"We're eating where?" said my friend. "I was hoping to have more than a double cone for dinner."
That's when I explained that Crema Cafe is more than the hallowed home of Sonny's ice cream. About two years ago, co-owners Ron Siron and Carrie Gustafson branched out beyond super-duper-premium ice cream and coffee, and began cooking lunch and weekend brunch in a kitchen they somehow shoehorned into their tight-quarters shop. More recently they've expanded into dinner, complete with a wine and beer license.
I lived a short stroll from Crema for nearly a decade before relocating to St. Paul seven years ago. Minneapolis-centric friends occasionally ask, with a slight trace of pity in their voices, if I ever miss my old neighborhood. My reply has always been a quick, "Nope, not a bit." And I meant it. But now? I'm thinking that there are advantages to having a return address within walking distance of 34th and Lyndale.
Take the other night, for instance. Dinner kicked off with a small plate of tiny ricotta-filled dumplings drizzled in a mellow, sage-flecked butter sauce, each bite piping hot and melt-in-my-mouth satisfying. That was followed by a lovingly composed plate of spinach tossed with sweet apples and salty blue cheese, every few forkfuls emboldened by the crunch of roasted hazelnuts. The topper was a beaut' of a pizza, an oval of thin, crispy crust liberally sauced and finished with big tears of fresh basil, a few mozzarella dollops and a flirty peppery finish.
They're all a product of the same winning formula that has made Sonny's ice cream such a draw: hyper-fresh, well-sourced ingredients handled with respect, intelligence and flair. That includes deftly composed pastas, especially a ruddy Bolognese jazzing up bucatini, fat tagliatelle good enough to be served with just butter and Parmigiano reggiano and linguine tossed with tangy roasted tomatoes and white wine-kissed shrimp. There are several other knockout pizzas.
Little nibblies range from well-chosen cheeses and cured meats to marvelous toast-point crostini topped with colorful, boldly flavored spreads. I would happily drive across town for another crack at the burger, a juicy pork-beef combo wearing a decadent Gruyère crown. Oh, and I saved the best for last: a standard-setting Sloppy Joe, a succulent, spicy blend of beef and pork, neatly spooned onto a toasted bun.
Lunch is even less complicated but no less delicious. The kitchen stays idle but the counter staff fires up a pair of panini presses and cranks out tidy, clever sandwiches: a slim ham-and Gruyère with a swipe of creamy mornay sauce, a fantastic Cubano layered with ham, turkey, Gruyère and crunchy pickles, and a two-fister stuffed with slices of balsamic-vinegar-glazed roast chicken, provolone and sharp red onions. There's a pair of full-bodied soups and a fresh and abundant salad of tasty field greens tossed in a subtle Champagne vinaigrette.
Count me a big fan of weekend brunch. Gently poached eggs and velvety smoked salmon rested on top of skin-on mashed potato cakes and a tangy dash of crème fraîche. A creamy scramble was filled with zesty sausage and Cheddar, and a towering short stack of golden, fluffy buttermilk pancakes was finished with a sweet strawberry compote and golden locally produced maple syrup. Bacon, Gruyère and a fried egg added up to a perfect a.m. sandwich. Pitch-perfect scones were packed with tantalizingly bittersweet chocolate and pert crystallized ginger.
There are glitches. Menu items were frequently and annoyingly unavailable. With such obvious attention to detail, why, for example, did the tuna in a melt (nicely laced with tart apples) taste well past its prime, and why, in a room where the word artisanal is invoked like a daily prayer, does the orange juice hail from a frozen concentrate? Customers paying with plastic are asked to clear a $10 minimum. On several visits the sole restroom was out of order, and the suggestion to use the facilities in a nearby park didn't cut it. The cozy setting can feel claustrophobic when even a short line forms at the counter.