Like many practitioners working in the restaurant industry, Craftsman chef Benjamin Jacoby started at the bottom: a 14-year-old washing dishes in the ridiculously small kitchen at the former Chet's Taverna. In the intervening seven years, Jacoby worked his way up until he was sous chef to chef/co-owner Mike Phillips. "I kind of grew up there," said Jacoby. "It's where I learned to love food, and cook food."

Jacoby followed his mentor to the Craftsman in 2006. When Phillips left the restaurant about 18 months ago -- to focus on producing charcuterie at his Green Ox Meat Co. -- Jacoby stepped up to the stove. Since then, he's been slowly making the menu his own, all the while honoring the lessons he learned from Phillips.

Including, it would seem, preparing gnocchi. "I've been working on the recipe since I was 16," said Jacoby, who is now a year shy of 30. Practice evidently makes perfect, because those potato gnocchi boast a delicate, mouth-melting texture that pairs beautifully with pieces of house-smoked chicken and rich, flavorful sun-dried Italian tomatoes, the whole shebang splashed with a bit of tangy crème fraiche. It's a stunner of a dish.

Ditto the superb pork chop, a showcase for Jacoby's commitment to made-in-the-Midwest products, in this case sweet, juicy pork from Waseca, Minn., farmer Tim Fischer. It's also an exercise in restraint. Jacoby doesn't muddle the pork's gold-standard flavors with a marinade. Instead, he relies upon salt and pepper and the heat of the grill, a formula that unlocks even more tantalizing caramelized flavor. It's a monster of a thing, and it's served with creamy, gold-hued mashed potatoes, the kind of combination that pretty much demands membership in the Clean Plate Club.

Jacoby is enormously proud of his charcuterie, and he should be. He picked up his enthusiasm for the cured meats from Phillips, yet he's also forged an effort to create items that separate him from his predecessor's legacy: A ruby red and black pepper-kissed duck breast prosciutto, an exceptional coppa, several silky terrines and wonderfully rustic pâtés and rillettes, all served with sharply pickled vegetables and other pitch-perfect accoutrements.

Other disarmingly simple grill dishes include lamb chops and a hanger steak, along with a trio of expertly seasoned and cleverly topped burgers, made using turkey, beef and lamb and served with the kind of freshly cut fries that routinely defy self-discipline. It's tough to imagine a more decadent Reuben, and on the lighter side, Jacoby has an eye for selecting and presenting top-of-the-line local cheeses, and a flair for gravlax, turning each bite into velvety bliss.

That said, a lamb pancetta carbonara -- what a cool idea -- was something of an ill-defined mess, and a pair of entrees -- butternut squash- and chèvre-stuffed cannelloni, polenta smothered in sautéed winter veggies -- didn't step too far outside the vegetarian comfort zone. Also, the pace from the kitchen can be maddeningly glacial.

But there is more than mere promise in Jacoby's work. He's the real deal, both a rising star and a worthy successor to Phillips' much-lauded tenure.

  • Open 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch served 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
  • 4300 E. Lake St., Mpls
  • 612-722-0175
  • www.craftsmanrestaurant.com

 

A simple good meal

I'm not ashamed to admit that I can be a creature of habit. There are some lunches, particularly in the winter months, when all I want to do is take refuge at the sunny bar inside Mission American Kitchen & Bar, crack open my newspaper, wave aside the offer to glance at the menu, order my regular -- the omelet -- and then bask in the hospitality of bartender T.J. Akerson.

The omelet -- it's the kitchen's No. 2 seller, after the Buffalo chicken salad -- changes daily, the formula depending, I suppose, on whatever chef Jeremy Lafond has on hand. Sometimes it's fairly boilerplate (ham and Cheddar), and on other occasions I've encountered slightly subversive variations, including pastrami-basil-Gruyère, or bacon cheeseburger, both of which were far more delicious than the description might otherwise suggest.

Another plus: Lunch arrives in a flash. So quickly that if it weren't for the movers-and-shakers crowd -- honestly, it's a rarity to not spy at least one local captain of industry in the always packed dining room -- I would swear I was lunching in a quick-service establishment, and not in the IDS Center's open-to-the-public version of the Minneapolis Club. The omelet, airy and golden, has never been anything less than piping hot, and it shares the plate with an enormous pile of simply dressed field greens rather than belt-busting French fries.

Still, Akerson, a pro who clearly takes the whole "service with a smile" credo to heart, is the reason why I'm not embarrassed to cop to my predictable lunch-hour behavior. He's been the unflappable master of his busy, four-sided realm since the day the restaurant opened nearly eight years ago, and taking a coveted seat at his station is a distinct pleasure. As I sign the bill, I invariably wonder: Is cloning Akerson a possibility for the restaurant's owners?

  • Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday.
  • 77 S. 7th St., Mpls., 612-339-1000
  • www.missionamerican.com

 

Retro and proud of it

That Rachel's is an unapologetically old-school restaurant should come as no surprise. After all, owner John Rimarcik is an unapologetically old-school restaurateur.

The menu is so unironically retro it could constitute an episode of VH1's "I Love the '80s" series. It's familiar, too; much of it seems shorthanded from the Monte Carlo, Rimarcik's landmark North Loop restaurant and bar, with bits and pieces culled from his Annie's Parlour and Convention Grill.

Those on the search for innovation should probably dine elsewhere. But anyone hankering for a well-prepared burger -- there are a dozen different preparations -- a decent steak sandwich, a classic chicken wing preparation or a straightforward Caesar salad will feel right at home.

Finesse is not a word I would ascribe to much of the kitchen's output. Mussels were steamed into oblivion, and the less said about an overwrought surf-and-turf pasta dish, the better. I can't recall the last time I encountered a ham salad sandwich (or a $10 egg salad sandwich), or witnessed a corned beef hash -- a massive, finely chopped pile of tender, pink meat -- finished with, yes, a cling peach half. The sole dessert, a towering chocolate layer cake, with vanilla ice cream, has a redemptive quality.

Along with a well-stocked bar, the real draws include the setting, a coveted piece of real estate that Rimarcik kept dark for several years before finally -- and rather quietly -- debuting Rachel's last summer, in time to take advantage of the building's lovely off-the-street patio. After all that time I found it a relief to discover that the former Bobino still has it going on in the looks department. Its inherent warmth and charm remain intact, gussied up by a few decor tweaks that include a collection of conversation-starting black-and-white photos; look for an image of the restaurant's namesake, Rimarcik's cute 10-year-old niece, among them.

For my money, the restaurant's top draw is Rimarcik himself, who works the room on a near-nightly basis, effortlessly chatting up his clientele and setting an example for his engaging, observant staff.

"Wow, that guy is old school," said my friend, with admiration in his voice, after Rimarcik lavished our table with a dose of his polite, well-practiced schmooze. Well, duh.

  • Open 4 p.m. to approximately 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 p.m. to approximately 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; bar open one hour later.
  • 222 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls
  • 612-379-3345
  • www.rachelsmn.com