Lunch exceeded all expectations at the Normandy Kitchen & Bar.
It was a tartine, ribbons of silky cured salmon draped on a sturdy slice of sourdough and sprinkled with herbs, delicate microgreens, finely shaved hard-cooked egg, sharp bites of pickled onion, punchy capers and colorful edible flowers. Was it an open-faced sandwich, or a still life from the painting galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, come to life? It deserved to blow up on Instagram, that’s how gorgeous — and delicious — it was.
The perfectly serviceable restaurant at the Normandy Inn & Suites in downtown Minneapolis isn’t far from my office, and I occasionally drop in over the noon hour for a salad, or its signature “Henry VIII” burger. For years, the Normandy has been a reliable source of predictable, low-profile fare.
That’s changing. In February, hotel owner Mike Noble made an inspired hire, drafting French expat Patrick Atanalian to run the restaurant.
Atanalian is a familiar face to local diners, having spent the past two decades inserting his distinctively playful cooking style into a bevy of Twin Cities restaurants. His longest tenure was a 10-year stretch at Sanctuary.
It’s delightful to find him at the Normandy, giving the flash-free property some personality and turning out straight-up bistro fare mixed with his idiosyncratic, contemporary cooking.
Many of the starters shine, including a well-rendered bone marrow. The long bones, twinkling with fleur de sel, are roasted with tons of butter, garlic and thyme, until it all melts together into one dreamy, decadent spread to be lavished across crackers and toasted bread.
“It’s fat on fat,” said Atanalian, which explains why it’s so difficult to resist.
As crabcakes go, this one’s a doozy, a pile of jumbo lump crab that’s tossed with garlic, onions and celery, seasoned with a splash of mustard and a pinch of cayenne to spice things up, and held together with a bit of egg. Each tender cake is seared in a pan that’s primed with, yes, butter. Lots and lots of butter.
“I tell the guys in the kitchen, ‘It’s French food; you need a lot of butter,’ ” said Atanalian with a laugh.
Another don’t-miss is the pork rillettes. Atanalian cooks pork butt in wine and duck fat, tenderizing the meat until its texture approaches creaminess, all the while seasoning it with onions, apples and plenty of thyme. Rather than serving it in a jar, it’s piled on a platter (“Like at home,” said Atanalian) and finished with just-right accompaniments: a sticky fig jam, tangy mustard and crunchy, palate-cleansing cornichons.
Atanalian’s veteran status pays off in myriad ways. He taps the supplier connections he’s forged over the years to assemble highly snackable cheese and charcuterie selections.
“I just call them and say, ‘What’s nice? Bring me some,’ ” he said.
Payoffs lurk in unexpected corners. Thanks to his farmer and forager connections, an ordinary side salad — often the most phoned-in item for a busy lunch kitchen — gets all kinds of attention in the form of fresh, lively lettuces tossed in a tarragon-laced vinaigrette. No lifeless bagged field greens here.
An elegant Niçoise ticks off the requisite components — velvety tuna, crunchy haricots verts, pungent olives, a fragrant citrus-forward vinaigrette — without ever feeling rote.
A croque monsieur couldn’t have been better, with its pile of smoky, thinly shaved ham and Gruyère pile-on, and the way the rich bechemal sauce made the brioche seem extra-luxurious. The thin, golden fries are spot-on, too, and served with a silky béarnaise.
The familiar feels fresh, especially the meat-and-potatoes portion of the menu. Atanalian coaxes tenderness out of the usually tough hanger cut. A New York strip, crusted with tons of peppercorns and finished with a back-to-the-’80s cognac-laced cream sauce, is similarly winning. Roast chicken? Beef bourguignon? Nicely done.
Still, Atanalian can trip himself up a bit when he steps too far astray from the bistro format.
Scallops, for example. He marinates them in soy and brown sugar to give them a smoky flavor, and they caramelize beautifully, and pair nicely against the punch of garlic, basil and sun-dried tomato. But do we really need to accentuate the natural sweetness of the scallops by adding lavender-infused honey, or parsnips?
Or duck. It’s obvious that Atanalian is sourcing top-flight ingredients up and down his menu, and this is no exception, calling upon well-raised birds from Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn. The breast meat couldn’t be more delicious, and the pan sauce — redolent of apple brandy and a hint of chiles — only improves the experience. It’s paired with teurgoule — a sweetened rice pudding with hints of cinnamon and vanilla — which is a thoughtful gesture, since it’s a specialty of Normandy — the northern France region, not the hotel. But the combination doesn’t really come together.
Sure, there’s room for improvement. Soups fell flat, as if they were prepared in an entirely different restaurant. I wanted to soak up every drop of a garlicky cider sauce used to steam mussels, but the mussels themselves were chewy and past their prime. Prices aren’t out of line with what’s on the plate, but might seem incongruous to the Best Western address.
Breakfast covers the hotel-guest bases. Later in the day, the straightforward, no-surprises desserts include dainty cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce, a pretty tarte Tatin and a shareable mousse brimming with a dark chocolate bite.
At one visit, Atanalian pridefully appeared with a glorious cream-filled éclair, glazed with lavender and dressed with meringue dodads. So pretty, and so tasty. More along these lines, please.
The charming setting — it’s the work of Smart Associates of Minneapolis — sports a comfortably appointed dining room and the kind of snug, laid-back bar that fits right into a Hotel of a Certain Age.
Unfortunately, a disruptive remake of 8th Street has eliminated the restaurant’s handsome sidewalk cafe for the season. But the project will result in wider sidewalks, good news for al fresco diners.
Certain staples remain unchanged. That Henry VIII burger, for example.
And popovers. softball-sized, puffed-up and eggy, they’re the epitome of Minnesota comfort food. His gig at the Normandy marks the first time that Atanalian has ever featured them on a menu, where they go for $3 a pop.
“They’re weird,” he said with a laugh. “But people like them, so we serve them.”
See? Only a few months on the job, and he’s already catching on.