The Art of the Meal

The Mill City Café, formerly a funky coffee shop, now serves crab cakes and carbonara

THE OLD MILL CITY COFFEE SHOP, which occupied a corner of a northeast Minneapolis artists’ studio building, has a new name, new menu, and new owners. But the transformation into a casual gourmet restaurant hasn’t been entirely smooth. As we huddled in the cramped entry during a recent weekend dinner rush, a guy got yelled at by his wife, who had somehow lost him between the restaurant and the car. Then, the front door didn’t close behind them, sending a bone-chilling draft into the space and a nearby waitress into a horrible coughing fit. It was a scene that begged for a second take.

After that espresso-like jolt, we tucked into a bench and, $4 tumblers of Killer Juice Cabernet Sauvignon in hand, watched bohemian boomers sway hips and snap fingers as a live band covered an Eric Clapton song. The mix was as eclectic as Mill City’s MySpace page: men with graying ponytails drinking the boxed wine and eating crab cakes among brick walls, exposed pipes, and sculptures of sea creatures made from circuit boards.

So much for the old trope of the “starving artist.” There are no Ramen noodles or rice and beans at Mill City. Instead, you might find a pretty plate of seared swordfish, albeit with a too-sweet Asian cabbage salad. Or, if you’re especially lucky, you’ll dine on pork tamales as tender and spicy as any you’d find on East Lake Street. The ever-changing dinner menu, though not extensive, features cuisine from around the globe—the United Nations condensed to a page. This breadth makes it difficult to match the quality you’d find in any one dish’s country of origin. The carbonara, for example, seemed more Midwestern than Italian with its heavy sauce. Tasty, yes, until, upon cooling, the cream and bacon congealed in a clump. A dish of shrimp and scallops served in a red curry was surprisingly good, considering Mill City is not a Thai restaurant. But why not order it from the experts?

Photo by Eric Moore

The American standards—a lush artichoke dip, a straightforward and tasty pork tenderloin—were better than the fusion items, including a pizza that replaced tomato sauce with puréed squash. With each bite, mush oozed out from beneath the cheese and startled the tongue—squash on pizza, really?

Desserts followed suit. Those that sounded fancy—a chocolate-peanut butter pie and ancho-chile chocolate cake—were bland and plasticy, like a dessert you might pick up at a discount-supermarket bakery. A hot cherry cobbler—again, a little too sweet—was at least headed in the right direction.

If you visit Mill City in the middle of the week, the vibe is decidedly more laid back. One of the owners waits on the whole room herself, a few bluegrass players might pick strings in the corner, and, sometimes, real live artists spread supplies on a table and spend a few hours painting. In other words, it feels like it used to. Mill City doesn’t have to get too fancy to keep patrons coming. Sometimes a good cup of coffee, some cool company, and an inspiring setting is all a neighborhood place really needs.

Mill City Café

2205 California St. #102
Minneapolis, 612-788-6188
Prices appetizers $6—$10,
entrées $12—$17