During her storied and successful tenure at Sea Change, chef Jamie Malone established herself as something of a doyenne of seafood, garnering attention from the likes of Food & Wine Magazine and the James Beard Foundation.
So it was a bit of a surprise when she and chef Erik Anderson took over beloved Kingfield eatery Grand Cafe only to unveil a menu chock full of elegant French food.
They wanted to keep the spirit of the place alive, but for Malone this culinary concept was about more than honoring its former tenants. “I think it’s always been in the back of my head to do a French restaurant. With food, it’s sort of how it is with music,” she explains. “Whatever you fall in love with first, that’s what you keep coming back to and listening to for your whole life. Those are my first loves: punk rock and French food.”
Both influences are immediately evident in this intimate, slightly quirky 70-year-old space. Fuzzy guitar riffs blare from the kitchen speakers as the staff hovers over the milk chocolate pot de cremes and smoked sturgeon they’re prepping for dinner service. The interior has undergone some updating: Notice the addition of swoon-worthy pink upholstered chairs, a lush hand-painted mural that was, after much effort, shipped here from Paris, and lots of potted greenery. But there are other elements like the worn floors, taped-up booths, and enormous 1950s-era Baker Boy oven that have been very intentionally left untouched. “That’s all part of the soul of this building,” she says. “You can’t create that.”
What Malone and her venerable team are creating is some pretty soul-stirring food and drink. An ideal tour of the menu starts with an item that’s not actually on it: a dainty glass of chilled vermouth. Since the restaurant doesn’t have a full liquor license, cocktail consultant Marco Zappia was called upon to create four beautiful versions of the fortified wine—a rosso, a rosa, a bianco, and an americano—exclusively for the cafe. If vermouth has only had a place in your life at Mad Men viewing parties, get ready to have your mind opened and your “usual” order upended.
Press on with the unassuming-sounding starter of sliced fish, a rotating offering that is currently fresh hamachi served cool (as opposed to iced, which kills the delicate flavor) and finished with literally three flakes of crunchy salt. Simple, sophisticated, and a lovely way to prepare the palate for the stunning amount of brown butter to come.
Oh, you didn’t think a salad could be dressed in butter? Grand Cafe proves it can and it should. Along with barely wilted spinach and hazelnuts, this salad features different textures of sunchokes—some crispy, some chewy, some plump—that mimic bacon more convincingly than any root vegetable has a right to. Among all this richness, the brown butter is a perfect fit.
That nutty liquid gold pops up in the entrees section of the menu too, lending beautiful color and flavor to the whipped potatoes that accompany Grand’s take on roast chicken. If you’re expecting a rustic, crispy-skinned, pick-it-off-the-bone affair, this ain’t it. Still, Malone’s uber-elegant interpretation—a breast with a mousseline of finely chopped dark meat tucked under the skin—is impressively moist and flavorful. It comes with its own seasonal sides and a heavenly jus, but it wouldn’t be uncalled for to get an order of the hen egg dumplings to eat alongside the chicken, too.
Grand’s menu also includes a handful of dishes designed to enjoy as pass-arounds for the table. In place of your usual charcuterie tray, try the piquillo pepper-glazed lamb terrine, a terrific take on forcemeat that’s served with sticky apricots and fragrant fronds of fennel. Or split the pike quenelle, a traditional Lyonnaise dish that Malone points out is “totally Midwestern at heart,” what with all the crayfish and dairy and up-north freshwater fish. It’s a mousseline, which has a pleasant bounce to it, done as a long cylinder so it’s easy to slice and share. You’ll want an extra hunk of baguette—baked in-house in that big ol’ oven—to sop up the creamy crayfish broth it’s floating in.
For something richer (not that the terrine or quenelle are exactly light), order the sweet-meets-meat Paris Brest, a crispy choux pastry glazed with honey and filled with unctuous, super-smooth chicken liver mousse. Another showcase of silky textures and high-end offal is the foie royale, a hollowed-out eggshell filled with layers of savory, satiny custard and cherry tobacco-tinged cream. This is the dish that’s all over food-obsessed Insta-feeds, thanks, in part, to the charming duck-footed egg cup it’s served in. It’s listed as a starter, but the royale would be equally suitable to order for dessert. Both these liver dishes demand to be paired with bubbles, so it’s a good thing there are some sparkling dynamos by the glass.
Wine is an essential part of the overall experience here, so when your server suggests something that you don’t normally drink (i.e. pinot grigio, sherry, or beaujolais), just go with it. Although they offer some lovely chardonnays and a pinot noir so pure and perfect it might as well join a convent, sommelier Bill Summerville says he didn’t want to restrict the wine list to French appellations only. He was instead guided by “everything I love.” Like that deeply personal wine list, service here is warm, confident, and knowledgeable. Little touches abound in the vintage mismatched dishware and gold demitasse spoons, so you feel like a guest worthy of the good china. In a dining scene that has become increasingly casual (no shade, just facts), it’s nice to feel coddled and to coo over tiny butter plates and etched coupes.
Refined and decidedly indulgent, Grand Cafe is serving food fit for celebration, but Malone insists that they want it to remain a casual neighborhood spot where you could get just a tarte flambée (essentially a crispy-crust Alsatian pizza with lardons, melted onions, cheese, and a sprinkling of fresh thyme) and a glass of wine. To that end, she and chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen are creating some new dishes that will only be served during the early part of dinner service on weekdays—think flaky pot pie—and yes, she is still working on brunch.
“I know there is a creative, very ‘us’ way to do brunch, but I’m waiting to sort of let intuition lead me to exactly what that is.” She imagines a bustling dining room with roving carts serving shellfish and ham sliced off the bone. “I do love the idea of having this be the place that you spend like a whole cold afternoon just relaxing, drinking champagne and eating oysters.”
Sounds like we’ll be changing up our winter plans from hibernating to luxuriating.
Click here to see more photos of Grand Cafe
3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis
small plates $7-$22, entrees $24-$34