Café Levain

18 Jan


Café Levain
Visited Friday, January 7th, 2011

For my Christmas present, Lauren planned to take me out for a fancy French dinner on New Years Eve! Unfortunately, Lauren got violently ill that night and we were forced to put off our dinner until January 7. Lauren presented me with a list of French restaurants in the Twin Cities and told me to take my pick. Not wanting her to break the bank, I chose the one that seemed the most reasonably priced, Café Levain in south Minneapolis.

The restaurant was very inconspicuously located on a side street. The seating area was very unlike a typical restaurant; it just seemed very open, bright, quiet, and airy. Lauren made reservations, but they clearly were not needed; I would say the place was 40% full at best. Our waiter promptly greeted us and poured water and dropped off the menus. We opted for the Les Launes Croze-Hermitage Syrah (France, 2006) which was a chef’s recommendation. I believe it cost around $37, one of the lower-priced bottles on the menu.

I also chose the Cauliflower Leek Beignets as an appetizer. I did not know, and still don’t really know, what exactly that is. The menu describes it as “Piquillo Pepper Rouille, Frisée.” Whatever… they were good. I would go so far as to say the appetizer was the highlight of my meal. They were these decent-sized, breaded, fried balls that were served with some greens and a dipping sauce. At first taste they seemed relatively flavorless, but soon I was surprised by a little heat! The dish was probably meant for two people, but I ate it all and it was filling.

Cauliflower Leek Beignets

Cauliflower Leek Beignets... very tasty!

The dinner menu was succinct with basically five options: chicken, beef, steak, salmon, and vegetable dishes. There was also a special, the pork tenderloin. I am always a sucker for specials and chose the pork. It was a moderate wait for our food, which we could see being prepared in the open kitchen.

My meal arrived and I questioned if we had indeed come to a French restaurant, or rather a German restaurant! The plate consisted of two slabs of pork tenderloin, very soft mashed potatoes, red cabbage, and what I believe was some sort of tomato jam sauce. The giant bowl/plate made my portion seem deceivingly small, but in reality it was quite a lot of food. To be perfectly honest, my meal visually didn’t look very enticing. But I let my taste buds be the judge! I had never before eaten pork that was still pink in the middle and wondered if it was a mistake or not, but gave the chef the benefit of the doubt and ate it all up… and I’m here to tell about it, so it must have been alright to eat. The potatoes were tasty—nice and buttery. The cabbage was a very German addition to the meal. The tomato jam was really unusual—I may have done without it.

Cafe Levain, pork tenderloin special

The pork tenderloin special

All in all, I was happy with our meal. If we were to do it again, I would order the same appetizer but get a different entrée. Lauren’s beef was better than my pork, in my opinion. Nevertheless, for a Friday night moderately-priced ($20-range entrées) meal, I would recommend giving it a try. A very nice Christmas gift from Mrs. Wife!

I was absolutely heartbroken when my vicious cold hit its peak on New Year’s Eve. Instead getting gussied up and heading to St Paul for a romantic dinner at Meritage’s “Celebration” 10pm seating, Ryan ran out to buy a $10 bottle of sparkling wine and we watched the Dick Clark NYE TV special, complete with a performance by NKOTBSB, in our sweatpants.

When I was feeling better I researched French-influenced restaurants in Minneapolis and sent him a list. I was happy when he chose Levain as it seemed like a nice place with good value. I made a reservation on OpenTable, which later proved to be totally unnecessary.

When we arrived, I actually thought the place was more like 25% full – honestly, as I later remarked to Ryan, Levain has way too many tables…if it had been full, it would have been insanely loud and I sincerely doubt the waiters would have been able to squeeze between tables with plates of food. But it was a really nice space with an open kitchen – I think it would be fun to go back and sit at the “bar” facing the kitchen to watch the cooks work.

Maybe it was because I was so hungry when we arrived, but the bread and butter they served when we sat down was shockingly good. They don’t advertise if they use Hope Creamery butter, but the butter we were served was so good that I would be surprised if it was from anywhere else.

Unlike Ryan, I knew exactly what I was getting for my first course – onion soup! I love onion soup and this was a faithful rendition of the old classic…not breaking any culinary barriers, but a very tasty and warming standby for a frigid January night.

imageI had a bit more trouble picking out my main course. I had talked Ryan into ordering a red wine, as I think it’s the best defense against the bitter cold that we endure during winters in Minnesota. I had been tossing around the idea of the chicken or salmon but my desire for red wine somewhat ruled those out. Enter another bistro classic, beef bourgogne (although I’ve always known it as beef burgundy). Red wine, potatoes, onions, carrots, more red wine… absolute perfection for a January night, and Levain’s interpretation did not disappoint. My only complaint, is that the cook had a heavier hand than necessary with vinegar in the jus, as the dish had too much sourness. When the liquid was mixed more with the potato puree, though, the sourness was better balanced.

imageWhen all was said and done Ryan and I were far too full to even consider dessert. Although it wasn’t the plan we had in mind, we had a lovely meal and we left, warm and content, suitably fortified to face the Minnesota winter once again.

Ambiance – Very nice modern space, light with very high ceilings. If it had been very busy I think it would be terribly loud.
Service – Our server was prompt and fairy attentive. He didn’t fill my water glass as often as I would have liked. He was also serving a party of ten a few tables over so I think they commanded more of his attention, and we were more of an afterthought.
Food – I loved mine. The soup wasn’t as salty as some I’ve had, which is a very good thing (and somewhat difficult to accomplish, it seems). My beef was on the sour side but still delicious.
Overall experience I had a really lovely meal, and an even more lovely time. It was more expensive than a typical night out for us, but it was a special occasion so we ordered a bottle of wine. The prices are not outrageous and the food, well executed.

The Necessities
Café Levain
4762 Chicago Ave S. Minneapolis, MN 55407


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