Alex Roberts Shares His Secret Formula for Great Food

Unlocking the building blocks to Restaurant Alma’s subtle, delicious cuisine

Courtesy of Restaurant Alma

It’s no secret: I’m a fan of Restaurant Alma. There’s a reason it’s spent nearly 18 years in the upper echelon of our restaurant community, with a reputation for great service, food with integrity, and one of the best wine experiences in the Upper Midwest. Clearly, there’s a great staff, but this is the restaurant (and cafe, and hotel) that Alex Roberts built. (Mind you, I’ve written a few critical things, I’ve mocked the playlist before the remodel, and I’ve argued it didn’t deserve four stars because the decor was outdated. Alex is always gracious about those criticisms.)

Alex has always let his food do the talking; it’s only been in recent years that he’s been a more public voice, generally to promote urban farming, or getting higher quality food in the public schools. But I had the chance to sit down with him to talk about Alma being named to Bon Appétit Magazine‘s list of 50 Best New Restaurants for this WCCO story. Alma’s been open since 1999—it’s not new, exactly. But what’s happening over there now is new: new bread program (it’s awesome), new full bar designed by Bittercube (it’s awesome), and new cafe (yep, it’s awesome). The restaurant has a new look and new decor (it’s…better) and the same, well, awesome food.

Alex Roberts, Photo Courtesy of Restaurant Alma

I was curious about Alex’s approach to food, because my meals at Alma are consistently excellent, with flavors that slowly reveal themselves instead of being in-your-face showstoppers. Alex told me that he first started cooking this way when he was at a friend’s home, where his friend’s mother was making Indian food. Alex noticed it was far more subtle than Indian food at most Indian restaurants. “‘Why do you make curry this subtly,’ I asked her. She said, ‘This is home food. That other food is restaurant food, that’s not how we cook every day.'”

Alma Scallops, Photo by Jason DeRusha

He noticed the aromatic nature of her food and decided to emulate that in his own cooking. So, the Alex Roberts approach to designing a dish has three parts:

  1. Fat or Rich: Often a protein but not always. The main show. The full-flavor and integral ingredient is here.
  2. Aromatic: Tarragon, lemon zest, guajillo sauce, red mole, tamari-sesame, truffle, something to tickle the senses.
  3. “The essence of the ingredient”: Hard to describe, but something that reinforces the flavor profile of the main fat/rich initial ingredient.

Many chefs start with a fat, add another fat, and then do an acid as a counterpoint. This is more subtle, with similarities to Japanese and Thai cuisine. I love places that hammer me with a well-balanced but assertive flavor, too—but there’s something special about eating Alex-style cooking, where the flavors reveal themselves slowly and subtly. It’s a style he’s passed along to many chefs in town, including his two extremely talented chefs de cuisine, Lucas Rosenbrook and Matt Sprague. “I’d say I’m more of a coach and mentor. Our two lead people are teachers in their own right,” he says. “Part of my success is to step back and let them flex their muscles and do their thing.”

Alma Sweetcorn Flan, Photo By Jason DeRusha

528 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis