Sometimes people come up to me at parties: “Why doesn’t Minnesota have great, simple restaurants the way they have in Paris?” Or Rome, Barcelona, Nice, or wherever. “When I was on vacation,” these people say, “we just went into a nowhere place on a nothing side street and the restaurant was better than most anything you run into here.”
What I never, ever say in these situations is: “Oh, and how was your husband on vacation? Was he nicer? Was your job less demanding? Were the sights sight-ier, the shops more original, the flowers more unusual than the ones you see at home?” Vacations are not always a good thing to compare life to.
However, there are valid points embedded in such critiques: Few Minnesota restaurants are so good that you can just walk in and take it for granted that it will be good. I could pin this on a lot of things, but how about this one: Until about 15 years ago, most Minnesota restaurants got their ingredients from a single food-service truck that pulled up and unloaded oregano, coffee filters, steaks, hollandaise sauce, glass cleaner—the works. Meanwhile, in Barcelona, good ingredients have always come from where they’ve always come from, with no thought required on the part of the chef.
If the ingredient-baseline wasn’t enough, consider how much simpler it makes it for a cook to have a cuisine. I’ve heard some say that the reason Spain has taken over the food world lately is because Spanish chefs have finally reacted to the stultification of the cuisine, a repression proven by the fact that nearly all of Spanish cooking was distilled into a single book: 1,080 Recipes. Imagine how liberating it would be if you had great ingredients, and all you had to know was a thousand recipes? How could you fail?
All of which is a very long way of introducing you to a Minnesota restaurant that’s great in that very European-vacation way: the Grand Café. It’s casual, easy, often excellent, tucked into a neighborhood, and—above all—seemingly effortless.
One of the most effortless things seems to be, at dinner, the canapés. These change nearly every day, but the arrangement stays the same: It’s a platter of six little amusements, two each of chef Jon Radle’s inspiration for that day, such as, say, Spanish boquerones (marinated Spanish anchovies) topped with a few slices of baby radish and placed atop a bundle of baby arugula; house-cured breasola (like prosciutto made from beef) paired with pickled day-lily bulbs and thin papery slices of Parmesan cheese; and house-made salmon gravlax served with a bit of romesco sauce and microgreens. These $9 plates are designed to serve two people, and they’re sort of like little conversation starters, or the passed hors d’oeuvres that start a wedding—graceful, casual, creative little bites. The boquerones and arugula are tart and puckery, the breasola and day lily wild and gamey, and the gravlax silky and herbal. But more than delicious, they just seem very civilized and soothing. Hopefully you’ve got a glass of wine on the table from the affordable, food-directed, mostly European list. And so you pop a canapé in your mouth, you have a little wine. You pop another canapé in your mouth, you have a little more wine. It’s a very relaxing, even vacation-like way to ease into an evening.
The larger appetizers and entrées are frequently gorgeous. The potato-gnocchi appetizer was one of the best preparations of gnocchi I’ve had in my life, with tender little gumdrops of russet potato enhanced with cheese, then sautéed in clarified butter until they developed a mahogany-brown crust on one edge, and served with thin, dry-roasted, mightily caramelized strips of onion, cubes of stewed carrots, and fava beans. Each bite was like dropping down Alice’s rabbit hole to a world of ultra-baked-potato bliss: roasty, toasty, creamy, and wonderful.
A golden beet and chèvre terrine—with carefully cut strips of sunset-yellow beet and chalk white cheese that’s arranged like a stained-glass window—was light and bright. An arugula salad was topped by a perfect yin and yang of rich duck confit, and tangy, slightly sharp pickled garlic shoots and Corsican Fleur du Maquis sheep’s milk cheese. A vegetarian entrée of a leek tart was calendar-girl pretty: It was Muppet green (due to some fresh spinach blended in with the leeks), served in a deep brown crackling-crisp tart shell made savory with fennel pollen and black pepper, and served at that ideal custard state in which it is set—but just—and trembling. A pork entrée featured a tenderloin so unbelievably tender I actually tried to cut it with my spoon—and it worked. A nightly special of diver-caught scallops were nothing short of exquisite. They were cooked such that they had a bread-brown, well-caramelized crisp sear on the top and bottom, but were still sushi-fresh in the centers—so sweet and devourable, that I almost couldn’t bear to eat them because then they’d be gone. Those memorable scallops were paired with a dusky, creamy saffron risotto, braised dinosaur kale and a little garnish of pickled endive and radish.
Really, the only criticisms I could make of the place are that I didn’t think the desserts were special, and one night a caesar salad was very salty. But what I’ll remember from my Grand Café visits won’t be a salty salad, however, or even a heavenly plate of gnocchi. What I remember will be this: As I sat at a wide, wooden table in the big, white dining room overlooking the picturesque old Baker Boy ovens (which Radle and his crew still use), I felt like I was on vacation.
Which I attribute to the fact that the Grand Café crew are in a lot of ways functionally European. Bear with me: Owners Dan and Mary Hunter, (who rescued the restaurant from the dark, yucky period it went through after the original Bakery on Grand crew left) are lifelong food people. Dan was once a chef at the long-since departed, foundational Minneapolis restaurant Faegre’s, Mary waited tables at Goodfellow’s, and they’ve worked as private chefs forever. Radle was the sous chef at Auriga for three and a half years, and has put in time cooking at many of the important chef-driven restaurants in Minnesota, including La Belle Vie, Corner Table, and the Bayport Cookery. All of which, I’d argue, makes Grand Café functionally a third-generation Minnesota restaurant, if you assume that restaurant generations are smaller than the typical generations. The genealogy goes something like this: Faegre’s begat Auriga begat Grand Café.
All of this occurred to me when I asked young chef Radle (he turns 29 this month) about his sourcing. He rattled off a whole host of local farmers—Riverbend Farm, the Southeast Minnesota Food Network, many more—like it was no big thing. Which I suppose it isn’t now, though it was just a few years ago, when an earlier generation of chefs and farmers struggled mightily to create this infrastructure. Radle’s talent is original. He cooks with a sort of homey, rustic grace, a slouchy elegance, if you will. But one of the more marvelous things about Grand Café is that Radle is cooking from a place that may as well be European. He assumes a fresh, local palette of ingredients, and has at least a little bit of an established cuisine at his disposal, like duck confit, that other chefs have shown make lots of Minnesota sense (all those lakes, it’s ability to keep). This cuisine, this reliance on local ingredients may well be a normal thing only in the small world that is south Minneapolis, but frankly, if we ever reach a situation where people complain that there aren’t enough great and simple outstate restaurants the way there are in south Minneapolis, I’ll call it a good day.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.
Grand Café Minneapolis
3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
Dinner hours are 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Lunch hours are 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.
Brunch is served 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Reservations recommended on weekends.