Let’s all take a moment to consider the ascendancy of the side dish.
Often the physical embodiment of “afterthought,” they’re the opposite at Bardo, the exciting newcomer that belongs on all diners’ radar.
First, there’s kale, the produce section’s most overhyped denizen. But in chef/owner Remy Pettus’ resourceful hands, this fibrous and bitter superfood is a revelation. The leafy green is blistered in a hot pan, flipping the texture switch from tough to crunchy. A potent chile paste and crunchy pepitas add flavorful depth. This is kale, the bane of salad bars everywhere? The American Kale Association’s PR firm ought to get on this, pronto.
The mashed potatoes are synonymous with heavenly. Slightly twisting a classic southern French staple, Pettus deftly converts Yukon Golds into the height of creaminess by incorporating scandalous amounts of butter, cheese curds and chèvre, with that goat cheese inserting an insidiously tangy bite. One crave-inducing spoonful in, and I knew that I’d never make mashed potatoes any other way.
Then there’s the bread. Embracing the mini-trend that replaces the gratis bread basket with a paid-for menu item, Pettus offers a memorable mini-loaf that’s more than worth its $7 upcharge. It’s baked just before dinner service so it radiates a pulled-from-the-oven freshness. Buttermilk gives its golden top a biscuit-like quality, and the dense, flecked-with-herbs loaf is an ideal vehicle for piling on a soft, lavender- and honey-infused butter.
That copious attention to detail is evident up and down the tightly edited menu. A vividly colorful salad starts with root vegetables prepared using different techniques, each one chosen to best highlight the ingredient’s unique texture: Beets are roasted, carrots are glazed, parsnips are cooked sous vide.
Order it with the starter that I’ve embarrassingly shorthanded to My Magnificent Obsession: a tartine starring silvery, vinegar-punched white anchovies, pulled from the Mediterranean near Spain. Fatty and dense, they’re dressed with a slow-cooked, Fresno chile-fueled harissa that really packs a wallop, and a six-minute egg, the yolk barely holding together.
That salad, that tartine and a glass of wine, enjoyed in the restaurant’s cozy slip of a bar, is my idea of an ideal impromptu meal. (Bardo has revitalized one of the Twin Cities’ most charming dining venues — a human-scaled space formerly home to Rachel’s, and, before that, Bobino.)
Anyone seeking an excuse to visit need look no further than the kitchen’s resourceful approach to that yawn-inducing dining standard, baked chicken. Pettus wisely starts with flavorful, Minnesota-raised game hens, deboning them and rolling them into roulades, a technique that allows the oven’s heat to crisp the skin without sacrificing the meat’s abundant juiciness. The add-ons — earthy mushrooms, sweet golden raisins — only improve an already ideal arrangement.
Or there’s agnolotti, using a pasta built with white wine and golden with egg yolks. It’s rolled super-thin, filled with a mousse-like goat cheese — so simple, so delicious — and finished with vegetables from the cold-weather larder. I happily recall admiring (and inhaling) every bite of its late-summer iteration, when Pettus was showcasing just-picked sweet corn. But now, with beets and Delicata squash — and clarifying pinches of lemon — I think I love it even more.
A chef’s mentors
Although Pettus spent two formative years in the laboratory-like kitchen at the former Moto in Chicago, his Bardo menu is minus any overt molecular gastronomy homages to mentor Homaro Cantu (yes, that’s his portrait — a freehand pencil sketch by artist Anthony Gambucci — hanging near the kitchen). Still, Pettus taps the late Chicago chef’s inordinate sense of adventure.
“It’s not about thinking inside or outside the box, because at Moto, there wasn’t a box at all,” he said. “It was about not having any restrictions or rules. It’s doing things because they work.”
Another career-shaping experience — this time a two-summer tenure at chef Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Calif. — makes its presence known in a spectacular gnocchi.
A “race to the finish” is how Pettus describes the speed and acumen required to gauge the varying starch levels in baked Yukon Gold potatoes as they cool. Too much — or too little — flour and egg will mess up the gnocchi’s ethereal texture.
“It’s something I had to do every day when I was working in California,” he said. “I fell in love with the process.”
What a coincidence, because I flipped for the spellbinding outcome, particularly the way the robust, opposites-attract additions of earthy mushrooms and smoky tomatoes do their part in taking this meat-free dish to the satisfying complexity that’s frequently (and misguidedly) reserved for animal protein-centric efforts.
More good news is that most of the menu’s larger dishes are sold in half and full portions, a strategy that encourages exploration and sharing.
“It’s the way that I like to eat when I go out,” said Pettus. “I want to give people an opportunity to sample different parts of the menu. Maybe they’ve heard great things about our duck dish. They can come in and try it for $17 rather than spend $32.”
Three cheers to that. Kudos also to the light-and-bright aspect of Pettus’ eloquent cooking. In this kitchen (led by chef du cuisine Neil Bertucci), overt saltiness is out. Balance — achieved through the subtle, three-dimensional application of fat, acidity and the more elusive umami — is in. How refreshing.
All of those mouthwatering qualities shimmer across the menu’s most eye-catching dish (and that’s saying something): audaciously fresh scallops, the flesh firmed by a bracing jolt of yuzu juice. From there, Pettus begins ever-so-slight layering: zing from a Thai chile’s heat, the cleansing herbaceousness of cilantro, a bitter radish jolt, all working in harmonious conjunction with one another.
Then again, seafood is one of this kitchen’s strengths, whether it’s crisped-up sea bass with tiny clams, mild turnips and hearty guanciale, or snappy shrimp paired with toothy white beans and bitter mustard greens. Instead of beef, Pettus favors bison — it’s both a flavor issue and a sustainability preference — and it’s a smart choice. Even a seemingly basic micogreens-herbs salad is a joy.
Don’t skip dessert
Sure, a few quibbles. When there’s a full house, the sound level can approach “conversation-challenging.” After mishaps both online and via voice mail, my experience with the reservations system can’t honestly be characterized as “user-friendly.” Given the menu’s cost-consciousness, the admirable wine list would be even better with a few value-priced additions.
Dessert is a treat. Pastry chef Alex Konopacky clearly enjoys contrasting textures and flavors, some familiar, others obscure. A mousse-filled cake takes full advantage of the boilerplate union between espresso and chocolate, while a tart reveals the surprising compatibility of caramel and pineapple.
Another winning idea is a luscious, honey-blended ricotta, peppered with red wine-macerated figs and spread on brittle, cocoa nib-crusted crackers. Quirky and quietly sweet, it occupies a happy place somewhere between cheese course and dessert.
Pettus, a Minneapolis native, is definitely a chef to watch. His last high-profile gig was when he opened restaurateur Ryan Burnet’s Eastside in 2015, only to be dismissed six months later. That can’t have been easy, but, exercising the power of positive thinking, the experience ultimately led to Bardo. And that’s a very happy circumstance, for both Pettus and Twin Cities diners.