A neighborhood restaurant that fits its classic surroundings - with a very pleasant twist.
As if one were needed, there's now another reason to aspire to a Kenwood address.
It's called, naturally, the Kenwood, and it's a sterling addition to a most welcome dining-out trend, the ascendancy of the neighborhood restaurant.
On its surface, chef/owner Don Saunders engages in the familiar mechanics of the casual, just-around-the-corner restaurant, but in execution the menu is infused with intelligence, integrity and a striking visual sensibility, traits usually encountered several notches above the genre's berth on the food chain.
Sure, there are basics -- aimed at neighbors who might hit the place up a few times a week -- but Saunders imbues them with unexpected finesse, minus the usual corresponding upcharge. Take the burger, which utilizes ground beef from Limousin cattle, sourced from an Osceola, Wis., farm.
Saunders grills thick patties of the lean, juicy meat to just above rare, then gives them the fat-cat treatment -- when in Kenwood, right? -- capping it with better-than-bacon pork belly, a slab of decadent Gruyère and a scrupulously fried egg, presenting the whole shebang in a glorious brioche bun.
There's also a Caesar salad. Well, sort of. Saunders grills romaine hearts until the outer leaves are traced with a smoky char, and the tightly crimped lettuce begins to open and tiptoes to the edge of the wilted precipice. Next comes a drizzle of a simple Dijon-white wine vinaigrette, and then the plate is dressed with a traditional egg yolk-lemon juice emulsion, a lovely acidic-creamy contrast.
I could eat it every day, although its goodness rivals the beautifully nuanced beet salad, where pretty pink and gold root vegetables, splashed with a honey-thyme vinaigrette, play against sweet Fuji apples, pungent blue cheese and lacy frisée flecked with walnut oil.
Relishing the offbeat
The restaurant has the flexibility of a Bikram yoga instructor, easily segueing from morning coffee and pastries to a brunch-lunch hybrid before settling into dinner.
At noon, several select holdovers from the evening menu are offered along with deftly prepared omelets, a decent take on shrimp and grits and a steak-and-eggs combo that is to the truck-stop version as the Vikings are to pick-up touch football.
But the dish to order is a sublime Benedict, where sheets of velvety cured salmon and poached eggs are laid over a toasted slice of hearty ciabatta-like rye (the first-rate breads and pastries hail from Patisserie 46) and smothered in a supple, dill-packed Hollandaise.
At dinner, half the menu is devoted to two levels of eclectic small plates: snack-size and share-size. The former includes a mellow coriander- and cumin-scented hummus, and toasts smeared with a rich salt cod brandade, a hint of preserved lemon sneaking into each bite.
Larger options are headlined by extra-plump mussels, retrieved from Maine's chilly coastal waters, steamed in white wine and finished with a sharp basil pesto and a flavor-enhancing splash of Pernod. Fantastic.
Dinner's entrees cover pork and duck, but the seafood dishes are where Saunders really shines, whether he's nudging a delicate pan-browned flourish on snowy, moist and gently sweet skate, or drawing out the enticing ruby color of seared tuna.
A disdain for the same-old, same-old makes for lively meals. Frogs legs, tempura-battered and fried, with plenty of garlic? Decadent lardo, spread over toasts? Yes, please, to both, along with two other standouts. One is a blend of different confit duck parts -- shredded leg and chopped heart and gizzard -- all bound together with a paste of seared duck liver and rolled into wonton wrapper, cigar-style, to create a memorably savory bite. The other is firm-fleshed, silver-skinned Spanish boquerones -- aka marinated white anchovies -- which boast a tangy vinegar bite. Saunders lays them over crisp, orange-kissed crostini, or serves them with the grilled romaine salad, and they are irresistible.
Vegetarian customers are clearly held in high regard, but a savory Swiss chard cake feels unnecessarily overwrought, and gnocchi built with sweet potatoes didn't quite hold together, texture-wise.
But there's no problem with the magnificent butternut squash soup, its supple texture achieved not through cream but via brown butter. One taste, and the inevitable close of squash season will look like one of the calendar's darkest days.
Saunders' biography could be titled "Local Guy Makes Good." The Eden Prairie native became hooked on restaurants as a waiter during college, then trained at London's Le Cordon Bleu before returning to the Twin Cities and working for mentor Vincent Francoual at Vincent.
Gigs at La Belle Vie and St. Paul's now-shuttered A Rebours led to opening his own restaurant in 2005, the adventurous but ill-fated Fugaise. A stint at a high-end Wisconsin resort followed, "and then I tried to talk myself out of it, but I had to do another small restaurant," he said. That turned out to be In Season, his more formal southwest Minneapolis restaurant. The Kenwood followed two years later.
The room's clubby overtones (the work of Smart Associates, the Minneapolis design firm) are an irony-free nod to the neighborhood's old-money aura. Here's how old I am: It reminds me -- surprise, surprise -- of what was originally the Kenwood Shop at Dayton's, which surely ascended into the retail heavens sometime in the mid- to late-1970s.
It's a flattering comparison, yet I can't help but wonder what contemporary Kenwood looks like inside all those stately Tudors and colonials.
The restaurant's astute floor plan offers a glimmer of the modern: the open kitchen, visible from most of the dining room, is fronted by a counter of ringside seats; dinner and a show, right?
The standout dessert -- all are the work of sous chef Matthew Hughes -- is a sublime chocolate pot de crème, garnished with a palate-cleansing candied ginger. Still, here's a tip: If he's preparing a warm brioche bread pudding, laced with bittersweet chocolate and pops of cardamom and topped with coffee ice cream, order it.
During one particularly pleasant lunch, my friend pointed out that the restaurant is surrounded by some of the city's highest-tax-bracket residences, and its closest competitors, are, at minimum, a dozen winding blocks to the east or the south.
In hindsight, locating a real restaurant at this address approaches no-brainer status. Factor in the steady clientele at In Season, another unlikely address, and it looks as if Saunders could have a future in commercial leasing.
"Well, I think I'm running two out of three, because Fugaise wasn't exactly the best real estate decision," he said with a laugh. "But maybe I've learned from my mistakes."
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib
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