Jamie Malone and Alan Hlebaen of Grand Cafe
Grand Cafe’s Instagram page is amazing — curated by chef/owner Jamie Malone and her crew, the feed features quirky, often hilarious clips urging followers to get to the Grand. Sometimes, it’s just a PSA: our favorite, a llama poking its head out a car window, saying only, “We are closed today. You will have to take your llama on a dinner date elsewhere.” Many of the clips come from a file Malone amassed over a period of years, awaiting the day her own restaurant could, well, speak for itself. Dogs shake cocktails, Joan Rivers messes with meatheads, and a barely velvet-clad Grace Jones wields a champagne glass, with nary a damn to spare. As Malone might say, the Grand Cafe has personality.
Talking with her, it’s clear that she is bringing her eclectic and carefully detailed vision to the service, menu, music, branding, and atmosphere into the art and soul of her thriving restaurant (including a majestic portrait of her winsome Italian greyhounds). Grand Cafe is the vision.
In 2016, Malone began to implement her vision as the chef of the old Grand Cafe, then owned by Mary and Dan Hunter. When the Hunters decided to sell in 2017, Malone and fellow chef Erik Anderson became the eager buyers. Since then, co-owner Anderson has left to helm the kitchen at Michelin-starred Coi in San Francisco, and Malone has continued to transform the new Grand Cafe into one of the best restaurants in Minnesota. Glowing reviews have been pouring in.
Recently, we sat down with Malone and chef de cuisine Alan Hlebaen.
HEAVY TABLE: How are things going with the restaurant so far?
JAMIE MALONE: We just hit six months. I think we’re really finally coming into who I want us to be. The idea has been the same from the beginning. But we’re finally starting to see all of these things … come to fruition. And it’s awesome.
HEAVY TABLE: What is the idea?
MALONE: So, you have these culminations through your whole cooking career, of these things that you want to make yours. And then certain parts change, as your tastes change. But there’s always those cores that are really important — what matters. And I started to become really interested in food that wasn’t new — food that was really old and just more genuine. I think it means more if you take a recipe that has been created by a culture that’s had hundreds of years to either refine it or change it out of necessity. To me, that’s so much more meaningful than putting five different flavors on the plate with five different techniques. So that had been in my brain in the last few years. I’ve also been interested in different regions of France and different regions of French food and getting into craftsmanship — the producers behind the food.
HEAVY TABLE: What do you do with the old recipes?
MALONE: I pragmatically look at the part of it that we love. I try to distill what’s great about it and then update the things that can be updated. If you take the pike [quenelle in crayfish sauce] — if we cooked that straight recipe, it probably would be kind of disgusting [laughs]. Like a pike mousse. So, we find ways to add depth of flavor and lighten it and make it ours. We’re taking these things that have been around for a while and just making it kind of exciting, fun.
HEAVY TABLE: Is there a thread connecting the food to everything else, like service and atmosphere?
MALONE: For me, the connecting thread is “Where do I want to go? What do I want to eat? What’s my dream experience?” Service has always been super important to me. If people are coming to your restaurant and they’re spending money, I consider that a pretty big honor. It’s like, “Don’t fuck it up.” Eating out, for me, is like a sacred thing; it’s really, really important in my life. And so when people choose to come and eat at our restaurant, I want to deliver.
HEAVY TABLE: What about the style of service?
MALONE: Our steps of service are very outlined. When you come here, I want your service to be the same all the time. There has to be some warmth to it, obviously. So we try to take away the rigidness. [When I dine out] I don’t always want someone in my space. When people are here, they’re having intimate experiences. … So, you’re getting taken care of in this detailed way, but it’s not look at me service. It’s like, we got you, but we’re going to let you have your space. We’ll keep getting better and better at it, but we just — the devil is in the details.
HEAVY TABLE: You mentioned taking inspiration from different regions of France. Is all of the food French-inspired?
MALONE: Mostly. We try to either have French or historical context in some way on everything on the menu. One little variant we allow ourselves is some Japanese stuff, which makes sense to us and has been in the concept from the very beginning. So, we take a little liberty.
HEAVY TABLE: What do you mean by historical context?
ALAN HLEBAEN: I think of older flavor combinations. We’re not doing anything crazy — a lot of it is classic things we know go together, then we’re trying to figure out how to tweak those a little bit. I try to get in the mindset of old kitchens, I guess.
MALONE: Like the mincemeat [referring to Wine Glazed Pork Terrine With Mincemeat Chutney]. Alan made this gorgeous mincemeat chutney that goes with the pork terrine. So that’s not French, but it has some historical context, and it fits with the sentiment [of the restaurant]. There are two quotes that I like to think about with the food here. Brian Eno, when he talks about his ambient music, says it’s something that rewards your attention but doesn’t demand it. You know, this isn’t the restaurant where you want to sit and dissect everything on your plate. You just want to enjoy it. The other quote is from Harry Houdini, “An old trick well done is far better than a new trick with no effect.”
HLEBAEN: Everything — from the food to the dining room to the service — we try to make everything intentional without seeming intentional.
MALONE: A restaurant has a personality. And it should be an emotion. I shouldn’t really be able to describe what this restaurant is — I think you have to feel it, in a way. You can’t do things because you think someone will like them; you have to do things you like. Then it’s real.
Malone serves the first dish – Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème
MALONE: It’s mainly milk chocolate; I love milk chocolate. We add a little bit of [Valrhona] Manjari into the milk chocolate. It’s a dark chocolate — really fruity, some bright citrus, a complex, dark chocolate. It’s just a stirred custard. It’s super simple, and then we do a layer of cream that we steep with a couple of tonka beans [with a flavor likened to a complex vanilla]. And then a layer of coffee on top for a little bitterness. And salt. The cookies are made with the same Manjari chocolate and hazelnut flour. I got that recipe from Jim Christiansen [of Heyday].
Hlebaen serves Wine Glazed Pork Terrine with Mincemeat Chutney and Pistachios
MALONE: This is Alan’s dish. We worked together on the direction of the components, but Alan fleshed this one out. It’s December, now — this is holiday 100 percent. Originally, we’d been thinking about pork with a mustard glaze, but pork and red wine, to me, is so elegant. The tannins in the red wine and all of the sweetness, the saltiness of the pork; I think when you eat it at first, you’re like, “That’s too sweet. That’s too salty.” And then they both come together and it’s this perfect sweet-and-salty — I love it.
HEAVY TABLE: Would you say this is an example of a historical context dish?
MALONE: Definitely. Pate de campagne is a rustic French pate. Nothing new about that. We’re doing it the most refined way possible. And the mincemeat is English.
HLEBAEN: Traditionally, it has ground beef fat that is folded into it raw, and then when you bake it, that fat cooks, giving it a crazy-rich, savory flavor. Instead of doing that, I upped the onions to kind of add that savory element and added some salt. Obviously, nobody wants to eat cold beef fat. It has Christmas spices — nutmeg, mace, clove, allspice. Then there’s dried fruit; there’s apple, raisins, currants. And cognac —
MALONE: There’s lots of cognac on our menu!
HEAVY TABLE: And what about the glaze?
HLEBAEN: The glaze is the liquid that we poach all the fruit in first. Some of that goes into the chutney itself, and then the rest we save for the glaze. And the terrine is a really classic country pate de campagne.
HEAVY TABLE: The pistachio crumble adds great crunch and reminds me a little of pie crust.
Malone serves Cider Glazed Smoked Sturgeon with Apples and Celery Root
HLEBAEN: The original idea was Normandy: classic flavors of apples, calvados, celery root … and it evolved from there. I ended up getting the idea of cider-glazed sturgeon stuck in my head. I kind of went from there.
HEAVY TABLE: How is it prepared?
HLEBAEN: I cure it in salt and sugar for two hours, a very light cure. Then we smoke it for one hour, so it kind of has that familiar flavor of smoked sturgeon, but it’s still juicy and meaty. I think if kind of tastes like barbecue pork — I mean, it’s fish, you can tell it is, it’s got that earthy note of the sturgeon, but then it’s so smoky and meaty. After we smoke it, we sear it on the flattop in butter and then glaze it in a cider reduction. And then we do a little extra cider reduction on the plate — chives and thyme to kind of help balance those flavors of sweet and savory.
HEAVY TABLE: The dish seems very fall.
MALONE: In Normandy, one of the dishes in autumn is monkfish with cream and apples and celery. It’s a classic. I think some people might look at a dish like this and be like, “That’s so creative. Who would think to put apples and fish together?” But it’s been done for hundreds of years. Alan … raises it, but it’s nothing new.
Epilogue: The revelatory omelet
During the middle of the tasting tour, our recorder unexpectedly cut off, leaving us without commentary on a final dish, an incredible omelet. (Thankfully, we took notes.) True to form, Malone’s creation is straightforward — a rolled omelet with a basic cream sauce and side of toast — but her ingredients and technique lift a quotidian dish to extraordinary heights. Rich Jidori eggs, black truffles, Beurre de Baratte (tangy French butter that’s aged alongside cheese), and fluffy Japanese milk bread: It’s a perfect encapsulation of Malone’s vision. French and Japanese inspired, an old recipe given a unique twist, incredible ingredients, and unmistakable skill. It manages to be familiar and exciting, just like the new Grand cafe.
Grand Cafe, 3804 Grand Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55409; 612.822.8260