A week and a half ago I ended up having an unexpected dinner at Grand Cafe in South Minneapolis. Some friends and colleagues of mine are in a band called the Counterfactuals and they were playing an album release show at Icehouse on Nicollet. I was driving up from the hamlets of Northern Rice County with some of the band spouses (which I think made me an honorary band spouse for the night) and we met the overeducated rockers for dinner at Grand Cafe. I’m not sure why we didn’t eat dinner at Icehouse itself, but was not disappointed by the decision as I’ve eaten there a number of times previous for work-related events and it’s never quite rocked my boat. I was especially not disappointed after dinner at Grand Cafe, a place I’d somehow barely heard of, and consequently had no expectations of, but which turned out to be more than minimally decent and well-priced. (I don’t mean to damn with faint praise: Minimally Decent People was the name of the Counterfactuals’ first album and the second half of the previous sentence was only a tortured attempt to cite it; and you’ll have found this particularly hilarious now that I’ve explained the reference.) On to the meal!
There were seven of us. Because the group that I was not in got to the restaurant first we sat outside—I am not generally a fan of eating on sidewalks but we don’t need to get into my issues here. It had been a warm and muggy day but it was cooling off nicely and I have to reluctantly admit that it was probably a better choice than eating inside where it was altogether darker. I didn’t actually enter the restaurant proper—just peeped through the windows. A couple in the group who’d been there before informed that it’s whimsically decorated and that one of the rooms has a Fellini film constantly projected on a wall. I can neither confirm nor deny this but it did lead to an argument later about the name of a Fellini film between two of the people I was driving with (I expect alcohol was to blame). Oops, I said “on to the food”.
What we ate (there were no duplicates despite my not being allowed to decide what everyone would eat).
The menu is divided into the following sections “Small Plates” (not all of which are small or served on plates of any size); “Pasta” (at least one of which is served on a plate); “Plates” (some of which are served on plates the same size as the plates on which “Small Plates” are served); Sides (which seem to be served on rectangular dishes—they really missed the chance to call this section “Rectangles”); and Sweets (we didn’t get any of these and so I cannot confirm the nature of the crockery used or the accuracy of the section title). Everybody really enjoyed having to wait to eat till I’d photographed their food and sending me big bites of the things they were paying for so I could share my opinions of them here. It really is a joy, dining with me.
From the “Small Plates” section:
- Bruschetta, smoked whitefish, aioli, asparagus salad: this was quite nice if a little bit overloaded.
- Little Gem Salad, carrots, fennel, beets, parmesan vinaigrette: the bits of this that I tasted were also quite nice.
- Mussels, red curry, scallions, pickled chickpeas: this was tasty enough with the somewhat generic Americanized-Thai curry flavour but I’m not sure what the pickled chickpeas had to do with the rest, especially texturally.
- Octopus, caper salsa verde, burrata, breadcrumb: this was mine; the octopus was perfectly cooked—tender without approaching mushiness and a nice crisp exterior with the breadcrumbs adding extra texture; the caper salsa verde and romesco were both good but clashed a bit—I preferred the salsa verde; the burrata was high quality and almost the best thing I ate at the meal but I’m not sure it went with anything else on the plate, except visually.
From the “Pasta” section:
- Mustard Maltagliati, pork & Tuscan kale sugo: this was very nice, if over-sauced in the American way; it compared well to pastas I’ve had at more lauded Twin Cities restaurants.
- Spaghetti, Manila clam, Calabrian chilli, lemon: this was mine and I quite liked it; a simple dish, cooked well with nothing superfluous involved; the pasta was nicely al dente, which is not something you can take for granted.
From the “Plates” section:
- Yukon River Salmon, smashed Yukon potato, sage, currants, marsala: quite nice; the fish was cooked nicely and I liked the sauce; I think wilted greens would have been better than the mashed potato, but I’m not sure if the person who ate most of it would agree.
- Beef Sirloin, braised baby lettuce, fingerling potatoes, pecorino: this was a very good plate from top to bottom; the steak was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, the braised lettuce was a good textural counterpoint; and the fingerling potatoes (served separately in a not-plate) were done nicely too.
- Chicken, curry-wild rice cakes, creme fraiche, cherry-cilantro chutney: the chicken (grilled? roasted?) was very nice—tender with crisp skin, but the sides were a bit all over the place; the curry-wild rice cakes were fine in a fusiony kind of way but there was too much of them and they didn’t really go with the chicken
From the “Sides” section:
- Asparagus, goat cheese fonduta, salami, hazelnuts: I only got a bite of the asparagus which was nicely done but the person who ate most of it really liked the whole.
Larger comments after the slideshow.
As you have probably sensed from the comments above, my only real problem with some of these dishes was a tendency to overload the plate with extraneous bits, some of which seemed to me to throw the balance of the dishes they were in off. On the whole, I’d suggest, based on this menu (I gather it changes seasonally), that this is not a restaurant that has any particular culinary identity beyond a sort of contemporary eclecticism. I don’t mean this as a slam, per se—you could say the same about a place like Alma (which I really like); the difference, I think, is that at Alma the dishes are more focused and thought through (and, of course, the dishes are more complex and the execution at a higher level).
Of course, Grand Cafe is also not priced like Alma—all of the above, some beers and tax and tip brought the total to about $224 or about $32/head. Granted we didn’t get dessert or wine but none of us were hungry after, and it would still have been a very reasonable bill if we had gotten dessert or wine. Certainly far lower than you’d pay for a similar meal at Twin Cities places that get more press, but with cooking at the level of at least some of those places. I’d certainly eat here again before going back to Heirloom, for example, and that’s without taking Heirloom’s higher prices into account. And indeed it’s not unlikely that I’ll come back in the near future with the missus in tow. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone else who’s never been. And, oh yes, service was friendly and everything came out at a reasonable pace.
So, Twin Citizens, are there other places like Grand Cafe out there in the Cities that don’t get as much attention as they should? Or is it the case that they do get attention and I’ve just been my usual oblivious self?
Oh, and you should all get the new self-titled Counterfactuals album. Go give it a listen—you’ll like it.