The Co-op Creamery Café is a tale of two restaurants.
By day, it's an approachable Midwestern cafe, one that takes inspiration from small-town menu classics — buttermilk pancakes, farm fresh omelettes, a good Reuben. By night, it's something much different. It's an ambitious place sourcing only from small organic farms, showcasing the glory of the vegetable, attempting to make old favorites new again. Can this approach work?
When local grocery store cooperative Seward Co-op opened this "third space," the restaurant was designed to be a gathering place for co-op members and the Seward community. They had a huge opportunity, and they set out with serious ambition.
The Creamery is a no-tipping restaurant. In the interest of making a more equitable workplace for all staff, price points are slightly higher than market rate and all employees receive a steady, livable wage. If a customer chooses to leave a gratuity, the funds are donated to a regularly rotating charity.
The majority of the Creamery's ingredients are organic and locally sourced through the co-op's stores, and so the menu fluctuates regularly to reflect seasonality and tremors in the supply chain. Though many restaurants promote this ideal, few are able to follow through on it wholesale — it's just too expensive. Because Seward is a co-op, the Creamery can do it.
By day, the restaurant is what the neighborhood seems to want and need. An open and airy cafe holds a bakery case filled with blush-colored cupcakes and deep chocolate tortes, beer on tap, affordable wine by the glass, a truly great burger, eggs your way, chicken and waffle sandwiches, and a powerful Caesar salad with bright baby kale.
By night, the lights are dimmed and the menu seems designed to provoke you. In place of the usual casual starter list of easy salads, shared charcuterie plates, and dependable soups, you'll find instead a list of seven all-vegetable appetizers.
Chef Lucas Almendinger says he went this route because he thinks the Twin Cities are behind the times when it comes to treating vegetables like the main event. Price points are lower on vegetables, so he can still get progressive without getting overly spendy. Plus the flow of "ugly" vegetables from the store gives him a great opportunity to give produce a second chance. Noble ideals, all.
And he does get progressive. On the appetizer list are things like caramelized salsify with grapefruit, chili, Thai basil, and Mexican tea; and braised sunchokes with caramelized apple, cashew pudding, and pickled mustard seed. You'll pay anywhere between $8 and $16 for these creations, which can feel like a lot when you really have no idea what, precisely, will arrive on the plate.
While this kind of anticipation has its occasional charms — in a chef's table situation, for instance, where you pay a flat fee for the pleasure of having a chef toy with your palate — even then you only want it on special occasions. Here, it can seem out of place.
Happily, things return to somewhat more familiar territory in the entrees section. The burger is worth traveling for, with highest-quality grass-fed beef cooked to rosy medium rare, fried onions, onion jam, and bruleed Swiss. It's simple enough, not overwrought, and devourable. Bucatini was another winner, with housemade pasta, the deep gaminess of cured duck, and classic tomato, chili, and Parmesan.
But even here, things can get overly mod. A fried chicken entree arrived like three oversized chicken nuggets with dry breast meat, a pleasant enough honey-sambal glaze, and a couple of wee sweet potato biscuits. At $15, it felt a little paltry, and it didn't benefit from the overthinking.
The dining room, attractive and airy as it is, will never be mistaken for a fine-dining place. Industrial flooring, a bakery case, sensible wooden furniture — it feels most suited to a daytime outing or casual evening dining. When you come bombing in wearing sneakers with the toddler and the carseat in tow, an intellectual confrontation with caramelized yogurt or "smoke" just doesn't seem like the thing.
And while the Creamery is a no-tipping restaurant, an experiment other local restaurants have tried and some have since abandoned (most notably Upton 43), sticker shock can still be a factor. Are you prepared to pay $18 for a moderate portion of pasta, or $24 for pan-roasted venison in a coffee-shop setting? Gratuity or no gratuity, those are potentially intimidating numbers.
The cooking works best during the day, with classics, or classics with a twist. A club sandwich with two inches of turkey and smoky bacon was perfect, as was the crunchy fried chicken on Tamari fried rice with kimchee and a couple of bouncy poached eggs. Ditto the prototype-perfect buttermilk blueberry pancakes with a float of airy whip and dusting of lemon zest (although there goes that sticker shock again at $12 for two pancakes.) A lamb Reuben tendered a restrained flourish on the classic, with good and dark Russian rye heavily buttered and toasted, plus Swiss, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island amalgamating to make a drippy, satisfying mess.
There are flashes of truly inspired cooking here — cooking better than any humble cafe should ever hope to have. "The broccoli" ate like exactly that: An otherworldly green oval of puree anchors a garden of morel mushrooms, charred broccoli florets, briny pickled plum, and shards of sesame cracker. But is it wrong to feel that we'd have rather had it next to an affordable bistro-style flat-iron steak?
The best thing about inspired chefs is that they are inspired. And the worst thing about inspired chefs is that they are inspired. They have ideas that they need to get out, even if the ideas fall on mystified palates and pocketbooks.
Between the chef's inspirations and the lofty ideals of the cooperative, dining at the Creamery can feel like a restaurant designed by committee. Which, of course, it is. Here's to hoping the committee can gather 'round that espresso machine and work out a common vision. Their very name depends on it.
Co-op Creamery Café
2601 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
menu items: $7-$24