“I could eat an entire carton of these,” said my friend.
Same here. He was referring to a showstopping starter that chef Jamie Malone can surely never remove from the menu at her Grand Cafe — a terra cotta-tinted eggshell that’s carefully filled with a supple custard, its cream echoing a hint of tobacco and infused with decadent foie gras.
That eccentric deliciousness is capped with whipped crème fraîche seasoned with a bit of cherry vinegar, a cheery pop of orange zest and a single, disciplined flake of sea salt. The combination is as sublime to consume as it is to gaze upon — if foie gras “royale” doesn’t have its own Instagram account, it should, because it’s that much of a looker — and that it arrives at the table in a facsimile of a duck’s foot makes it all the more enchanting.
Turns out, we were just getting started. A delicate choux pastry, gleaming with sticky honey, was split and filled with an earthy, mineral-laden chicken liver mousse. No glazed doughnut will measure up, ever again.
Right now, Malone’s somewhat modest menu features one of my favorite vegetarian dishes of the year. It starts with an egg yolk-based, gnocchi-like dough that’s formed into long, pinky-esque dumplings and enriched with her secret ingredient/pantry staple, roast garlic purée. They’re tossed in a decadent mushroom-Madeira-cream (emphasis on cream) sauce, and it’s cold-weather comfort food at its most satisfying.
One of the traits that makes Malone’s confident work so compelling is her obvious curiosity for quirky — and superior — ingredients, a passion that reaps untold benefits at the table. This dumpling dish, for example. She finishes that sauce with a fleck of a French-imported black walnut mustard.
“You can’t really taste it, but it adds something,” she said. “I started using it a couple of years ago, and now I put it in everything.”
Her willingness to transcend traditional boundaries is also admirable. While she’s capable of a fashioning a straight-up Alsatian classic in the form of a tarte flambée (the crackerlike crust is embellished with crème fraîche, Parmesan, plenty of thyme and massive hunks of Wisconsin-made Nueske’s bacon), she’s also unafraid to stroll outside the parameters of a modern French restaurant.
Turning to Japan for inspiration? No problem. Which explains why pristine raw fish is used as a palate-cleansing foil to the menu’s butter- and cream-heavy dishes.
It’s also the logic behind the use of ultrarich eggs from a Japanese breed. They’re combined with indulgent shavings of black truffle — and lots of a luscious and slightly funky French butter that’s aged in a cheesemaker’s cave — to create the omelet to end all omelets, one that’s served with delicate toast points fashioned from a Japanese milk bread.
This penny pincher never thought he’d fork over $40 for an omelet, but Malone makes that decision a no-brainer, particularly when its cost — and calorie count — is shared with others at the table. That’s what sticks most with me; dining at Grand Cafe is fun. Remember fun?
This is a kitchen that knows its way around chicken. Over the summer, it was the breast that was the star of the show, the meat prodigiously juicy and tender. Now Malone is taking a different, equally compelling approach.
“We’re challenging ourselves to make chicken legs and thighs beautiful,” she said.
It’s working. Those legs and thighs are prepared confit-style, folded into a rich mousse, poached and formed into drum-shaped rillettes. They’re breaded with potato flakes and fried, an ingenious gluten-free solution that still feels like a crispy-skinned fried chicken. That’s deftly paired with smoky bacon and gently sugary prunes, one of many examples of well-balanced sweet-salty interplay.
It’s easy to love her take on the classic quenelle, calling upon “Up North” ingredients — crayfish and pike — to complete the formula. Or the way she makes a simple side dish of carrots an event, intensifying the root vegetable’s flavors with acid and fat, sweetness and salt.
One of my favorite elements hasn’t been part of the program for a few months. It was a bone-in Mangalitsa ham from Tennessee, cured and aged with love and authority. Malone displayed it in the kitchen with an obvious pride, and no wonder: Its magnificently sculptural form would have sent Pablo Picasso rushing to his studio. Also, its admirably dense texture and complex, teasingly sweet flavor justified its not-inexpensive, sold-by-the-ounce price tag.
“We had a gap in availability,” Malone said. “But it’s coming back.” Phew.
I’ll admit, I’m late to the Grand Cafe critical lovefest, for one reason: I was waiting for Malone to introduce brunch to the mix. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s on the way.
“I feel that I owe it to the neighborhood,” she said, a reference to the popular weekend service under the restaurant’s previous ownership. “But I want to do it right, and not do damage to the staff, or the business model. The restaurant has a distinctive personality, and I want the brunch to fit with that.”
While Malone’s original collaborator Erik Anderson has moved on — he’s landed a primo job in a primo culinary capital, running Coi in San Francisco, “and I couldn’t be more proud of him,” said Malone — she’s surrounded herself with obvious talent, including chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen and sous chef Britt St. Clair, who played an integral role at the impressive but short-lived Birdie. Watching this partnership unfold promises to be one of the city’s must-watch events.
Sure, the restaurant is not without its faults. Desserts are perfectly adequate but don’t live up to their savory counterparts, and the kitchen’s pace can, on occasion, be charitably described as “leisurely.”
Meanwhile, the superb service staff clearly knows what it’s doing — and then some — but I also grew to dread the unasked-for recitation of the entire menu that I endured at the start of several visits. A tedious soliloquy is no way to commence an otherwise polished, exciting experience.
Some whimsical and highly charming decorative additions, vintage and contemporary, have certainly invested the surroundings with some much needed personality. Still, its physical inadequacies — not-great ventilation, uneven heating, a decidedly second-best second dining room — can be traced directly back to the building’s original slapdash transformation, some 15 years prior, from its longtime role as a neighborhood bakery into a restaurant.
Still, all that negativity starts to evaporate when the wine list comes into view. Borrowing from the Bachelor Farmer’s smart and sensible approach, Malone will open any bottle on her concise, discerning roster if at least two glasses (each priced at a quarter of the list amount) are purchased; already uncorked bottles become similar by-the-glass fair game. It’s a program that more restaurants should consider replicating.
Then there’s this detail: Malone is cooking like no one else in the Twin Cities. After a too-long absence, it’s a thrill to have this Sea Change veteran back in the kitchen.