Levain (Minneapolis, MN)
We're never going to get a bad meal at Levain. We walk in and a voice from the kitchen says, "Hi, Mom!" Our son is one of the chefs there. The star treatment is nice. We get a good table; we may get an extra little course or possibly even two. At least one of the chefs smiles at us a lot over the pass to the open kitchen.
But, truly, we've watched the staff, every time we've been over there. And everybody around us is getting marvelous, attentive service. Everybody's getting delicious food. People who are celebrating are getting little extras. It's not just us. Levain's customers are all treated well, and everyone is given full value.
Levain is one of Minneapolis's great restaurants. Not just for swell service and some of the town's best food; but also for the fact that it's tucked into Field neighborhood, in the middle of residential South Minneapolis. It's like our own special hangout, hidden from the expense accounts and the not-from-around-here guys downtown.
Steven Brown is the head chef at Levain. He's worked at some of the legends of the Minneapolis restaurant scene -- at Lucia, at the Local, at the greatly lamented Loring Bar, and the short-lived but dazzling RockStar. He is intense about making quality ingredients into transcendent food, and he's a seriously good cook.
Most of us have taste memories, Brown has noted, of the foods we ate and enjoyed when we were small. And that means we have important ideas about what those foods are supposed to taste like. He enjoys preparing fish dishes for this reason. Since fresh seafood was hardly a Midwestern staple when many of us were young, we don't have locked-in ideas about what haddock or ahi is supposed to taste like. And that frees him to pile seared yellowtail on top of truffled lentils one week, and to serve the same fish raw with house-pickled red onions the next.
The consumer demand, both in the grocery and at the restaurant table, for good fresh local produce, helps Brown support the small producers and local growers who supply much of his kitchen. Heirloom potatoes, greens and vegetables come from organic farms in Minnetrista and Delano. He shops carefully for his fish, both because of the overfishing problem and because some species that are farm-raised have shown what he distastefully calls "GMO weirdness."
On one hand, Brown is keenly aware of the connections among people, their food and the world around us. He is philosophical about the chain of life and regards his cuisine as an expression of that respect. But he is also the chef at a great restaurant, and he knows that in our consumer culture, we all expect that "we should get what we want." His menu is built with regard for both of these influences. It's a balancing act he does well.
The Levain menu changes frequently, with new dishes appearing every week or so. We're fond of the carnaroli risotto just now, with the optional, and so-decadent, black truffle shavings on top. The tempura artichokes and lamb tenderloin is a wonderful appetizer. All the salads are generous, perfectly dressed and are a tonic in these drab days. We're always surprised by the unusual pairings (beet syrup and blue cheese, or cauliflower and chocolate) that Brown puts in his dishes, and we're delighted by how they combine.
And, to allay the confusion many folks have, it's pronounced "leh-VAHn." Hardly say the "n" at the end, and you'll be close enough.
4762 Chicago Ave S.
Tuesday -- Saturday from 5 -- 10 p.m.
Reservations are recommended
$7-12 for appetizers, $25-30 for entrees, 7-course pot-luck menu for $75
There are vegetarian choices on the menu, and the chef is happy to accommodate special requests.