BYOL (Bring Your Own Levain)
January 17, 2009
On a recent Friday night, I sped my way to Cafe Levain with anticipation. I was looking forward to catching up with Jamie, my friend who recently moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis, and I was late. The 46th Street exit on 35W-S is closed (still) and I haven’t learned (still) to get off earlier. Thankfully, I was able to backtrack and steer myself to my destination, one of those south Minneapolis neighborhood strips with quite a few things going for it. I couldn’t find the restaurant as I drove by, but the address was right, so I parked my car and hoped to find it all the same. Around the corner from a wood-burning pizza place, Turtle Bread, a bar, a movie theatre, a Mexican restaurant, and various other amenities sits Cafe Levain, tucked away on a side street patiently waiting for you to arrive.
It’s very welcoming to step inside this warm, Midwestern bistro, slightly French in spirit, with its large space, hardwood interior, yellow walls, and open kitchen. I just wish I new how to pronounce the restaurant’s name. “Levain” is a challenging French word, isn’t it? I would love to say it with all the guttural verve I know it deserves, but I cannot, so I settle for a flat American approximation thereof, plain old Leh-vahn, spoken like a tired breadmaker who ran out of yeast.
Jamie gave me a big hug and kiss, as this was one of the few nights we’d be able to spend together while she was in town. When we settled in and asked the server what people are ordering, she said “everything,” which makes me a little skeptical. Even if the menu is a masterpiece, every restaurant develops a reputation for a few items. I’m confident that Cafe Levain has a few such entrees on its menu, but unfortunately, I don’t think that we ordered them that evening.
I may not get all the details of these meals right because I am writing from memory. The restaurant posts its menu online, but it changes frequently, and those things we ate weren’t posted when I visited the site.
We started out with a memorable salad (simply called the Winter Salad), a long platter of Brussels sprouts, bacon, poached egg, frisée, and whole pistachio nuts. This was a fantastic blend of texture and flavor with something masterful about it. We shared our way through the salad with many rave reviews and gulps of wine.
I ordered ribeye steak with mushrooms with a side of potato puree, hearty and fulfilling comfort food made even more appealing with local meat and vegetables–something your grandma would make, but never quite this good.
Jamie ordered chicken with beans (I think they were flagolet) and sausage and a side of pearl barley. The chicken was crispy and juicy at the same time, and probably as delicious as any chicken could be. In comparison, the beans were lacking personality, unless you ate them with a piece of sausage, and the pearl barley was suspiciously flavorless. Did something go wrong? Did the sous chef forget to add something to the barley that night? We each had one bite, but the rest of the side dish went completely uneaten, which is a shame, as that’s one of the big things Cafe Levain has going for it. The entrees are priced in the comfortable 16- to 20-dollar range, and on top of it, the portions are more than ample and you also get to choose a side to accompany your meal. I love how this generosity sets Cafe Levain apart as a true Midwestern bistro.
In addition, I also loved the double rows of two-person tables that graced the long wall opposite the kitchen, making this a flirtatious date option, and a lot of people are raving about the prix fixe Sunday Supper.
It’s ironic though, that even considering these obvious charms, the restaurant seems to be lacking that which I cannot pronounce. Levain, a leavening agent, something to infuse it with a little extra gusto and that mysterious spark that marks a restaurant’s sign of success. I’ll be rooting for this place, and hoping that those things Cafe Levain does well will be the leaven that helps it rise as well as it should.