Flavor // Power to the people

Restaurant Levain was a smokin’-hot ticket on a Saturday night. But on weekday evenings here in South Minneapolis, the wait for a table was nonexistent. So were customers. Who, except for a trust-fund baby, is going to get all gussied up and drop $100 for dinner on a Tuesday night? And so the darling of the local food scene was forced to shutter.

After a reality check, it recently reopened in the same digs as Café Levain. Ah, semantics! “café,” not “restaurant,” exudes the message that it’s OK to wander in without your Guccis, plunk your elbows on the table (where white linens have been 86ed in favor of plain butcher paper and — what’s this? — ketchup bottles take the place of floral vases) and eat — you no longer have to “dine” — food with ingredients you recognize and, best yet, can afford. They’ve even added a basic, little bar: How Everyman is that?

The best news is that what comes (and comes out way too slowly: service glitch?) from the enticing open kitchen is still darned good, just further from the cutting edge. No need for a prix-fixe tasting menu these days (which, I’ll admit, I relished more than once). Instead, just summon up the French version of comfort food in hearty portions. And, now that I think about it, who else in town is doing that? Vincent, Fugaise, La Belle Vie and their Francophile confreres offer delicious fare that’s both haute and trendy, while blue-collar Salut mocks itself as “the P.F. Chang’s of French bistros.” But grandmotherly classics like coq au vin and onion soup? Mais non. Come here.

Among the starters, soups and salads (most $6–8) you’ll find that classic onion soup, along with mussels swimming in a creamy broth mined with chiles and tomatoes; a pork rillette (which, the menu hints for the unwashed, is “similar to pate”); and our choice, frog legs. Not only retro frog legs, but, mon dieu, deep-fried! They’re mighty tasty (“just like chicken”), crisp yet admirably moist, just begging to be dragged through the satiny tomato sauce, then topped with a tendril of the slow-roasted fennel that adorns the plate.

Seven entrees, plus a changing nightly special, range from $10 for a chuck burger (put that ketchup to good use) to grilled hangar steak in red wine sauce. There’s a simple roast chicken, a French bistro staple, perfumed with rosemary and thyme; duck leg confit aside a blackberry-red wine sauce; fish of the day; a summery pasta dish; and our choices, short ribs and pork chops.

The pork was beautifully pink and juicy, abetted by the sweetness of a grilled peach (the only thing better than ham and eggs is pork chops and peaches, in my book). But the winner was the slow-braised, fall-off-the-bone short ribs, flavored once again with red wine (which we also ordered by the glass for a paltry $6) and diced vegetables — carrot, onion, celery and the like — braised in the rich pan juices.

Each entrée’s price includes your choice of side disheuthas (or order separately for $4–6), ranging from wild mushrooms in garlic, sautéed greens or asparagus tips with lemon to French fries or a gratin of mac and cheese. Our choices were a summery bread salad formed of rosemary-and-levain-bread croutons tossed with cherry tomatoes, basil, red onion slivers and enough olive oil to soften the bread — a good but not great rendition —and a huge dish of caramelized Brussels sprouts spritzed with lemon juice.

The dessert list is short and, frankly, unexciting. Order a truffle torte for $9.50 or enter the sane lane for $7 with a standard crème brulee, ice creams, or the café’s singular “root beer float,” a combo  of vanilla ice cream and root beer sorbet. No thanks. Instead we chose the classic tarte tatin, and a perfect specimen it was: all buttery pastry under a succulent topping of caramelized apples and a drizzle of crème fraiche. We’ll be back. And on a Tuesday night.

Café Levain
4754 Chicago Ave. S.
Dinner only Tues–Sat.