Sometimes a place can carry you away, even when it’s close to home

 

Grand Cafe, MN – Photo Attribution Flickr J. Annie Wang

Grand Cafe is unassuming from the outside…

We stumbled into Grand Café looking for good food, better wine and an excuse to get out of the rain.

In Minnesota, autumn is either breathtaking or bone chilling, with little area between. This night was the latter: rain had come down with a vengeance and plastered my normally curly hair to my face. Our socks were wet inside our shoes, and my husband, parents, and I could barely hear each other’s conversations over the relentless din of rain bouncing off cars, roofs and pavement.

We had been wandering Nicollet, an urban avenue of shops, bars and garden stores before we decided to turn off that main thoroughfare and see what else was around. By the time the rain came, we were blocks deep in a residential stronghold, with no idea this detour was about to lead to the best meal I have ever had the pleasure of eating.

Grand Café is unassuming from outside. Above the entrance is a cracked, plastic 1940s era sign, backlit by pink bulbs. The windows were steamed up when we arrived, but from the street they look more suited to a toy or antique shop than a restaurant. In truth, had it not been for the weather, we may have kept walking.

I’ve never been so grateful for rain.

There was a tin ceiling painted a cloudy shade of cream

Our foursome was led to a table in the second of two small, cozy dining rooms. The interior, while gussied up with flower arrangements and candles, had an informal ambiance. There was a tin ceiling painted a cloudy shade of cream. The walls were, fresh, pale pink and the wooden tables, though all rectangular, mismatched from one another giving the space an eclectic, informal feel.

Our table was a stiff, wooden booth but it was made comfortable by a pair of plush throw pillows. The wall to my right was covered in hand-painted wallpaper that boasted a vintage jungle scene of French Polynesia. That’s when I noticed why the windows had been steamy; they were completely filled with succulents and potted palms.

We weren’t sure how to approach the menu. It had strange categories like “little things” which preceded salads and appetizers. We decided to trust our server, who brought us raw fish and shellfish, chicken liver ‘donuts’ and the most beautiful little egg cup I’ve ever seen.

 
 
 
 
 
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The egg cup was filled with foie gras custard, and on top it wore a tiny cap of Crème Gitanes, a tobacco-infused cream named for brand of Parisian cigarettes. I’m a non-smoker, and I still was bowled over by the sumptuous, delicate, decadence of this starter.

We moved on to big appetizers where we tasted Quenelles that were made from local Northern Pike, and a Lamb Terrine that was flanked by Turkish apricots, piquillo pepper glaze and fennel pollen.

Every dish was startling

Every dish was startling. The flavors were unexpected and perfectly seasoned and the presentations were gorgeous. Yet despite the mastery of culinary techniques being flaunted before us, the restaurant felt cozier
and cozier as the night wore on.

At one point when I’d gotten up to use the restroom, (a room so beautiful it’s worth it to take a peek) I noticed that there was duct-tape on the vinyl booths. Normally I’d hate that, but here, it made the place feel grounded and authentic, like it still somehow belonged in this quiet, has-been neighborhood.

It turns out Grand Café was more authentic than we knew. It had existed in one form or another in this same location for 70 years! In fact, there remains an enormous bread oven leftover from the forties when the place first opened as a bakery.

While these chefs no longer use it to make bread, we were told it is fully functioning, and that in the depths of winter, if you’re lucky, you can catch them pulling cassoulets and the like from its rotating shelves.

It was easy to forget that we’d been there for hours

As our bellies filled and our wine dwindled, it was easy to forget that we’d been there for hours and ordered almost the whole menu, because remarkably, despite it being the best food I’ve ever had, it didn’t demand our attention the way much of today’s technique-driven gastronomy does.

This food was a backdrop to incredible conversation, to laughter with my family, to the kind of night that transported the four of us to a simpler time in a far-off place, when the problems of the world still felt manageable and all we really had to do was wait for the rain to stop.

When You Go:

Grand Cafe
3804 Grand Ave S
>Minneapolis, MN 55409
Website: grandcafemn.com