Here’s a quick game of restaurant word-association. French Meadow, go. Organic. Sustainable. A gluten-free, vegan-friendly, baked-goods glory land where Uptowners (and out-of-towners) have greened their palate with organic eggs, grilled tempeh, and the like since 1985. And now there’s a restaurant within the restaurant with the recent opening of Bluestem Bar and Table (their take on wine, beer, and small plates).
We tried two dishes on a midweek evening. It was after the dinner rush, and still close enough to the opening date that curious onlookers peeked into the space — asking the hostess questions and walking themselves on a quick tour.
The Rustic Tartines ($10) come with a trio of flavors topped on freshly grilled baguettes: jalapeño artichoke, wild Pacific smoked salmon, and hummus and avocado. The jalapeño artichoke variety was a disappointment; it had no burst of jalapeno at all, instead offering a muted combination of shredded parmesan cheese and artichokes. The smoked salmon was certainly fresh and colorful (thanks to the crisp slices of cucumber and red onion and caper garnish). But smoked salmon, capers, and cream cheese? Not novel by any means. Thankfully, the hummus had a tastebud-awakening lemony tang and peppery kick under the slices of fresh, mild avocado.
The Fried Chicken and Waffle ($12) is perfectly shareable as a snack, or substantial enough to act as dinner. Two cornbread waffles sit underneath a crispy piece of cornmeal-crusted chicken breast, surrounded by drizzles of smoky peppercorn syrup and spicy chipotle hot sauce, and topped with a dollop of green-onion laced creme fraiche. The chicken was perfect. Not dry. Not greasy. The ideal combination of crunch and tenderness. If only the dense, dry waffles could, quite literally, lighten up, this would be a perfectly clean version of a dish that can easily go cross the line into too-many napkins territory.
Visually, Bluestem feels like the place where graduates of French Meadow go to feel, well, sophisticated. The walls are lined with birch branches. The combination of yellow walls, rustic wood tables, and a gleaming turquoise bar ooze a serenely calming effect. There is a wine list that boasts a focus on sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines. This is where you go to support the green way of drinking.
From a culinary perspective our initial impression leaves a question mark. What void is Bluestem marked to fill? After decades dedicated to the cafe and bakery, was it simply time to segue into something new? The relative safety of the menu evokes the Dara-driven Facebook kerfluffle over the restaurant’s name, which is the same as that of an award-winning spot in Kansas City, MO — why not strike out in a new direction?
The space is beautiful. The wine list has a uniquely appropriate niche. But if Bluestem will stand up to the preexisting small plates / wine bars in Uptown, the menu needs some clarity and focus to support a brand that has already made its mark.
Bluestem Bar and Table
Wine Bar in Uptown, Minneapolis
2610 Lyndale Ave S
BAR: Beer and wine
ENTREE RANGE: $10-21
VEGAN / VEGETARIAN: Yes / Yes