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Yes, there is a waffle.

It's not THE waffle, the legendary one that showed Minneapolis you could throw a bunch of veggies and grains into a breakfast staple and make it a savory triumph. That was farm-to-table pioneer Birchwood Cafe's claim to fame, and the new Darling, though it inhabits the once-groundbreaking Minneapolis cafe's former home, is not Birchwood.

There are some similarities, if you squint hard enough. The bones of the space, of course, and even some of the blond-wood furniture and slatted benches. A menu of brunch heavyweights and dishes packed with locally grown veggies that almost make you forget there was a time when knowing your farmer was revolutionary.

And even a familiar face in Marshall Paulsen, the former Birchwood chef who's now a behind-the-scenes contributor on the business side of things.

But Darling is more than a tribute to the past, thanks to the bubbly creativity and enthusiasm of husband-and-wife team Juell and Ray Roberts, the former personal chefs to Prince. They still run the food program at Paisley Park, as well as their other business, Peoples Organic Cafe. With partners Mike Smith (Hi-Lo Diner) and Jeff Zajac, they bought the 4,144-square-foot building earlier this year for $1.15 million, and opened Darling in mid-June for breakfast and lunch. (Dinner, and a full liquor license, are still to come.)

The cafe is already starting to feel like an original Seward neighborhood fixture, thanks to some fresh green paint, an inviting bar, Mickey D's-inspired sandwiches, Prince playing on the sound system and, yes, their own spin on the sweet-and-savory waffle.

Puffy dutch baby pancakes are served with local maple syrup.
Puffy dutch baby pancakes are served with local maple syrup.

Joy Summers, Star Tribune

Healthy comfort food

When the Robertses were contemplating taking over the old Birchwood, they struck up a conversation with a food-world acquaintance who had intimate knowledge of the former cafe: Paulsen. He had recently left Union Hmong Kitchen as operations director and had just started his own restaurant consulting business. He joined the Darling team temporarily to help with the business of running a restaurant. "The first time that I came in, it was really surreal," Paulsen said of his return.

There were some ghosts of Birchwood to exorcise. And not only because the 25-year-old cafe had closed abruptly in 2021, after what the owner called a "labor dispute," in which three-quarters of the staff was laid off.

The freezers hadn't been opened in three years — and they were full of food.

"We're talking masks," said Paulsen, who was tasked with going through the kitchen and figuring out what to do with what was left behind.

Paulsen's next order of business was to help Ray Roberts, the chef, create a new waffle. Paulsen whipped up the old Birchwood recipe, and the Robertses analyzed everything they liked and didn't like about it. Chickpea flour was the first thing to go, Juell Roberts said. "Chickpea was a super hip thing in the '90s to do," she said. "But it's very granular and very dry." She suggested subbing coconut flour, and amped up the texture with red quinoa. The filling, for now, is asparagus and chive, with a scoop of radish butter on top. It'll change seasonally; look for sweet corn later in the summer. (The waffle, which is gluten-free, is $16.)

Breakfast might start with that waffle, but it doesn't end there. The showstopper is the Dutch baby, a head-turning fluff of a pancake that takes 20 minutes and is made to order ($14, plus more for add-ons like eggs, cheese and meat). Other substantial breakfast and brunch items range from a customizable omelet ($15) to a don't-miss bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich with Calabrian mayo on Vikings & Goddesses' croissant bread ($14).

For a quick morning bite, Darling is proofing and baking croissant dough from Vikings & Goddesses, and filling the Danish with their own fruit filling (right now, it's rhubarb).

The lunch list is shorter but expected to grow. Paulsen collaborated with Ray Roberts on a double smash cheeseburger ($18, with fries or salad), and a fried cod sandwich that was inspired by a popular fast-food version ($16, with fries or salad).

Roberts, a former vegetarian, is clearly at home working with vegetables, both at the health food franchise Peoples Organic and now at Darling. He corns beets for a veg take on a Reuben (the Grilled Ruby, $16) and for a hearty bowl brimming with grilled Broccolini, snap peas and potatoes. The maitake tartine ($15) tops a slice of sourdough with whipped ricotta, pickled onion and marinated mushrooms; you don't have to be vegetarian to find it deeply satisfying. There's also a salad of peaches, burrata and mint ($14) that kicks the door to summer wide open. Many of the restaurant's herbs come from the garden out back.

"Who we are is very much healthy food," said Juell Roberts, "but also Minnesota comfort."

Darling's burger stacks thin patties with American cheese.
Darling's burger stacks thin patties with American cheese.

Joy Summers, Star Tribune

The details

Location: 3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., darlingmpls.com. Open for breakfast and lunch 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Sat. Dinner (and full bar) coming soon. No reservations.

The food: Breakfast dishes range from $13 to $16, but can go higher with protein add-ons. A short lunch sandwich menu ranges from $15 to $18, and large, composed salads start at $10.

The drinks: Just espresso drinks, coffee from a Minnesota roaster, and other soft drinks. Expect a full bar after the liquor license comes through, potentially in the next few weeks. Coffee drinks start around $3, lattes at $4.20. Look for protein shakes (from $9.50), too.