Is the far eastern end of Lake Street on its way to becoming the new Eat Street?
Probably not, so there's no need for Nicollet Avenue to get its boxer briefs in a bundle, at least not yet. Despite the presence of a few low-key one-of-a-kinders, this somnolent mile-long strip west of the West River Parkway to the mid-30s, has never really been much of a culinary destination. Until now.
The upgrade started with the advent of the Longfellow Grill, a dialed-up diner and bar bearing the same eclectic breakfast-to-dinner template as its popular siblings, the Highland Grill and the Edina Grill. But once the culinistas start to descend upon the Craftsman, it's only a matter of time before the area is overrun with loft condo developers and its own Chipotle outlet, and there goes the neighborhood!
It's rare to find a restaurant that builds identity for its surrounding environs (though the Modern Cafe in northeast Minneapolis is a perfect example), but the cozy Craftsman percolates with that kind of potential. Owners and spouses Mike Dooley and Susan Kennedy-Dooley have deep roots in the area; they've owned the building since the mid-1980s, and ran its last tenant, Molly Quinn's, for 13 years until they sold the business -- but not the building --in 1998.
Last year, when MQ's new owners relocated, the Dooleys decided to get back into the food-and-drink business. They wisely recruited chef Dennis Marron, then cooking for Russell Klein at W.A. Frost & Co. in St. Paul, and got to work expanding and rebuilding the down-on-its-heels property. The results are exactly the kind of adventurous but informal restaurant any property-value-minded homeowner would want down the street.
Marron is a real find. He left a good gig at San Francisco's well-received Indigo to follow his love (and now wife) to Minnesota. A self-professed hound of SF's plentiful Japanese, Chinese and Korean restaurants, Marron infuses those Asian accents into his boldly flavored cooking at the Craftsman.
His brief but distinctive menu, which changes monthly, consists of a handful of starters and six or seven entrees, noteworthy for their flair, top-notch ingredients, relative value and aversion to the same-old, same-old. I'll become a regular just for the exceptional soups, whether it's a borscht bearing a marvelous lemon-grass sting and a cooling jolt of sour citrus-jazzed sour cream, a colorful carrot-orange combo with a blast of ginger-infused cream or a hearty bowl singing with the flavors of almonds and Yukon Gold potatoes. Best of all? A spellbindingly delicious fish stew, brimming with mussels, clams and shrimp.
Among the entrees, favorites include the meaty, full-bodied short ribs, braised in mirin, ginger, garlic, chiles, daikon and veal stock until they're fall-apart tender. I'm also partial to the hefty slab of gently steamed, sushi-grade hamachi presented in a tart kaffir lime-infused sake broth (an earlier version of this dish, grilled mahi mahi in a delicate seaweed stock, also impressed). Gorgeous color from three winter squash -- and a zippy crunch from toasted pepitas -- made a rosemary-scented risotto more than memorable. A shiitake mushroom broth added rich depth to goat cheese-filled ravioli topped with an intense carrot purée, and a three-apple compote was a pleasant contrast to juicy pork chops and a sturdy fingerling-chorizo hash.
The short bar/late-night menu seems geared for drop-ins hungering for a quick, simple meal. There's a fantastic burger of ground chuck seasoned with paprika, onion and garlic, shaped into a fat patty and grilled to perfection; it's even better paired with a pungent Gorgonzola from a cheesemaker just east of Eau Claire, Wis. A pizza was generously topped with a can't-miss combo of caramelized onions, sweet grilled pears and that same great Gorgonzola. Best of all is the tuna poke, bite-size cubes of peppermint-pink raw tuna, marinated in a snappy tamarind-soy-Fresno chile vinaigrette, molded into a drum and garnished with sprightly microgreens. The fresh, clean flavor of the fish against the sweet-scalding dressing makes for a memorable, can't-resist dish.
(Not all is perfect: Skip the celery root-potato-Parmesan cheese spread, a so-so substitute for Minnesota's ubiquitous artichoke dip; the too-salty mussels steamed in a locally made oatmeal stout, and the flavorless mess of a basil-tomato-mozzarella cheese pizza).
When pastry chef Sara Walter's desserts are good, they're great. I loved a dense, wonderfully moist black walnut-banana bread pudding, dressed in a husky warm chocolate sauce. A creamy chocolate pot de crÃ¨me had a flirtatious ancho chile kick. An amusing cookies-and-milk variation coupled piping hot chocolate-banana samosas with a chocolate ice-cream soda, the plate painted in an eye-catching mint syrup swipe. But some dishes felt like experiments gone awry: a greasy, flavorless tropical fruit egg roll and a bland coconut-passion fruit panna cotta with a mushy lemon cake both come to mind.
It's easy to fall for the subdued, romantic room, its pleasing proportions and modest adornment an homage to the cozy craftsman-era bungalows in abundance on the surrounding streets. It's not often that something so ordinary as a restaurant table captures attention, but it's hard to overlook the beauties at the Craftsman, where the Dooleys commissioned a pair of local artisans to build look-at-me pedestals suitable for Marron's eye-catching fare: Cherry tabletops, trimmed in quarter-sawn oak, rest on bases of pewter-coated steel in a design that echoes the room's overall arts and crafts vocabulary.
I'm looking forward to what appears to be a spacious, hidden-from-Lake Street patio. If only the full-house noise level could be dimmed. Cold nights can get uncomfortably drafty. And the kitchen's harsh white light fairly shouts down the setting's otherwise golden glow.
My advice? Keep your back to the kitchen, order the tuna poke and lob the following question to your fellow diners: "Who will be the next restaurateur to land on East Lake Street?"