Levain, Again

When a fine-dining restaurant reopens as a comfort-food café—is that a sign of success, or failure?

AT 8 O’CLOCK on a Friday night, the newly reopened Café Levain is filled to capacity. Black-clad waiters, visibly sweating, serve plates of roast chicken and braised short ribs to diners leaning in on their elbows, straining to hear their companions. From behind the bar, a rotund man in a sport coat surveys the scene. It’s Harvey McLain, owner of Levain and the Turtle Bread chain, and he has good reason to be smiling: This time he’s got the right concept in the room.

When McLain opened his Turtle Bread triad—bakery/café, pizza joint, fine-dining restaurant—at 48th and Chicago four years ago, it turned the sleepy south Minneapolis intersection into a neighborhood hub. He convinced New York star chef Stewart Woodman to head the kitchen at Restaurant Levain and installed former Café Un Deux Trois proprietor Michael Morse at the host’s stand. Woodman served foie-gras torchon and butter-poached lobster until the combination of talent and tempers combusted (McLain describes Woodman and Morse’s relationship as being “like two old Jewish people who lived together but wouldn’t talk to each other”) and both departed in less than a year. Steven Brown took over the kitchen, quietly developing a reputation as one of the city’s most creative chefs. But while many seemed to know of Brown’s talent, few chose to sample it for themselves. When Levain closed on New Year’s Eve of 2006, many diners lamented the loss, saying, “That’s too bad. I heard it was great—but I never went there.”

True, Restaurant Levain’s location was a disadvantage (out-of-town expense-account diners seldom venture into residential neighborhoods) as was its ambiance (at top price points, diners expect a more luxurious environment, including restrooms they can access without having to walk past storage shelves and walk-in-coolers). But near the end of its first incarnation, when Restaurant Levain struggled to draw even 30 diners a night (chef Eric Sturtz, who now runs the Café Levain kitchen, described the scene as “a lot of guys standing around wanting to cook, and not much action”), it seemed there weren’t enough locals willing to commit the dollars required for Levain-style high-end dining.

This past June, McLain reopened Levain as a casual French bistro, with a short menu of comfort foods: braised, roasted, caramelized, unfussy stuff you believe you could make at home—if only you had the time. The dining room itself, a spare box with golden walls, looks mostly the same, except for some new mirrors, wood paneling, and a small bar next to the host’s stand. But the Heinz ketchup and Grey Poupon set on each paper-covered table are clues that Levain has shed its spendy, highbrow image. The place feels more accessible, like Salut without the snark. The guy with the buzzcut and Oakley sunglasses, the preteen having dinner with her parents—they’re diners who would have been out-of-place before. When our waitress greets us, I ask her to describe how things have changed. “When you see the prices on the menu,” she replies, “you realize you can eat here twice as often.”

Photo by Terry Brennan

To most local diners, Restaurant Levain was considered a once-a-year, special occasion place; by contrast, you could eat at Café Levain once a week. All entrées are priced less than $20 and come with a complimentary side, such as grilled asparagus, buttery mushrooms, or caramelized Brussels sprouts. There’s a serviceable hanger steak and hamburger. There’s duck-leg confit and a hearty roast chicken, both of which feature tender meat encased in a crackling, salty skin—like pork rinds crossed with potato chips—that I wish were sold as a gourmet supermarket snack. The specials I tried were as good as the bistro standards: Pacific sea bass was paired beautifully with kalamata olives and zucchini slivers; luscious grilled nectarine complemented a juicy pork chop. In three visits, I exhausted nearly the entire bill of fare, from the charming little relish tray (olives, aioli, house-made pickles, and kohlrabi coleslaw) to the Valrhona truffle torte (the slice of dark, suede-smooth ganache was topped with raspberries and a tangy crème fraîche; priced at $9.50, half the cost of my entrée, it was still worth every bite).

After my first meal at Café Levain, my sole complaint was that the crust on the crème brûlée was too thin—a decidedly mild infraction. With a few more meals, I assembled a longer list: the French onion soup was a bit too salty, as were the sauces on the chicken and steak; the frog legs lacked flavor; the bread salad was drenched in balsamic vinegar; the pasta dish had too many noodles and not enough vegetables.
But overall, the food was consistently good. And with the exception of the homemade ice creams (certainly tasty, but not worth $7 when Pumphouse Creamery is around the corner), it was also reasonably priced. There are plenty of great bargains on the wine list right now as McLain liquidates the former restaurant’s stock. The Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet, for example, now sells for $9 a glass instead of $15 and lives up to its description as “a masterpiece that will wow you.” When the bill for three came to $58, I thought it was a misprint. I’ve spent as much on Tuesday-night takeout.

You’ll want to dine in at Levain, though, because the service makes it easy to feel like a regular. One waiter helpfully confided that we should avoid the chicken consommé (“It’s basically chicken broth for $7”). Another encouraged us to linger over dessert after the place emptied out at 9:45. “Stay as long as you want,” she said, disappearing into the kitchen. “Just keep your clothes on.”

The new Levain is less stuffy and more fun. It’s doing for French food what Ikea did for Scandinavian furniture: simplifying things to make them available to a wider audience. One of the greatest strengths of the Twin Cities dining scene is its thriving middle class, its bevy of mid-range restaurants like Café Levain.

Yet it’s a tad bittersweet to see Levain tone down its ambitions. It’s nice to have a mix of restaurants that make you feel comfortable—and those that push you out of your comfort zone.

Admittedly, McLain needs to turn a profit to stay in business: We can’t ask him to run his restaurant like an R&D lab. And it’s unfair to single out McLain for simplifying his concept—he’s simply giving diners what they want. But if more restaurateurs stick to safe, centuries-old recipes, how will we ever innovate? If chefs like Steven Brown are making pub food (he now heads the kitchen at Harry’s Food & Cocktails), who will push the fine-dining envelope?

It wasn’t time for considering these questions. How could I give it a thought when the room was so loud that I literally couldn’t hear myself think? (Next time I’ll request a quieter table in the kitchen.) I sipped my wine and soaked up the party-like scene. I decided, in the short term, to endorse culinary populism, bringing the most happiness to the greatest number of people.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

Café Levain
4762 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis,
Open for dinner Tues.–Sat.
Reservations recommended but not necessary.
Parking available on Chicago Avenue or 48th Street.
Prices for appetizers range from $6–$12, entrées from $10–$18.