My friend cut right to the chase. We bumped into one another a few weeks ago at Cafe Levain, and after a quick salutation she got to the point. If memory serves, her exact words were, "I want to eat here every Sunday night for the rest of my life."
After my experience that evening, I can see why. It's been almost a year since chef Adam Vickerman quietly began converting a previously dark night at his south Minneapolis restaurant into an under-the-radar cult dining event. While the rest of the world is watching Ty Pennington shout himself hoarse on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," Vickerman and his crew -- sous chef Remle Colestock and cook Alan Hlebaen -- are calmly preparing a deeply satisfying three-course meal. The seasonally sensitive menu changes weekly, and the price is right: $25, or $20 for vegetarians. A three-glass wine pairing ($13, a steal) is selected by the waitstaff with obvious care and described with admirable gusto.
The food is long on attention to detail and short on fussiness. A few weeks ago Vickerman & Co. opened with a sense-stimulating salad: feathery frisée, crunchy roasted pecans, a perfectly runny poached egg and slivers of rich, pungent brie. The main course was a wide, shallow bowl layered with ultra-creamy mashed potatoes, succulent roast chicken, bits of garlicky pork sausage and cool, fragrant flashes of lemon and rosemary. It was the polar opposite of the icy sidewalks and howling winds lying in wait just outside the door.
Dessert treated four varieties of pears like apples, glazing them, tarte Tatin-style, over puff pastry and then dressing the results with a feisty black-pepper ice cream. Since the restaurant operates under the Turtle Bread Co. umbrella, even the bread basket is first-rate.
Vickerman, just 23 years old and a rising star, uses his weekend laboratory to test-drive ideas. "It's a good time to take a few dishes and really focus on them, narrow them down, really make them taste great," he told me, adding that a pork shoulder entree and a beet salad have both recently matriculated from Sunday service into the kitchen's daily rotation.
Not that the restaurant's Sunday guests will ever get so much as a whiff of culinary lab rat-ness. "Have you dined with us before on a Sunday?" asked our server as we took our seats. When we told her no, she volleyed back the response that cynical me was expecting: "Then you're in for a treat," she said. Turns out, she was absolutely right. No wonder Sunday is now the restaurant's third-busiest night, following on the heels of Friday and Saturday.
Cafe Levain, 4762 Chicago Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-823-7111, www.cafelevain.comPlan ahead for comfort
Here's one way to gauge the runaway popularity of the Sunday Suppers program at Cooks of Crocus Hill: At last week's edition, the party seated to my left had made their reservations in November. Yes, three months ago.
Once a month, Cooks staffers Mike Shannon and Mary Scheu make preparing a four-course, family-style meal look easy. The price is also easy on the budget, just $20 per person, with a short list of similarly bargain-priced wines and beers. The menu changes monthly, and co-owner Karl Benson told his 50-or-so assembled guests that the goal is not to prepare the be-all, end-all example of each dish, "But something that's so good that you'll want to make it at home next Sunday," he said. Naturally, Cooks provides copies of each recipe served.
The quality is evident in each bite. There was a gently creamy potato-leek soup, followed by bite-size pastry cups filled with mushrooms, sour cream and crisp fried sage leaves. The main attraction was a gigantic platter of coq au vin ("Which translates into chicken, red wine, mushrooms and onions, cooked until they are delicious," quipped Shannon) and roasted vegetables, and the grand finale was an attention-getting cherries jubilee -- the kids in attendance were all over that -- spooned over vanilla ice cream.
This is my kind of cooking school: They do the cooking (and the cleanup), we do the eating. There are occasional learning moments, along with a few discreet sales pitches. A 10-percent-off coupon comes with each reservation, and after Shannon gave a quick Dutch oven tutorial, I was itching to pick up some Le Creuset downstairs in Cooks' retail store.
The vibe is a cross between a church social and a block party. Within 20 minutes the room was buzzing -- not a stretch, since many attendees are repeat customers. The lively bonhommie got me wondering why reserved Minnesotans would sooner give up their lake cabins than share a meal with a complete stranger. I don't see the problem, since ours is a three-degrees-of-separation state, at best. Cooks' Sunday Supper proved my point.
"I knew your Grandmother Gay," said Anne Worrell, the charming Golden Valley resident seated opposite me, and by the time the chicken arrived we were fast friends. Only in the Twin Cities, the nation's biggest small town.
Cooks of Crocus Hill, 877 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-228-1333, www.cooksofcrocushill.comDoozy of a spread makes old new
Muffuletta has been feeding St. Paul's lovely St. Anthony Park neighborhood since the days when Farrah Fawcett-Majors posters were all the rage. But when it comes to chef Jason Schellin's swell Sunday fixed-priced dinner, the restaurant feels brand spanking new. It's a doozy of a spread, with three choices in both the appetizer and entree courses and a pair of dessert options. Schellin's cooking emphasizes local ingredients, bold flavors and eye-catching presentation, always a winning combination but a flat-out home run when the price tag is just $18.95.
Particularly impressive was a flavorful duck confit crowned with micro greens and drizzled with a pert tangerine-infused oil, and a beautifully grilled piece of mahi mahi, served over a medley of roasted turnips and Brussels sprouts and resting in a full-bodied red wine reduction, ranks as one of the tastiest dishes I've encountered in weeks.
The pace only slightly petered out at dessert, which was either a standard-issue flourless chocolate cake or a few scoops of Sebastian Joe's cherry-chocolate truffle ice cream. Both were perfectly fine, but neither operated on the same level as the preceding courses. Service is friendly and accommodating, and the dining room's low-scale warmth -- just what a diner wants on a quiet Sunday night -- hasn't changed a bit.
Muffuletta, 2260 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-644-9116, www.muffuletta.com
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757
For recipes from Cooks of Crocus Hill, go to startribune.com/taste.