Due to my underwhelming (read: empty) schedule, I made a point of being among the first kids on the block to scope out the reincarnation of Levain... out with high-fallutin' (read: exquisite) degustation, in with reasonably priced Frenchy food for the neighborhoodies: meet Bistro Levain, of which we've been recently hearing anticipatory rumblings. Now, I very very unfortunately never got to eat at the original Levain, so I can easily refrain from drawing comparison between the two. The following is a general breakdown of my evening on opening night, June 12th 2007...
Upon arriving at 8:00, the room was almost completely full, and subsequently quite noisy, which lends either a very convivial or irritating quality depending on your mood. Like the other diners, fortunately we were feeling convivial, although all the shouting around the table did prove a bit tiring. This was not aided by the fact that our table, a six top, was too large for our party of four, but of course that can't be helped when they're the last seats in the place, which I believe they were. So, settling into the bustle of the pleasant, low-lit (but not annoyingly dim), newly woodpaneled room, we ordered a nice bottle of 1995 reserve I-forget-the-details Rioja and opened our menus. The first thing that struck me were the encouraging prices: mussels available in two sizes, for 8 bucks or 14, nice salads for 6 to 9/ten-ish, main courses for I think as little as 12 and topping off at around 20. For the neighborhood, I find this price point to be decidedly correct. The second thing that struck me was momentarily a little more surprising: in this day and age of seasonal, local, farmer's market-driven dining hype, the menu at Bistro Levain is straightforwardly, well... bistro-y! See this excerpt from Wikipedia's definition:
A bistro is a familiar name for a type of small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in an unpretentious setting, especially in Paris, France. A bistro may not offer professional service or printed menus, and it will usually specialize in simple classic dishes such as steak au poivre, French onion soup, and coq au vin.
Small? Check. Unpretentious? Check. Moderately priced? Definite check. Simple? Another check. And although there's no steak au poivre, there was a hangar steak (mm, good ol' onglet... love it!), and also both onion soup and coq au vin. Which is to say, these are indeed bistro classics-- which, if you're like me, you might find to have a winter-weather, stick-to-your-ribs feel. Meat and potatoes. But, fair enough! We began with all three of the offered starters: a take on moules à la crème (the mussels here steamed with wine, a bit of cream, tomato and chives), breaded and fried frogs' legs with a sauce reminiscent of rouille and wedges of roasted fennel, and pork rillettes. A very thoughtful touch is the condiment caddy that every table receives, which this night featured a tasty corn relish, chopped marinated beets, quick-pickled shaved cucumber, and a loose and good aïoli. Next we shared an arugula salad with a creamy lemon vinaigrette and grilled marinated artichoke hearts, a chilled cucumber soup, and the French onion soup. For our mains, we got coq au vin, braised shortribs, roasted chicken and duck confit (yep, that last one was me). Another user-friendly system is that you choose your own side dish with all of the main courses, which can also be ordered à la carte. These included grilled asparagus with lemon, roasted brussels sprouts, mac n cheese, fresh fries, roasted (or sautéed? I forget) mushrooms, bread and tomato salad, and maybe even a few more I can't remember. So let's start at the beginning...
The mussels were well seasoned and fairly plentiful considering we had ordered the smaller size. The frogs' legs were presented simply and prettily arranged, offset by smears of the sauce and a couple wedges of the fennel. This dish, although not bad, was not a standout. The frog was, as frog frequently is, just like chicken, and therefore was like eating oddly shaped breaded chicken wings. The sauce added the only flavor to the otherwise bland and lean meat in its crisp coating, and the fennel, although tender and flavorful, we found to be overly oily. Them frogs' legs... I always want to like the idea (unlike most people), but the only really great ones I've ever eaten were at some Thai place in Miami when I was a kid. Oh well. I tasted only a bit of the rillettes. The seasoning was good, but I felt they lacked the lush, artery-clogging quality so inherent to that preparation. And one other little thing that bugged me: our bread baskets came with a dish of lovely big butter curls... which were fridge-cold and unspreadable. Argh!
I feel that our second course was the highlight of the meal. The salad was simple, properly dressed with a vinaigrette that reinforced the assertiveness of the arugula while still holding its own, and with ingredients as fresh and crisp as you could want. The artichokes were of the canned/jarred variety, but still very good and a bit warm and smoky from the grill. And wasn't there mozzarella on there too..? I think so. Anyhow. The cucumber soup was clean, pure, refreshing and subtle, maybe the best version of this classic I've had. Enhanced by a few drops of olive oil and just a mere spoonful of crème fraîche, the cool, melony nature of the vegetable was able to shine through. The texture was also just right, smooth but with some body, which we suspected might be thanks to a bit of buttermilk. And the French onion soup was a real champion! This is the kind of dish that holds no interest for me during summer months, but I had to sample it anyways... it turned out to be a little bowl of insanely rich, beefy stock, onion-sweet without being cloying, with a molten crown of good quality cheese. It truly had the substance and depth of demi-glace; I challenge anyone to find a better French onion soup this side of Bouchon (um, who I can only imagine to have a good version). On the side came a fluffy heap of fried shallots scattered with chives. Crispy and good, but far too many of them.
Moving on, I was a bit let down by my main course. My duck confit arrived missing its thigh section almost completely, and was tender but curiously did not taste seasoned throughout (despite the fact that it had, of course, been salt-cured). Its accompanying red wine-blackberry sauce was ok, but nothing special, and therefore to me superfluous. There was was also a small pouf of assertive greens and flat parsley dressed with lemon, whose brash sharpness served as a nice contrast to the rich meat. I had chosen the bread salad as my side, which turned out to be a large dish of olive bread croutons, chopped tomato, lots of thinly sliced red onion and shredded basil. It was summery, well seasoned with a good balance of salt/acidity, and the tomatoes were actually quite good for this early in the season. My single criticiscm is that the croutons were slow to soak up the juices and mostly remained intact and hard; torn pieces instead of cubes would fare better (although admittedly a prep nightmare), and perhaps the whole could be combined in small batches throughout service so as to allow the bread to better resoften. I did not try the roasted chicken, but the report was good, nor did I try the shortribs. I did sample the coq au vin and was unimpressed. The sauce seemed muddy and indistinct, the chicken without much character. Dessert was simple, but so-so. Crème brûlée was fine and what you expect.... although misspelled on the menu (ok, ok, I do know that I'm a big ass when it comes to that!!! But yes: missing/incorrect accents in French does equal misspelled. Also: the menu states that rillettes are "similar to pate..." this is neither French or English, though it's more similar to "pâte,"which means either quite simply "dough" or "paste" or "pasta"). I had good hopes for the tarte Tatin, but alas, it was limp and uncarmelized. Next time I would like to try the licorice ice cream.
Aside from the food, service was friendly and mostly adequate, but could use fine tuning... water glasses were always filled, but bread was not replenished, plates were not brought for sharing of the starters, and things like dirty silverware did not always disappear. Smaller things, but ones to address nonetheless.
All in all, Bistro Levain has all the makings of a great neighborhood place, and worthy of a short detour for their highly affordable (and accessible) French food in a pleasant yet casual atmosphere. Et là, ça va marcher très fort, à mon avis......
See my several (very poor quality) photos here.
*EDIT: In an effort to google this post, I came upon a January post on Andrew Zimmern's Chow and Again also entitled Levain Redux... just for the record, I ain't tryin' to be a little blog thief! (A relevant problem, I should add, which was recently brought to my attention at Chez Pim.) Actually, I now realize that I had read his post soon after it was published, while I was scoping out what the town had to say about the closing of Auriga (ah, my dear departed). His observations on the dining scene vs. MN consumer mentality are still interesting and highly relevant, especially as we are just beginning to see what might be the next phase in that scene's evolution, what with Doug Flicker now steering Mission and Steven Brown apparently about to open the kitchen for Harry's Food and Cocktails. Yep, a few days ago Craigslist's employment ads spilled the beans on that one, unless there has been some gossip I've missed:
Harry's Food & Cocktails is opening in early July and we need to staff our kitchen.... This is an excellent opportunity to work in a top kitchen with a well known chef making original cuisine with a neighborhood mentality. Our motto will be; Nothing Fancy. Everything Tasty! some examples:
* pressure cooked pork roast with strongbow cider and mustard de meaux
* dry aged duck breast with pickled grapes and sherry
* the harry burger - 100% organic chuck with local cheddar and harry's secret sauce. served with a grainbelt, of course........
*Please Email resume and letter of interest stating why you want to work at Harry's to the attention of Steven Brown.
So we'll see. I'm as hopeful as the next diner to see Minneapolis poke its head out from the ashes.....
Bistro Levain Minneapolis restaurant review MN 4800 Chicago Ave Turtle Bread Company