On a recent snowy night in Minneapolis, Grand Cafe was filled with tinkling glassware, soft jazz, the occasional scrape of fork against plate and the crack and sizzle of fire in the kitchen. Every seat was taken, including the plush, green bench near the front of the bistro, where people reclined, waiting for a table to open.
In the back, under the bright lights of the open kitchen, was a blonde woman in a white coat, her head down as she wiped vintage China plates before sending them out with servers. Dishes paraded through the dining room, chilled abalone on curved glass, enamel cradled pike quenelles topped with jaunty crayfish, and dozens of duck feet egg cups, each topped with a sliced open shell, filled with a foie gras mousse. The restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood destination that has been running for years. While that is true of the address, this incarnation happened nearly by accident.
Jamie Malone first walked into this room in late 2016 to work under Grand Cafe’s previous owners. She was between jobs, after consulting on a mega-sized clubby Italian place for a restauranteur while planning her long percolating designs on opening a place called Brut along with chef Erik Anderson.
Soon after her arrival, she began to see the room lining up with her Parisienne restaurant Pinterest board dreams. When the business became available for purchase, she and Anderson decided to shelve Brut and focus on the opportunity at hand.
After making the leap, Malone set about making the space their own, starting with some hand-painted wallpaper that Malone found online that was in Paris. The only problem was that the company wouldn’t ship it overseas. They insisted it needed to be picked up. Malone enlisted family with miles to burn to fly there and carry it back. Ultimately, the centerpiece of the room arrived with muted green fronds of trees set against a turquoise sky with white clouds.
In the basement of the restaurant, round tables were salvaged and pink and cream colored China were unearthed. She bought other vintage pieces and a few key West Elm and Ikea that have the mismatched feel of a chic friend’s dinner table.
The bathroom was painted black, with white and gold accents. The room was cleaned and rearranged, while careful not to give it too much polish. “We are in a very old building, and since the opening, everything that could break, has,” said Malone. “And always at 5:00, usually on a Saturday.”
In the kitchen chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen explained the process before they opened. “What’s nice about working with Jamie and Erik is that they insist we approach all the food with that child-like sense of wonder and excitement. [Cooking here] it’s play.”
True to form, there have been dazzling changes to the Escoffier influenced, modern menu that pulls inspiration from old tradition and modern, global technique. Before graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Malone traveled and studied extensively in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and Europe. All of those influences are evidenced in the subtly evolving menu that is equal parts restraint and vats of butter and cream.
The rave reviews have poured in. Andrew Zimmern, our most famous celebrity chef export wrote, “Jamie’s expertise with seafood has birthed a new dish that I had to recreate at home for its sheer innovative brilliance and I never want to eat leeks again without her inspiring razor clam vinaigrette.” He said, the aged hamachi, “would be the envy of any Michelin-starred Japanese sushi bar in New York or LA.”
Last month, they announced that Erik Anderson had left Minneapolis to run the kitchen at Coi in San Fransisco. It wasn’t the first time he had come and gone from the Twin Cities. Anderson had been part of the opening team at Catbird Seat before leaving Nashville to return to Minneapolis and reunite with Malone. The two had met when she worked for him. He was head chef at Sea Change, the restaurant inside the Guthrie Theater. When he left, Malone took over. Both chefs have earned the designation of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs, among several other accolades.
“There wasn't much adjustment because we worked together on the transition,” Malone said. “Erik belongs cooking in a 3 star Michelin [restaurant] and I belong at the Grand. We support and love each other.”
It was after Anderson departure that Star Tribune’s critic Rick Nelson reviewed Grand Cafe. He wrote of being enchanted by restaurant. “One of the traits that makes Malone’s confident work so compelling is her obvious curiosity for quirky — and superior — ingredients, a passion that reaps untold benefits at the table.”
Through it all, Malone has flourished and is growing into the spotlight being shone on her. The chef is naturally soft spoken with a sharp, wry wit that contradicts the bombast of many headline nabbing chef/owners. She’s much more comfortable behind the line with a knife in her hand, than weaving through the dining room, clapping backs. “I have a hard time letting go because I get really excited and I want to do it all! But, I truly have the best group of people in the world on my team, so I should probably just get out of the way.” In addition to Hlebaen on the kitchen crew is Britt St. Clair who was last seen making amazing things at Birdie.
Looking back over the past year she said, “I am so happy that our guests are embracing what we are doing here, from the ham to the atmosphere to the vermouth, guests get it and that is really fun. I am always ready to listen to feedback and make adjustments as needed, but who we are today is very much in line with the original vision. Maybe a little pinker.”
What might just be the signature color of the cafe (somewhere between blush and bashful) is splashed all over the Instagram feed for the restaurant. Malone and her general manager Nikki Klocker crack each other up with vintage clips of Zsa Zsa Gabor buffing men, caviar trashing Goldie Hahn in Overboard, noshie hedgehogs and all the bubbles. “It's pretty much a constant giggle fest in the office,” said Malone. “We have files of posts saved waiting to be unleashed. I love the idea of conveying the personality of the restaurant in this sort of abstract way.”
“I still have a lot of aspirations for the Grand. Table side presentations, cheese carts, giant gorgeous cakes on the bar, oyster & ham & sherry brunch, more more more attention to detail, the list goes on. More growth, more becoming us . We are no where near done.”