Mention Normandy, and most Midwesterners’ minds head vaguely in one of two directions: picturesque French beaches, or the day Allied forces landed in German-occupied France in World War II.
Head to downtown Minneapolis’ Normandy Kitchen, and you’ll note a similarly tenuous connection to France and French cooking. Founded as a part of the existing Normandy Inn (now under the Best Western franchise) by a second-generation Swedish immigrant in 1941, the restaurant focuses less on specifically “French” food and more on old-timey, Escoffier-influenced — yet these days, thoroughly Midwestern — comfort food with influences from the 1950s (malts and wedge salads, anyone?) and a few oddly scattered “Scandinavian” edits (think recognizable tweaks, like Västerbotten cheese and lingonberry jam).
That doesn’t mean that the food is without merit — rather, most of it is well balanced and at least reasonably solid, if not quite good. In fact, Normandy proved an excellent standby for balanced seasoning and classic comfort food, the heartier the better.
One such victor? The Veal & Spinach Meatloaf ($14.50, touting a blend of veal, beef, pork, and herbs). While the loaf is deftly seasoned and balanced on its own, marinated shiitakes perched on top and a smoky bacon slice surrounding the perimeter added a nice hit of umami. None of Granny’s ketchup-flavored mush, here – the meatloaf retained its meaty chew and stayed nice and juicy. Even the accompanying underseasoned, plain-jane pomme purée benefited from a savory jus.
We were enamored by the Lobster Mac & Cheese: Unlike the ultra-rich taleggio version at Smack Shack or faux-Velveeta travesty we tasted at the Fair, this one was light on its feet. We can thank the Mornay sauce, which left a light coating of tangy cream on the tomato, basil, and sweet lobster-studded noodles. The brightness of the fresh veggies and the lighter sauce coalesced to produce a Le Creuset crock of cheesy noodles that didn’t need to play second fiddle to a lighter dish — a rare feat.
While all of the waitstaff we asked touted the Henry VIII Burger ($11; $12 with cheese) as a fixture on the menu since the restaurant’s inception, all admitted the burger’s name was a mystery: “Normandy Kitchen… Henry VIII… it goes with the theme, I guess?” (Uh… was Henry VIII ever all that successful in capturing Normandy? Nope, didn’t think so, although he did make some headway with Boulogne to the north.)
That said, the juicy, meaty flavor of the burger instantly dismissed any question of the name. A meaty tomato slice, thick ring of red onion, and attractive triangular wedge of iceberg each held their own, adding crunch and harking back to a bygone era in which wedge salads were prized, not derided, for their lack of color and nutrition. House-made relish comprised an altogether too-sweet combo of diced green and red pickles floating, belly up, in a corn syrup-like concoction… yet somehow, a tiny schmear played well with others, the tangy sweetness complementing the hearty salt and grease of the burger. The only major flaw? A wimpy, run-of-the-mill hamburger bun, which, while not altogether soggy at first, didn’t hold up to the burger and fixins and might do well with a quick sear.
If you grab the burger, you might as well do it up right — while the side salad carries a nicely acidic vinaigrette, the fries are the way to go (or, just grab ’em on their own for $5 / cup or $7.50 / bowl). Barely thicker than shoestrings, they’re lightly salted and make a great vehicle for the tangy, not-too-thick house béarnaise sauce.
On a less positive note, we were at first excited and ultimately disappointed with our turkey pot pie. At first, its beguilingly flaky pastry and comforting flavor had us hooked… and then we realized that the filling was a one-trick pony, with no real edge or intrigue beyond a basic salt-meat-broth profile. We’d love to see a few more herbs added for a bit of brightness, and a switch to shredded (not cubed) turkey to ditch the inevitable deli-meat connotation that instantly soured our perception of the already bland pieces of meat.
Similarly blasé: the “Light and Crispy Calamari” ($10). While the batter was indeed crunchy and not overly greasy, it tasted comparable to virtually any other calamari around. And unless you like oil-cured tuna in your Niçoise Salad ($14.50; hint: we prefer ours lightly seared), skip it. Too bad, really, as the beans and potatoes brought the perfect snap, and the citrus-and-oil dressing was on point.
If you do decide to grab a dessert, plan on a chocolate malt to split. While $7.50 a pop, the malts are huge (standard malt glass plus the sidecar), rich, and contain at least a pint of Sebastian Joe’s, so you know you’re getting your money’s worth!
The next time you head down 8th Ave. toward Hiawatha, think about making a stop, perhaps for the mac and cheese, or the meatloaf, or — in a heat wave — just a massive chocolate malt. Whether French, French-ish, or otherwise, we can all use some good comfort food once in a while.
Classic American in Downtown Minneapolis
405 N 8th St
Minneapolis, MN 55404
CHEF / OWNER: Adam Droski / Mike Noble
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $11-32