, shrimp, grilled chicken, tofu), eight cheeses or a few specialty items (avocado, quinoa, roasted tomatoes), all at $1 to $2 a pop.
Another route is supplementing 10 house specialties — Caesar, Cobb, Asian chicken, with prices in the $6.50-to-$9.50 range — with that long list of add-ons.
Speed is the operative word: Salads are quickly assembled, dressed with a dozen full-bodied options and then spend a few moments on the chopping block. Who knew that bite-sizing a salad would make it so easy to scarf down the day’s requirement of leafy greens and fresh vegetables during a time-pressed lunch hour?
For those preferring a sandwich, the crew rolls salads into tortillas.
If the format seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the Salad Bar has a doppelgänger on the next block: the Field Greens counter in the lower level at Macy’s, which offers an analogous point-and-pick format, a similar selection and a comparable price point.
The resemblance ends there, because the store serves its salads tossed, not chopped.
40 S. 7th St. (City Center), Mpls., 612-259-8214, www.thesaladbarmn.com. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Limited seating.
Allie’s Deli & Catering isn’t exactly a newcomer. Its roots date to 1998, when it was known as the Rand Deli, and owners and spouses Scott Robinson and Nicole Allie bought the place in 2005.
Yet it feels newish, because the cramped indie gained some valuable elbow room last year when the coffee chain next door evaporated.
“Who would have thought that a Caribou would close?” said Robinson with a laugh. “They usually just multiply.”
The impressively vast chalkboard menus didn’t grow with the additional real estate, but the extra space gives the noticeably cheery crew a more efficient work platform.
A dozen made-to-order sandwiches are the house specialty, and the creative, obviously fresh results reside in a league far above the sub shops that blanket the city’s second story.
Taking their cues from nearby Chipotle, portions are more than generous (half-sizes here are near-full sizes elsewhere), notable for tall stacks of thickly shaved beef, corned beef, roast turkey and ham and a riot of embellishments, made on breads from the New French Bakery — a wise choice — or a decent house-baked baguette.
On the salad front there’s a likable design-your-own component, but what’s better are the soups, seven homey, always-available varieties that stand out for their rich flavor, piping hot temperature and reasonable prices.
The basic, just-like-Mom’s desserts are presented shrink-wrapped, not for visual appeal but for maximum grab-and-go convenience.
Don’t miss their delightful version of the Salted Nut Roll, with its rich caramel and marshmallow creme-enhanced nougat. Ditto the gooey Rice Krispies bars. Scratch baking, on the skyway? Believe it.
Breakfast means egg sandwiches finished with a wide array of mix-and-match ingredients, always a winner. Oh, and did I mention the staff’s off-the-charts niceness level?
527 Marquette Av. S. (Rand Tower), Mpls., 612-333-6425, www.alliesdeliandcatering.com. Open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Limited seating.
On weekdays, the Crave kitchen goes into major soup mode, pulling together seven varieties and hustling them over to Soup to Go, the restaurant’s nearby lunch-only counter.
Five occupy permanent menu slots, including a hearty and creamy chicken-wild rice, a velvety butternut squash and a deeply flavorful roasted tomato bisque.
Each day also brings two specials, starting with Monday’s fragrant chicken noodle and ending in Friday’s clam-packed chowder, all ladled into cups ($3.95), bowls ($4.95) and a great three-sampler flight ($6.95).
Another option: an enormous, oven-warmed bread bowl ($7.95). Successfully transporting a Mulligatawny-filled bread bowl back to the office was a skeptical prospect at best, but the vessel — a crusty sourdough boule — proved more durable (and delicious) than imagined.
The cottony breadsticks aren’t terribly impressive (ditto the three overpriced sandwiches). Better to focus on the beverage cooler, which is wisely stocked with bottles of zesty Bruce Cost Ginger Ale.
800 LaSalle Av. (LaSalle Plaza), Mpls., 612-339-5170. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. No seating.
Coming soon to a skyway near you
Change is the only constant on the Minneapolis skyway dining landscape.
Be on the lookout for Cafe Zentral (Soo Line Building), the counter service/grab-and-go counterpart to Brasserie Zentral, the street-level restaurant by Meritage chef Russell Klein. Yes, a four-star chef, on the skyway. Revolutionary.
The menu will focus on uncomplicated street fare, including grilled cheese sandwiches, locally made sausages, baked goods from pastry chef Niki Francioli and the sweet and savory crêpes that the Meritage crew has perfected at their popular sidewalk cart, a warm-weather fixture on St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul.
Construction is underway, and Klein is aiming for a spring opening. “Just in time for food truck season,” he said with a laugh.
Maison Darras, a popular Securian Center refuge on the St. Paul skyway, is expanding across the river into the Baker Center, offering its appealing array of soup, sandwiches, salads, quiche and baked goods.
Juice So Good, also in the Baker Center, will fill the fresh juices and smoothies void left by the departure of Jamba Juice, and Dunn Bros. is continuing its downtown expansion with a soon-to-open outlet in 333 S. 7th St.
Best in show
The food court is an endangered species in downtown Minneapolis. City Center’s third-floor fast-food enclave is a dim memory, and Gaviidae Common’s fourth-floor snack canyon closed last year. But when GPT Properties Trust upgraded the skyway-level food court at its 330 Second Avenue (formerly the Towle Building), the company really did it right. Along with regrouping five tenants (including the Tea House, the skyway’s best Asian quick-service outlet, non-sushi variety) into a more efficient arrangement, the remake opened up much-needed windows, added legroom and gave the busy noon-hour gathering spot a handsome new look. Three cheers.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib