The burger: Prior to opening the Kenwood last year, chef Don Saunders didn't have a lot of burger experience. "On menus, anyway," he said with a laugh. But during the three years he was the creative force behind In Season, the much-missed south Minneapolis restaurant he quietly closed earlier this summer, he used to occasionally order ground beef from his favorite beef purveyor, Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis. "We'd do that as a treat, and we'd play around with it and make burgers for the staff," Saunders said. "We'd experiment with all kinds of toppings and we'd make insanely good burgers."
Seeing as how a burger is pretty much required reading for the menu of a neighborhood restaurant like the Kenwood, Saunders wisely gathered up all of those behind-the-scenes exercises in burger creativity and came up with a real whopper, pardon the expression.
Of course he's still relying upon that same carefully raised ground beef, and it's so rich and clean-tasting that it needs next to nothing to blossom on the grill, just a little salt and pepper.
One of the joys of this superb burger is the kitchen's ability to hit what can only be described as a textbook example of medium-rare. Forget about some tepid pink; the beef's beautiful crimson color is barely unchanged in the patty's center. "That speaks to the skill of our cooks," said Saunders. "I think there's really an art to doing that, and it's harder to achieve perfect medium-rare quality on a burger than it is on a piece of pork loin, or steak."
Saunders serves burgers two ways: Just a straight-up version with a cheese option, a choice of premium Cheddar, Gruyere or a marbled blue. Perfectly acceptable, but even better is the restaurant's namesake version, a bells-and-whistles pile on that definitely takes diners in to luxury burger territory. And why hesitate? After all, you're already dining in an upper-tax-bracket neighborhood, so when in Rome, right?
The exceptional buns, made by baker John Kraus at Patisserie 46, deserve their own shout-out. "I honestly think that the reason our burgers are so good is because those buns are so insanely good," Saunders said. "I told John that I wanted something buttery and brioche-based, and he experimented with size and fluffiness until he came up with what we're using. They're amazing."
That they are, so rich and tender, with deeply golden tops that gleam with a dairy-induced sheen. Saunders does Kraus one better by adding more butter, a pre-toast swipe that creates a delicately crispy bite.
The Kenwood Burger is a bacon burger, sort of: Saunders calls upon house-cured pork belly. It's gloriously fatty and porky, and the kitchen griddles it to order, finishing with a tease of a cider-sugar glaze to insert a hint of sweet caramelization. Two slices, slipped under the patty, act as a kind of foundation.
On top, there's a generous slice of brazenly-melty, over-the-top Gruyere, which is covered by a pepper-dotted egg, judiciously fried until the white is just barely cooked all the way through and the yolk, when pierced, slips out in a warm, thick ooziness. Sensational, right?
Oh, I almost forgot: Saunders offers an add-on, in the form of a sexed-up, super-juiced heirloom tomato slice. Sure, tacking on a dollar for a garnish is a bit much, but come on, tomatoes this good are worth the cost. That's capped by a perky Bibb lettuce leaf, and then because Saunders steers clear of ketchup on a burger, the top bun gets a swipe of tomato aioli.
The goodness adds up, fast. The patty, wide enough to hug the bun's outer edges, is ridiculously juicy, and the tomato and egg only pile it on. You might start by picking this beauty up with both hands, but necessity (rather than some vague sense of Lake of the Isles-induced politeness) will soon have you reaching for a knife and fork. This is truly a burger for the record books.
Price: $10 for the no-frills burger, $12 for the cheeseburger, $14 for the Kenwood Burger.
Fries: Included, and excellent. Long, skin-on cuts of Idaho russets, fried first in a low temperature to cook the potatoes, then fried to order at a higher temperature to bring out just a bit of outer-edge crispness.
Timing is everything: Where was I a few months ago, when Saunders was killing it with his so-called Spring Burger, a short-lived extravaganza topped with ramps, morels and truffled cheese? "Yeah, we got some people who said, 'What, a $25 burger?'" he said with a laugh. "But true foodies realized that it was a bargain. I mean, we had a lot of morels on that thing." Here's hoping it makes a return engagement next spring.
Insider's tip: The restaurant is now serving dinner on Sunday, whiich is hopefully opening up some seating availability in this popular no-reservations zone.
Address book: 2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3685.
Talk to me: Have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickNelsonStrib on Twitter.