Afternoon Delight

Minions Cafe's down-home food might be better than Mom's -- but don't tell her we said so

Jul 28, 2004 at 4:00 am
Camp Eagle Island was the coolest thing that happened to me when I was a kid. It was a Girl Scout camp on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, which I attended three summers in a row even though I never graduated from the Brownies. I learned to water-ski and sail there, but that was just the brochure stuff. Almost every day, after lunch and dinner, two or three of the camp directors (one was named Cricket) would stand up in the mess hall with their acoustic guitars and teach the 200 of us songs like Donovan's "Catch the Wind." After that, the younger counselors would commandeer the record player with 45s of "Build Me Up, Buttercup" and "Oh What a Night," and we'd all get up and dance. This was all thrilling to me. I had a nemesis, Kelly, a pinch-faced girl with a mean streak who threw mud at me from the lake floor whenever we went swimming, and I had a platonic crush on Eileen, the sixteen-year-old mail-room girl, who was so cool I could barely breathe when I was around her.

Everything about Camp Eagle Island came rushing back to me a few weeks ago, when I stepped into three-month-old Minions Café, located along the main strip of downtown Maplewood. There were no adults in the front of the store, only a handful of teenage and younger girls. The teenagers all wore bandanas, and one sat at one of the few tables, her crossed legs cradling a bass guitar. Motown lilted from the stereo. Minions is flat-out girly, with a wooden cart displaying flower arrangements for sale and food presented on Fiestaware-like colored china. The simple, smallish menu of salads, sides, sandwiches, desserts and a couple of hot dishes is scrawled curlicue-style in colored marker on a dry-erase board hanging behind the counter.

I ate very differently at Eagle Island. Bug juice (camp-speak for Kool-Aid, which my mom never bought) was the preferred beverage. Lunch often entailed heated-up, bun-shaped breaded chicken patties that for some reason we called Ozarks. I had oatmeal for the first time there, but at breakfast I most loved mixing the three colors of yogurt (white, pink and lavender) like a parfait and topping it all off with blueberries, which I'd been told I had an allergic reaction to when I was two, but which I wanted to try anyway. I didn't like everything they served there (Mom's spaghetti, for one thing, was clearly better), but I tried it all, and thinking back, I know the food wasn't exactly good, but it was plentiful and comforting. It was home cooking for us girls who were -- to our minds, anyway -- very far away from home.

What Minions serves is fantastic, unforgettable, better-than-what-your-mama-made home cooking. It's like when you go to a family-reunion picnic and everybody brings their best dish. It is not hyphenated food, fusion food, New American food or vertical food. It is the kind of food that I imagine many chefs crave when they're done turning out $26 seared duck breasts and $32 grilled rib eyes for the night.

Minions has two pot pies, a chicken and a vegetable, served not in individual pie tins but in rectangular chunks, like lasagna -- and two lasagnas, a spinach and a spinach-and-chicken. All of these are creamy, filling, fork-lickin' good, especially the lasagnas, which are so homemade they've even got the browned-to-burnt top layer of noodle happening. Tossed with walnuts, full red grapes and Hellmann's, the chicken salad would be even better if the grapes were sliced, as they're too round and plump to navigate into the same mouthful alongside the oversize cubes of chicken, and the croissant my chicken salad came on was somewhat stale, but I did order it at day's end.

Other sandwich breads come par-baked (an industry term that basically means half-baked) from Companion Bakehouse. The muffaletta and the tomato sandwich are said to be served on semolina bread, though they seem to be on standard baguettes, and are pre-assembled but so tightly wound in plastic wrap that they absolutely maintain freshness. The spicy muffaletta -- a New Orleans hero piled with ham, salami, peperoncini, the sandwich's special green-olive spread and Provel (that last ingredient is not a New Orleans specialty) -- sounds exciting. But it's the tomato sandwich that rocks. Overstuffed with juicy, vibrant tomato slices and Provel and given depth by a few basil leaves, it's the sort of simple-yet-offbeat item that I would have hesitantly attempted back on Eagle Island, then loved so much I would have demanded my mom figure out how to make it for me once I got home.

I want to eat Minions' three side dishes every day. Seasonal fruit salad (these days, mostly strawberries, raspberries and blueberries) looks so vivid and pretty (and tastes correspondingly), it's like a photograph out of Gourmet magazine. Cold, smooth, soft bowtie-pasta salad gets surprising mileage from whole peas and a shot of dill. The baked potato salad -- the triumph of the menu -- looks and tastes like a gluttonously stuffed red spud that exploded from too much cheddar, scallions, sour cream and bacon. Oftentimes the counter help will recommend it heated; get it heated.

Get dessert too, whether it's the fruit pies, the cookie bars or especially the raspberry coffee cake -- ridiculously moist, to the point where I'd fall for it if it was labeled raspberry mousse cake.

Minions extends the business of Seasonings Catering, founded eight years ago by Barb Laidlaw, a PTO mom who once made food for a teacher-appreciation luncheon. A little time and a lot of encouragement later, she found herself hanging a shingle as a caterer. The TLC she infuses into her new endeavor is something to taste and see (she sells floral bouquets and potted plants on a cart in the café, just as her catering presentations are always offset with fresh flowers). And she encourages takeout orders, so you can appreciate her home cooking where it can be appreciated best, in your own home.