Jamie Malone leans back against a pale pink throw pillow, and looks over at her chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen.
She has just answered a question by, in fact, not answering it, and instead deflecting the question to Alan, who adjusts a pair of black, rectangular wire rims and offers a serious, thoughtful response.
Let’s not confuse this for what it might look like—a demure kind of deference on Jamie’s part to a male cohort. Jamie is perfectly in charge of this moment, and, as the rest of the evening will prove, as perfectly comfortable commanding a busy kitchen as raiding a Pinterest board for the perfect shade of water glass.
Her redirection of my question is merely intended to remind me that, despite a certain amount of star power on her part, and despite a couple of James Beard Award nominations between herself and her partner and co-owner Erik Anderson, the three chefs at the heart of Grand Cafe would prefer to be considered as a single team, rather than a collection of culinary reputations.
The gesture summarizes much of what is right about the restaurant, in its current reincarnation. There is everywhere a sense of collaborative excellence and attention to detail, with practically no egos in sight.
And, let’s face it, a lot could have gone wrong.
When Malone and Anderson agreed to buy the restaurant from previous owners Mary and Dan Hunter, they were also agreeing, for better or worse, to reckon with the love, but also the complacency and hardened expectations, of a reverent core of local regulars who had spent a decade or so turning 3804 Grand Avenue into a South Minneapolis institution, and a kind of shrine to the charms and importance of the Neighborhood Restaurant.
The new owners had two apparent choices: Either change the nature of the restaurant and risk a neighborhood conniption, or keep the old formula in place and risk their culinary souls.
Not only that, but Anderson had most recently built a national reputation at Catbird Seat in Nashville that did not necessarily translate into a local reputation at 38th and Grand. And Malone had built her national reputation developing sustainable seafood menus in the vast, angular, contemporary interior of Sea Change restaurant, which is perhaps as distant, ambiance-wise, from the honeyed wood, muntined windows, and intimate Parisian light of Grand Cafe as can currently be imagined in the Twin Cities dining scene.
There was, finally, the fact that, really, the whole idea of a neighborhood restaurant is to be open-armed. Come as you are, and we’ll take care of you. Ideally, not a single shadow should be cast, in such a place, by the frowning gods of haute cuisine staring accusingly over the shoulder of a familiar guest in blue jeans, who wants the usual.
How, then, do you set loose a team like Jamie Malone, Erik Anderson, and Alan Hlebaen—armed, quite literally, with Thomas Keller technique—and not risk some kind of damage somewhere along the line?
It was, in engineer-speak, an overconstrained problem. A puzzle with too many pieces, and no satisfactory solution.
But Jamie Malone and her team appear to have solved this insoluble puzzle, with a kind of disappearing act. What they’ve given us is a full-on, technique-driven, chef-centered French restaurant that hides its technique, and to some extent even its chefs, behind a casual-seeming, comfortable approachability.
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