It’s a lesson that generations of Twin Cities restaurateurs have learned the hard way: The number of haute-cuisine restaurants that locals are willing to support at any given time is extremely small. Like, around two. When the number gets much higher, you have too much foie gras chasing too few gullets, and the population crashes (sort of like caribou), which is what happened during the great fine-dining die-off of 2006, when we lost Auriga, Five, and Restaurant Levain, all within a few months of each other.
The man who owned the last, baker and bon vivant Harvey McLain, has picked himself up, dusted himself off, and transformed the empty dining room adjacent to his Turtle Bread bakery into the more modestly priced, less gastronomically ambitious Café Levain, offering French bistro classics at very affordable prices. Gone are the lobster ravioli with corn cream and the seared big tuna with foie gras and chocolate sauce, replaced by the likes of beef short ribs ($16) and an occasional coq au vin special ($15). All entrées are priced under $20, including a choice of side dish, and you can get a big all-American ground-chuck burger with a side of fries for $10. A half-liter carafe (about three glasses) of the house red or white runs $12, a starter of pork rillettes is $6, and a dessert of tarte tatin goes for $7.
The décor hasn’t changed much, but the tables are now covered in butcher paper instead of white linen, and are squeezed a little closer together than before, so the dining room seems noisier, but also livelier. The mood is certainly casual—some diners come in shorts and a T-shirt. A small wine bar has been added, and a few seats at the counter facing the kitchen.
The cuisine is also livelier, if less subtle than before—those short ribs and the coq au vin are full of intense, concentrated flavors. Other highlights include the crisp and juicy frog legs, the savory sautéed wild mushrooms, and the steamed mussels ($8/$12) served in a broth flavored with tomato, onion, and a hint of dried chili. 48th St. & Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-823-7111.