December 16, 2009
There’s an abstract quality about living in the Upper Midwest, and Minneapolis specifically, that makes me feel innately at home.
I grew up in Milwaukee. I’ve lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago. I’ve visited Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I’m an urbanist, a lover of cities, and an adaptable person, so I would probably bloom wherever I was planted. Yet despite my semi-regular fantasies of living elsewhere (say, Europe), the Midwest is permanently in my blood and my bones. Minneapolis has become my Mini Apple. It’s my not-quite Chicago and my bigger-than Milwaukee. To borrow from the French, Minneapolis is my terroir – and I like it that way.
The most elegant way to live is to consider yourself an essential part of where you’re from. It’s the same for cooking. Food is life, after all. It comes from the ground beneath our feet and responds to the seasons just as we do. Last week, I had a fantastic experience at Restaurant Alma, a much-loved restaurant in Minneapolis serving hand-crafted food made with fresh, seasonal, organic, and local ingredients. Alma nails local elegance on the head.
My food-going friend Angela and I enjoyed two hours of conversation and three courses on a cold Friday night. At first, the name struck me as arbitrary, even a little incongruous. Alma means “soul” in Spanish — and the restaurant isn’t Spanish in any way. It’s elemental and sophisticated, and although influenced by food from around the world, I would call it farm-inspired American — and thoroughly Minnesota chic. (Hey, that’s my term, so don’t steal it. I first used it last year, which you can read about here if you’d like.)
The crowd was culturally interesting — lots of ages and races and pairings of dates, families, and friends. I especially loved the older folks there in suits on special occasion dinners with their spouses and kids. (I’m the daughter of a truck driver. What can I say?) The staff was pleasant and professional and our server mentioned she had been working there for nearly 10 years.
The menu, thoughtfully curated and presented, is organized into three courses. For 45 dollars, you can choose one plate from each course, though if you have any sense about you, it will be torture to choose just three. I started with a mixed lettuce salad with roasted beets, buttermilk dressing, salsa verde, and pine nuts. Beet lovers like me, rejoice. Red and golden beets, and plenty of them.
Secondi, I had the ricotta gnocchi with fricassee of vegetables, black truffle butter, and parmigiana cheese. If pillows of ricotta pasta weren’t enough, the black truffle butter made the plate sing.
And finally, I had seared scallops with spiced chickpeas, roasted squash, wilted spinach, and lemon preserve — a generous and honest plate of food with three perfectly browned scallops.
By the end of the night, I started to see the brilliance behind the name Alma. Restaurant Alma serves the soul of the Midwest. The food is elegant without a hint of fussiness. It’s generous, yet well-conceived. It’s affordable fine food — and also the perfect spot for a date, by the way, but save it for the third or fourth. This kind of culinary intimacy would be a shame to waste on anything less than romantic. Or, if dating just ain’t coming your way, grab a great friend like I did and have yourself a memorable (and soulful) meal.