Off the Eaten Path: Café Levain
Unfortunately, summer is considered the slow season for Minnesotan restaurants. It’s ironic for such a produce-rich state, but backyard grills and picnics can be understandably more enticing for the cabin-fevered and winter-weary than a dimly-lit dining room. I hadn’t been to Café Levain in a few years, but once I heard Adam Vickerman was back—and now, as its Executive Chef—I couldn’t wait to return. While I suspect that at a few other restaurants, summer menus aren’t always taken as seriously as their fall and winter selection, this season’s menu at Levain is truly a revelation.
We started our evening with a refreshing glass of off-menu (at least, at time of press) Prosecco, flush with notes of tart green apple. When I’m off the clock (and on a budget), I am often tempted to skip the ever-important aperitif. I believe, however, that if one had to choose between dessert and a pre-dinner cocktail or sparkling wine, opt for the latter. An aperitif instantly changes the mood of the evening, and everything that follows it feels decidedly more festive and satisfying.
As our starters arrived, we moved to a dry, food-friendly Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend ($10/39). The wine list at Levain is relatively simple, but changes often and coordinates perfectly with Vickerman’s intricate fare. This little blend, for example, brought out the buttermilk/beet vinaigrette in the Bibb Lettuce Salad ($9), rendering even the lightly-dressed salad exquisitely flavorful. Indeed, diced, de-seeded cucumbers, garden strawberries, radishes and a dab of goat cheese make this the best summer salad I have had in quite some time, if not to-date. Additionally, the plate is topped with rich brioche croutons that are just ever-so-slightly sweet for an added bit of texture and playfulness.
However, the Sweet Corn Soup with pork belly, curry, coconut, basil and kohlrabi is the darling dish that made me change my mind entirely about ho-hum summer dining. No more will I fantasize about fall’s roasted root vegetables and red meat–at least exclusively. Now, visions of crunchy, peppery, fresh garden vegetables in a creamy broth will also dance in my head. This soup could easily have been a little too hot ‘n heavy, but a bit of spice, a careful dice and a deft hand prevailed: it’s a masterpiece. The Sweet Corn Soup, as well as our entrées, were actually part of the special “Sunday Suppers” menu, where Levain diners can enjoy a three-course meal for a low, fixed price. If you see the soup on the Sunday menu or any other, strongly consider structuring your dinner to accommodate it.
Levain has its own garden, and Vickerman uses this hidden strength to full advantage in every dish on the menu. Perhaps it is this single attribute that allows the kitchen to elevate their summer cuisine so. Or perhaps it is simply that Vickerman delights in robust flavors and complexity, and he doesn’t play it safe. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for fall.
As we transitioned to our entrées—the Wild Red King Salmon and the Grilled Hanger Steak, our server arrives with a zesty, berry-scented Nine Vines Rosé ($8.50). Both salmon and steak were incredibly moist, and served atop a bed of succulent cannellini bean and baby potato ragout, with tomatoes, garden-fresh herbs and roasted fig. If the specials somehow fail to hold your attention, Levain’s regular entrees also include vegetarian selections, and are very reasonably priced, with most under $25.
For dessert, our prix fixe menu choice was Pecan Shortbread with apricot puree, apricot granita, and marinated apricots—an unexpected and unique delight. With the buttery shortbread, we round out the evening with a glass of Chambers Rosewood Muscat. While I often find dessert wines too sweet for my taste, this Muscat mitigates sweet cherries with a hint of tea on the finish.
Café Levain has experimented with some outdoor seating, and has found even sidewalk dining to be a resounding success. However, if its summer clients will deign to venture inside, even its darker, masculine interior, with quirky accents and open kitchen, lends itself to a relaxing, escapist experience. To make a reservation, or to follow Chef Vickerman’s blog, visit www.cafelevain.com.
4762 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55407