Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
Cafe Alma's chef Alex Roberts with bread-stuffed ravioli
Alex Roberts with bread-stuffed ravioli.
Both grandiose and threadbare, genius is a much overused word in these social media–saturated times. But sometimes we must resort to the language at hand, and hot dang, let me tell you about the taters at Cafe Alma—for they are high-key genius. Smashed and crispy, the menu calls them. Actually, these spuds are triple-cooked— baked, fried, smashed, and torn, and then fried again to order. The resulting potatoes have reddish-gold crispy bits and pale, ivory-hued tender bits. They’re informal and rustic and come with a dish of loose hollandaise tricked out with truffle juice and fresh truffles. Slip a bit of hot potato through the truffle-y joy and pop it in your mouth. It’s crispy, earthy, simple, ecstatic. As far as a side dish of potatoes goes, this one has ascended the mountaintop and touched the celestial sphere.
The formidable and ardent side potatoes at Cafe Alma serve as a reminder: Alex Roberts can cook, and it’s time to re-acquaint yourselves. If this new casual Cafe Alma isn’t the cult hit of the year, I’ll eat 100 of these potato sides. Actually I might do that anyway. Ditto for the tomato-bread soup, wherein each spoonful reveals the complexity of a hundred steps, including a rich chicken stock, popping acidic tomatoes, and layers of basil, including burnt basil oil and fresh basil chiffonade. It’s all massaged together into something so whole it seems impossible it was ever made, it’s whole like a mountain. So many dishes on the Cafe Alma menu are like this: the Portuguese stew of spicy tomato broth with tender clams, fat and sturdy little white beans, and housemade chorizo; the quick-smoked mushrooms tossed with charred greens and crème fraiche; the smoked whitefish tartine, with its orchestration of different tenors of vegetable—pickled, bordering on pickled, fresh, cooked, dressed in vinaigrette. The whitefish tartine has such an intuitive understanding of how food works and how to create pleasure that it would be headline news had a new Minneapolis chef created it.
But of course it’s not by a new chef; it’s by Roberts, who has been such a familiar presence in Minneapolis these last decades. His finer-dining Restaurant Alma was born in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood in 1999. He launched the first of two casual Brasa restaurants in 2007. In restaurant years, he’s been here forever, so it’s easy to forget how good he is. A few years ago he bought the building on University Avenue that housed Restaurant Alma, and this past summer shut it all down for internal renovations that resulted in seven boutique hotel rooms above what are now two restaurants. The brand-new, casual Cafe Alma serves food from early (beautiful kouign-amann and pretty cappuccinos, as well as fancy French toast and egg sandwiches) through lunch and into late afternoon (pastries, cocktails, and cold snacks), and then through dinner.
Cafe Almas corn cakes with lamb
Cafe Alma’s corn cakes with lamb.
On a series of recent visits I found the new version of the good old fancier Restaurant Alma agreeably freshened up by the renovations. It’s got a chic and cozy front bar, and nicer chairs and bathrooms, but it’s more or less unchanged when it comes to the excellent three-course fixed-price menu (now $58 a person) and notable wine list. This fancier side of Alma is being run by chef de cuisine Lucas Rosenbrook, who does a solid and delicate job of it all, as is Alma’s signature. A lacy yellowtail crudo paired with a charred herb and tomatillo sauce was at once elegant and fierce, like a sharp little diamond making small but decisive impressions on its tiny world. A roast chicken and bread ravioli with sage butter and golden raisins worked an interesting tension between smooth fine dining elegance and rustic Thanksgiving homeyness. Still, I have found Restaurant Alma a bit dull in recent years, and post-renovation I still find it so. This is like going to the ballet and complaining it’s all too choreographed, but it’s my truth.
The fire and wow of Alma is largely over on the café side now, which is run by Matt Sprague—and where, of course, you will find those potatoes of wonder and amazement. Which brings us back to the critical issue of the moment: Can potatoes express genius? In the case of Alex Roberts, yes. He started as a regular south Minneapolis kid washing dishes and cooking at Capers, the restaurant where Terzo is now. He spent his years at the U of M cooking beside Isaac Becker (112 eatery, Burch, etc.) at a place called Lowry’s.
After deciding he wasn’t going to be a doctor after all, he dropped out to go to the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where he cooked at legendary spots like the Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and the original Bouley. He returned to Minneapolis to open Alma, and in addition to the wonder on the plates, he created a system that meets and keeps a remarkably high standard two decades in. Check the housemade breads for proof. Made by Alma’s head baker Tiffany Singh, they’re as good as nearly any you’ll find at top bakeries around the country. Or consider the feather-light macarons and eggnog ice cream with real character by executive pastry chef Carrie Riggs. Or the stupendous new bar program, a collaboration between Bittercube and Roberts. The glittering, black, snowglobe-of-a-Champagne cocktail called Starry Night is tart and fir-scented, and has edible gilt dust that makes lava-lamp loops in your glass. It’s a standout on a list of many delights.
Is that drink, that macaron, genius? Well, no. Food and drink are ephemeral, they glorify the moment you encounter them, and then fade away. The accretion of detail, however—the years and joys and the creation of systems that create them—may well qualify as genius. Potatoes included.