The brothers Ikeda — Chris, age 30, and Andrew, 25 — have long been planning to open a restaurant together. “It’s a pipe dream for a lot of people, something they talk about over beers,” said Chris. “But this has been years and years of serious development.”
The this he’s referring to is Lake & Irving. Their Uptown newcomer is one of those under-the-radar spots that manage to quietly boost the everyday dining-out experience while simultaneously maintaining affordability and approachability quotients.
That’s a lot of quantum restaurant physics for one sentence, so let’s take the discussion down to a more chewable level and zero in on a single, representative menu item.
Granted, the pulled pork sandwich’s relationship to casual restaurants mirrors what Anytime Fitness franchises are to strip malls: ubiquity personified. But Chris, the restaurant’s executive chef, sets his iteration apart by inserting the sensibility and know-how he gleaned from nearly seven years of cooking in Hawaii.
The deeply flavorful meat — a heritage breed raised in Glencoe, Minn. — is prepared by following many kalua traditions. The pork butt is heavily seasoned with pink sea salt, wrapped in banana leaves and smoked for about seven hours, steaming in its own considerable juices until it reaches a near mouth-melting consistency. A crunchy slaw with sweet-tart pineapple flavor notes completes the picture; the only missing element is a luau-style pit and a ukulele.
Lake & Irving is no eatertainery, and the references to the 50th state are hardly overt. Instead, Hawaii’s melting-pot flavors quietly insinuate themselves into a number of otherwise familiar dishes, with subtly appealing results: ridiculously tender, soy-braised short ribs, juicy smoked pork chops glazed with a red chile-fermented bean paste, fried boneless chicken thighs tossed in a rich house-made teriyaki-style sauce, expertly seared salmon served with a kimchi-like salad and an eye-catching roasted beet salad finished with a tart plum vinegar dressing.
Then there’s the pesto made with basil and macadamia nuts, a punchy garnish to one of the kitchen’s best dishes. It’s a nod to the brothers’ Italian grandmother, and a doozy: balls of creamy risotto filled with a bit of Gruyère and some of that dreamy smoked pork, rolled in panko and fried until they achieve a golden, delicate outer crust.
They’re one of the many reasons why Lake & Irving has restored my faith in the overused term “small plates.” Witness another favorite, in the form of cold smashed fingerling potatoes jazzed with mayonnaise, lemon, dainty tendrils of dill and crunchy fried capers, formed into golf ball-size dollops and draped with silky cured salmon.
All those old-timers who speak in hushed, reverential tones about the potato salad at the legendary Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale? In a few decades we may find ourselves reciting the same prayer regarding Lake & Irving’s version.
Another reason to rave is the delicate smoked walleye rillettes. They’re ramped with umami-laden Japanese mayonnaise, and when paired with a zippy swipe of Dijon mustard are a lovely way to dress crispy crostini.
Attention to details
A hefty portion of the menu pairs seamlessly with the goings-on at the craft beer- and cider-obsessed bar. The burger, blissfully uncomplicated, impresses at every turn. The patty, a chopped blend of chuck and short ribs that has a steak-like consistency, is brought, with scientific precision, to a picture-perfect pink center, and its quality is only underscored by a restrained sense of embellishment, just a melty Cheddar and a stack of tangy pickles. Another asset? Like that pork sandwich, it’s served on a dream of a brioche bun from Patisserie 46.
There’s little surprise in this no-detail-is-left-to-chance emphasis. After all, along with embracing value, this is a kitchen that showers attention on what could be viewed as a seemingly mundane side salad, investing it with far more ambition than the standard-issue handful of mixed greens from a plastic Earthbound Farm box.
Still, not everything works. State Fair-esque tempura-battered portobellos feel out of place on that winning small plates menu, and bite-size tostadas with guacamole and flavor-free lobster could have come off a cater waiter’s passed hors d’oeuvres tray. Crab-crusted snapper exuded a formulaic hotel-banquet vibe. A caprese-esque panini deserved far better tomatoes, and a chicken-bacon sandwich tasted of little more than salt.
That fried chicken, this time boasting cracklingly crispy skin and indecently juicy meat, was far better served as the centerpiece of an exceptional brunch plate involving tender waffles, bits of bacon and a beer-infused syrup. Also at brunch, silky lox takes a starring role in a well-prepared eggs Benedict, and the first-rate shredded pork is once again repurposed, this time into a fantastic open-face sandwich, its red chile undertones tempered by creamy avocado and a poached egg.
More sweets, please
When he’s not working at Glam Doll Donuts, Dayton Olsen is preparing a limited number of desserts for the Ikedas. Emphasis on limited. On several visits, the selection consisted solely of a raspberry-accented flourless chocolate cake — hardly groundbreaking, but nicely done — and reliably pleasing scoops of Sebastian Joe’s ice cream. More, please, and hurry.
As for the surroundings, they’re pleasant enough, but somewhat reminiscent of a home that has been staged for resale. In other words, generically attractive, but with a personality shortage.
It’s not surprising to learn that the two siblings followed similar education paths. Both graduated from the University of St. Thomas (Chris majored in entrepreneurship, Andrew’s degree is in English) and then went on to train at different campuses of the Culinary Institute of America. While Chris immersed himself in high-end Hawaiian restaurants and resorts, Andrew, who manages the kitchen’s day-to-day operations, logged time at several California vineyards.
After ditching their original plan to land on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue (“We realized it was a little sleepy over there,” said Chris with a laugh), they zeroed in on an Uptown building, complete with a small but handy parking lot. Now they’re cooking to 1 a.m. daily.
Sure, their post-10 p.m. menu is an abbreviated one, but it’s still welcome in a city that stubbornly continues to hang on to its early-to-bed, early-to-rise Yankee DNA. The brothers just need to pump up that late-night-er with a few more of their small-plate items. How’s about that lox potato salad, hint-hint?
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