Cafe Barbette (Minneapolis, MN)

We won’t be surprised if you’re confused. Is it a French bistro? Is it a wine bar? Maybe a coffee shop? A serious restaurant? And we don’t think it’s just us; Cafe Barbette isn’t sure what it is, either.

The restaurant is located in Uptown, in a space once occupied by a Gen-X coffee shop called Cafe Wyrd. Yes, the inside has been redone, and there’s fresh paint. But why is the Cafe Wyrd sign still hanging on the outside of the restaurant? Why does the parking lot warn that the spots are for Cafe Wyrd patrons only? It’s been a year since Barbette opened.

The first time we visited, we came for dinner. We walked in, saw the coffee shop counter and tables in front, wandered through the more wine-bar-like tables in the back, and walked through the entire room and into the back hallway looking for the restaurant part. We were almost in the bathroom before we figured it out: there is no restaurant part. It’s all Cafe Barbette.

The shtick here is quirky, and they do it well. The walls are covered with interesting pictures that change regularly. You can sit at a table, the counter, or the bar. The décor is dark and moody. And the food is a mixture of classic French bistro fare and American modern cuisine.

We really wish the food were a notch better, though. Most of it is perfectly acceptable, and some of it is better than that. But we have a hard time coming up with a good reason to return.

The wild mushroom risotto appetizer comes drizzled with truffle oil, giving the already rich and flavorful dish an extra zing. It’s too rich for one person, and we recommend this as an appetizer to share. We also liked the escargot in garlic butter. Slugs and fungus; how can you beat that as a meal?

The entrees are a mixed bag. The duck breast comes with a berry chutney, mashed potatoes, and haricots verts. The rich sauce went well with the duck, but it wasn’t special enough. Likewise with the sautéed chicken breast with lemons and capers, was good but not great. The grilled rare ahi tuna was worse. The black peppercorn and fennel overpowered the fish, and the white bean ragout and herb salad, themselves fine, didn’t complement the fish.

We had better luck with the chipotle-seasoned pork tenderloin. It was served with potatoes gratin and a poblano pepper and apple slaw. The peppery crust picked up a nice charred taste. The potatoes tasted great but were surprisingly tough and hard to cut. And the salade niçoise is simply lovely.

They also make good frites here, which come with some dishes and can also be ordered on the side.

Cafe Barbette has a nice wine list, with a large selection of wines available by the glass. And they have the wonderful policy of letting you taste a wine before you order a glass. One time, we watched a nearby table take a taste of three whites before ordering one. You could probably make a day of it, tasting everything on the wine menu, but one presumes that eventually the server will wise up. (We remember tasting Baskin-Robbins flavors as kids; you could generally get away with tasting three or four before the guy behind the counter demanded that you either buy something or get out of his store.) They also have an excellent selection of bottled beers and ales and such, including hard-to-find fruity Belgian lambics, a trio of excellent Normandy ciders, and some rare beers. Unfortunately, there’s no tasting of these single-serving bottles.

We have two complaints. One, at night it’s too dark inside. It’s not a problem during the day; light streams through the corner windows. That makes the space great for a coffee shop, but show up after the sun goes down and you’ll have trouble reading your menus. And two, it’s too expensive. Dinner for two—appetizers, entrees, a glass of wine each, tax, and tip—can top $80.

Despite our complaints, Cafe Barbette is a place we’d go back to. It’s got an intimate, neighborhood, homey feel, and the servers are smart and thoughtful and kind. They’re not friendly in that dreadful “Hi, I’m Donna and I’ll be your server tonight” way, but they know how to do their jobs. We always like the service there.

And this makes Barbette a classy little spot for a date. It’s not the cozy, romantic, diamond-in-the-champagne place to pledge undying love, but it’s a sweet little bistro for getting to know your date before a movie.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.