Minnesota Spoon: A certain lack of ego with the collaborative excellence of Grand Cafe

Jamie Malone and chef de cuisine Eric Hlaeban // Photo by Wing Ta

Jamie Malone and chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen // Photo by Wing Ta

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.

Grand Cafe's new owners Jamie Malone and Eric Anderson look to balance the restaurant's reputation with their vision // Photo by Wing Ta

Grand Cafe’s new owners Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson look to balance the restaurant’s reputation with their own vision // Photo by Wing Ta

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.

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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.

 

Jamie Malone and chef de cuisine Eric Hlaeban // Photo by Wing Ta

Jamie Malone and chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen discuss their approach to cooking at Grand Cafe // Photo by Wing Ta

“There’s this quote I love from Brian Eno,” says Jamie, over the bustle and clank of pre-dinner prep in the other room. “He said his ambient music should reward attention, but not demand it.’”

In other words, you get to spend an undemanding dinner hour here, if that’s all you want or if that’s what you need that night, comfortably coddled in an interior that is, in certain reassuring ways, like your grandma’s 1920s cottage, with worn wood floors and a big unfashionable stove in the kitchen, and you will be served flavorful, canonical, soul-nourishing dishes by candlelight.

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But you can also choose to pay a little further attention, and your effort will not go unrewarded.

Like, for instance, the wallpaper mural that from across the room looks like a printed tropical riverscape, but that reveals actual hand-painted brushstrokes if you care to get close enough, and that, if you ask even further, you’ll discover had to be flown in from Paris by Jamie’s brother, a pilot, because it couldn’t be shipped.

You might notice that the menu is balanced between, on the one hand, the frankness of liver and pâté, of muscle cuts and fat, of exposed bones and cured ham sliced straight from the haunch, and, on the other hand, the weightless delicacy of pike quenelles, hen egg dumplings, and lemony sorrel sauce on lightly smoked steelhead.

Or you might notice, similarly, that the zinc bar and the bright, loud stainless steel kitchen are gently faced down by the dining room’s warm oak benches, pale rose walls, and chairs upholstered in soft woolen felt of just about the same blush as the three pink calla lilies leaning out from a glass vase in the wall. Like a houseful of boisterous boys kept in check by a mother in gloves and a velvet dress.

Or, then again, maybe you want to pay attention to the chicken.

“We like our dishes to have a deceptive simplicity,” says Jamie. “Like the chicken, for instance.”

“Okay,” I say. “Tell me what’s deceptively simple about the chicken.”

Jamie still has a staff meeting ahead of her, before opening the doors to tonight’s mix of hungry neighbors, and non-neighbors to whom word has gotten around.

She folds her hands under her chin and thinks about it for a second, under her signature cloud of pulled up white-blond hair, and then she leans back against her pink pillow. She looks resignedly over at Alan, and they both laugh.

“Come on,” she says. “I’ll show you.”

On the menu, the dish is called “Roast Chicken, with Corn, Bacon, Lovage, and Chanterelles,” which sounds—one might say deceptively—like something just within the reach of a family cook on a lazy Sunday.

Finishing the plate of roast chicken at Grand Cafe // Photo by Wing Ta

Finishing the plate of roast chicken at Grand Cafe // Photo by Wing Ta

I follow her through the kitchen, past ovens and an island animated by half a dozen darting, aproned staff. Then I follow her up a stairwell past two additional prep rooms, with at least half a dozen additional staff working busily. In one of these rooms, a sort of commis is lightly dusting skinned chicken breasts with an enzyme that will bind them to a farce, or stuffing, of chicken, cornbread, and lovage.

Prior to this stage, the chickens have been broken down to just the breasts and rib cages and brined. Now the farce will be rolled out into a thin layer, and then bonded directly to the flesh of the breast, before the skin is drawn back down like a curtain into place. Once stuffed, the chickens will be poached and cooled.

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Jamie shows me into the cooler where racks of plump, poached, pale-skinned, double breasts roost silently, waiting for the oven, with flecks of minced lovage just visible beneath their skins.

From here, the chicken will be brought back down to the kitchen and roasted, not once, but twice, with a rest period between each interval, in order to get the exterior and the interior to their ideal respective temperatures. And finally, each breast will be carved and served boneless in a limpid golden jus made from bacon, chicken, vinegar, and the concentrated, mingled drippings of skin, farce, and flesh.

On the plate, the moist ivory flesh will give off tendrils of steam along the carved face where it has been sliced into serving-sized pieces, and a thin, perfectly even cross section of farce will be visible, beneath the paper thin gilding of roasted skin.

There are maybe a dozen ways that trying this at home could fail. The skin could be torn or shredded by inexperienced fingers, in the process of lifting it from the flesh. The skin could also, for that matter, look like a slept-in, oversized T-shirt when it is replaced, instead of looking as smooth and taut as if it had never been removed at all. The farce could easily be lumpy and uneven. The poaching and double roasting would foil all but the most accomplished cooks. The jus would almost certainly not be so clear, or so perfectly seasoned and mouth filling.

And yet, on the plate, this all looks just as straightforward as the menu says: “Roast Chicken.” All of the technique is there on display, for anyone who wants to see it, but a great, quiet effort has been put into deflecting our attention away from the skill of the cooking team, and toward our own pleasure as diners—a pleasure as simple or complex as we decide we’d like it to be.

On the way back out through the kitchen, we again pass by the several separate crowds of fully occupied kitchen brigade, who will work all night, unseen and mostly unsuspected, by the talkative diners just pulling up chairs in the other room, in diffuse September light, to simply-set tables, and precisely-placed, pink-tinted water glasses.

 
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