When the Seward Co-op entered the restaurant business last year, the store’s leadership wisely entrusted their high-profile project to a pair of well-chosen recruits: general manager Chad Snelson, and chef Lucas Almendinger.
I’d follow these two anywhere. Snelson was one of the masterminds behind Fika, the American Swedish Institute’s genre-bending cafe, and Almendinger, a Tilia vet, has more than proved his cooking chops by launching the Third Bird and the former Union Fish Market.
The duo has not disappointed, forging a restaurant that adheres to the co-op’s sustainability principles — right down to its livable-wages policy, which eliminates tipping — while simultaneously nudging the neighborhood cafe model into exciting new directions.
The Co-op Creamery gets its name from its address, a sturdy redbrick reminder of the 1920s that was originally home to a busy dairy production plant. Seward purchased the building to expand its baking, deli and sausage-making production facilities, and open a restaurant.
Since the doors opened in mid-August, it’s been fascinating to watch the menu evolve (prices have fallen in the evening, for example), as Almendinger both gauges his audience and immerses himself in the co-op’s remarkable, decades-in-the-making supply chain infrastructure.
This place is ground zero in the local-seasonal movement. Two words of advice: Steer clear of the seitan-on-a-steam-table caricature of a restaurant operated by a natural foods co-op. And whatever you do, don’t hang the tired, narrow, ill-defined label of “vegetarian restaurant” on Co-op Creamery.
Almendinger is certainly in favor of a terminology switch-up.
“You do that, and everyone is a lot more receptive,” he said. “If I tell cooks that we’re going to “Cook vegetarian,” I get an eye roll. But if I say, ‘We’re going to cook with vegetables,’ I get a ‘Yes!’ ”
For inspiration, he’s become a disciple of chef Amanda Cohen of New York City’s acclaimed, vegetable-focused Dirt Candy restaurant.
“You can do so much more with a carrot than a rib-eye,” he said. “You lose that mind-set that meat has to be at the center, and it changes the way you approach flavor. We’re here to make vegetables shine, and use meat to support that.”
Case in point: thick, cut-like-a-porterhouse cauliflower, caramelized to sweetness on the stove, slow-roasted to coax out a nearly fork-tender texture and glazed with a vegan approximation of a spicy, funky XO sauce. For contrast, it’s paired with a cauliflower purée and shaved raw cauliflower, with bright lime and crunchy peanut flourishes, a combination that’s as substantial — and as satisfying — as a well-grilled New York strip.
I’ll go into mourning when Brussels sprouts season comes to an end, because Almendinger and his crew — led by sous chefs Lindsay Owens and Cara Grand — are transforming thumbnail-sized versions by deep-frying them in canola oil to gentle crispiness and unlocking their inherent nuttiness. From there, magic happens.
Hot out of the fryer, they’re tossed in peanut butter, the heat melting it and evenly spreading it. From there, more heat — this time, spice-fueled — with a rambunctious house- fermented sambal, with golden raisins sneaking in a counterbalancing sweetness. The menu labels them “snacks,” but such a toss-off doesn’t do them justice.
The daytime menu practically reads as the kitchen’s egg-worshiping manifesto. It’s easy to see why, given the general gorgeousness of the beauties coming from Dancing Hen Farm in Weyerhaeuser, Wis.
They poach like a dream, with vivid sunburst-yellow yolks and creamy whites. They’re a key player in three appealing day-starters: a rice bowl (seasoned with a rich, gluten-free soy sauce) topped with pungent kimchi and tender chicken, a roasted butternut squash filled with wild rice and crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds, and a colorful, rib-sticking plate of biscuits and chorizo gravy.
They’re also a treat to see sunny side up, crowning a gotta-have grilled Cheddar cheese sandwich on dark rye, or as part of a first-rate, well-garnished chilaquiles. They make for superb scrambles (get it with the insanely good brined lamb shoulder) and even better omelets, each airy bite redolent of butter, just as it should be.
Or pretend you’re in a diner and order two of them, any style, with crisp bacon (or a decent house-made vegan sausage), ultra-crisp hash browns and buttery toast.
For vegans, there’s a credible egg salad (made with tofu) and a flavorful barbecue that enlists shredded jackfruit for pork. My favorite soup of the moment is the essence of winter squash, so lusciously velvety it is surely infused with cream. But it’s not.
Vegetarian dishes also impress. All dinners should commence with creamy barley dressed with crisped sage and a nose-tickling hint of truffle. If there’s a savory crêpe on the menu, order it. Oh, and don’t miss the fritters, their delicate, golden pastry surrounding some puréed (and richly seasoned) vegetable of the moment.
Meat, fish and poultry eaters also have a place at the table. At lunch, Almendinger crafts a humdinger of a burger, its overt Germanic overtones (caraway-flecked sauerkraut, a boldly rye bun) a welcome foil to the double-patty American cheeseburgers that are currently all the rage. The aforementioned lamb is the backbone of a wildly decadent Reuben.
At dinner, the co-op’s excellent house-made sausages find their way onto a well-garnished snack plate. Lake Superior-caught whitefish, a mellow local treasure that unfortunately gets too little play on Twin Cities menus, has disappeared for the season. That makes dinner’s best dish a juicy bone-in pork loin, deftly finished with bright pineapple-tomatillo-black mole accents that more than pull the chill off a frigid winter’s night.
Oh, and sweetbreads. Animal offal (skillfully prepared, by the way) are about the last item you’d expect to find at a vegetable-centric restaurant, but not here. For Almendinger, it’s a sustainability issue, and finding a place for frequently discarded animal parts is as important as making full use of vegetable scraps.
The straightforward bakery case goodies — cupcakes, cookies, éclairs — more than satisfy (as do the a.m. bagels), and pastry chef Laura LaVille’s inventive, wonderfully not-too-sweet desserts show plenty of promise.
The L-shaped, all-white interior quietly recalls the pristine cleanliness of the building’s original use as a dairy, and enormous windows flood the inherently cheery space with sunlight.
It’s an appealing effort from LHB, the Minneapolis architectural firm, with a graphics assist from Replace, the Minneapolis branding firm. One (un-green, admittedly) quibble, given the recent spate of subzero temperatures: Would it kill someone to please turn up the heat?
A word on prices. Quickly peruse the menu, and a slight case of sticker shock is a reasonable outcome.
But do the math. Higher prices support the operation’s equitable salary structure, so after mentally subtracting the 15 to 25 percent tip that you won’t be leaving — remember, Co-op Creamery is a gratuity-free zone — shelling out $14 for a burger seems downright reasonable.
Factor in Almendinger’s detail-driven handiwork, and the word “value” applies. It’s a model that more restaurants should emulate.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib