Barbette recently marked its 10th anniversary. Ten years? Maybe it's a mark of my own advancing age, but the Uptowner sure seems as if it has been a firmly entrenched landmark on the local dining landscape for far longer. In a good way.
Owner Kim Bartmann -- the impresario behind Bryant-Lake Bowl, Red Stag Supperclub and Bread & Pickle, the concession stand next to the Lake Harriet bandshell that will open in late April -- has installed a number of chefs in the Barbette kitchen (I can rattle off four without resorting to Google) since converting her former Cafe Wyrd coffeehouse into bistro-minded Barbette.
Despite the semi-constant leadership upheaval, the restaurant has not only survived, but thrived. Still, my hope is that Bartmann's latest hire, Kevin Kathman, is going to stick around for a while.
Kathman, a Cold Spring, Minn., native with a starry résumé, returned to his home state a little more than a year ago.
He's inserted his sharp skills and refined sensibilities into a format that could have slid into staleness but hasn't.
The dishes I've been eating forever at Barbette continue to be dispatched with aplomb: spot-on tartares, tender steamed mussels, meticulously produced terrines and pâtés, generously stuffed buckwheat crêpes, a marvelous daily quiche, fresh oysters, cute little late-night cheese fondues, a go-to noon-hour Nicoise salad, crisp weekend waffles.
That continuity can be attributed, in part, to the tiny kitchen's commitment to premium, locally sourced ingredients, and to Bartmann's determination to feed her customers from morning until late at night.
Still, it's pretty easy to discern where the menu's longstanding habits end and Kathman's know-how and creativity begin. It's a roast chicken dish, the skin tantalizingly crispy, the meat mouthwateringly flavorful, with Kathman offering straight-up cuts or rolling the meat around a hearty wild rice-apple stuffing. It's an ideal balm to these endlessly chilly Minnesota nights.
Ditto the slow-braised pork shoulder, chasing each bite with bits of smoky, thick-cut bacon and carefully caramelized Brussels sprouts, a final nod to winter before gentler spring flavors prevail. Kathman also puts an admirably light touch on seemingly heavy dishes, from dinner's beef bourguignon to brunch's divine smoked-chicken hash.
As for steak-and-potatoes, why make the trek downtown when there are several perfectly good options here? Better yet, dive into the lunch menu's delicate ravioli filled with slow-braised beef and served with a comfort-minded parsnip mash.
Prices can raise eyebrows. A drab plate of grilled asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots and other vegetables was not worth $21 (my vegetarian friend should have opted for the far more complex and satisfying spring vegetable risotto), and while Kathman is selecting lovely cheeses, four small tastes and a few accompaniments do not merit their $17 price tag.
Some of the cooking left me less than impressed. The plus-sized brandade fritters could use a lighter touch, and the lamb burger is a disappointment. The lean meat is seasoned with the complementary flavors of currants and pine nuts, formed into an ungainly meatball, sprinkled with a few measly chévre crumbles and served on a drab ciabatta role. The lemon-kissed toss of greens and the handful of crisp potato gaufrettes sharing the plate were far more compelling. Everyday baked goods -- muffins, scones, croissants, breads -- could use a little tender loving care.
On Monday evenings, Kathman offers a welcome glimpse into his non-steak au poivre world by departing from the bistro basics menu that has long been Barbette's signature, stepping up to the stove and preparing an impromptu $32 four-course dinner. Unlike many bargain-night dining promotions, my meal from a few Mondays back didn't feel as if the kitchen was treating its guests -- a lively, multigenerational lot -- as a leftovers dumping ground.
Instead, Kathman was deftly repurposing a few menu staples into a modern surf-and-turf, putting a crisp sear on a moist, fall-apart Canadian-sourced whitefish and then chasing it with juicy, pink slices of expertly grilled New York strip. Both dishes stood out for their nuanced approach (braised beet greens and tender sweet corn for the fish, roasted golden beets cut into coins and a rich, shallot-studded Bordelais for the beef) and refined good looks.
The meal started with a lovely crab-avocado salad and ended with a sprightly, black pepper-kissed pineapple upside-down cake finished with a scoop of intensely flavorful raspberry sorbet. It was one of several occasions when it felt as if Kathman were cooking for an entirely different restaurant -- an attractive, comfortable one.
"It's like bumping into a onetime friend who is still clinging, unwisely, to an all-vintage wardrobe," remarked my friend, as he scoped out the dining room's junk-shop decor, a mismatched jumble that had a certain charm a decade ago -- and still retains a romantic, after-dark appeal -- but has since reverted to semi-shabby, minus the chic.
The setting's informal and intimate scale is its best asset (along with the urbane sidewalk cafe that should materialize any week now), a switch from the gigantic, impersonal restaurants that have become the Twin Cities norm.
Another plus is its range of banquettes, counters and bars, a refuge for solo diners. But if there's a local restaurant crying out for a makeover, it's Barbette. As for the downscale restrooms, when entrees aren't shy about hitting $38, is it wrong for my not-so-inner princess to expect to encounter similarly upscale facilities?
Taste treat at the end
The no-surprises desserts, prepared by Kathman and sous chef Michael Schneider, are a definite highlight, enough to nudge the conversation away from broken tiles and dirty windows. The luscious vanilla crème brûlée sports the kind of thick, brittle burned-sugar cap that makes an audible snap when broken by a spoon.
A molten chocolate cake is a textbook example of the genre, its intoxicating bitter/sweet contrasts underscoring why it's perilous to ignore such an overdone staple.
Even better is its more glamorous cousin, a chocolate roulade dressed with a supple salted caramel sauce and a scoop of irresistible über-chocolate ice cream. It would look terrific topped with 10 blazing birthday candles.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757