REVIEW: The creators of Mill Valley Kitchen take their health-conscious credo to downtown Minneapolis, with winning results. | ★★★ out of 4 stars
When they set out to open a restaurant at the Le Meridien Chambers in downtown Minneapolis — the hotel’s third in seven years — Mill Valley Kitchen owner Craig Bentdahl and chef Mike Rakun wisely skipped over the name of their popular St. Louis Park enterprise.
Given the demise of its predecessors — Chambers Kitchen and D’Amico Kitchen — even the least superstitious among us would probably drop the word “kitchen” from any 9th-and-Hennepin signage. Clean slates, and all.
For naming inspiration, they turned to another iconic Northern California locale. Marin Restaurant & Bar bears a familial resemblance to its suburban sibling — chiefly, a shared focus on health-conscious fare — but the two are by no means identical twins.
While catering to his built-in hotel audience, Rakun is also handing locals — and Mill Valley Kitchen fans — plenty of reasons to place the restaurant on their dining-out itineraries. Starting with scallops. Yeah, scallops, so prevalent that it’s a shocker when they’re absent from a Twin Cities restaurant menu.
But Rakun makes them shine anew, searing the tops of juicy, cream-colored diver scallops into a deep caramel and then placing them at the heart of a three-part sweet corn festival: a corn sauce so velvety that it’s a surprise to learn that there isn’t so much as a molecule of butter in it, a lively corn-lobster-pickled onion hash and lime-accented popcorn. It turns out that money — in this case, $29 — really can buy happiness.
Or how about chicken? The goodness starts with a lovingly raised bird, one requiring nothing beyond a hot skillet and an even hotter oven to coax its thyme-crusted skin into tantalizing crispiness while preserving the meat’s deeply juicy character.
Then there’s pork, marinated in a lively harissa. It slices like a dream, and it was born to be served with its tangy sumac-scented yogurt sauce. For those craving beef, Rakun offers a sizzling filet, a lean, mineral-tasting and expertly prepared grass-fed cut that would be the pride of any top-rated steakhouse.
One of the few menu crossovers between the two restaurants is the flatbread dough recipe. At Marin, Rakun forms the flavorful, whole-grains formula into long, narrow ovals — such a sane example in the art of portion size — baking it into an ideal thin-crispy balance.
Toppings are applied with great discipline, whether it’s skim-milk mozzarella, a rich-tasting house-made chicken sausage, a thin swipe of crushed tomatoes, a bit of tantalizingly smoky chicken or a smattering of garden-fresh herbs and vegetables. Finally, guilt-free pizza that actually tastes like something.
Salads are first-rate. The one to order beautifully combines dense, slightly smoky grilled peaches with juicy watermelon, peppery radishes and curly, gently crunchy sunflower shoots. Make it part of a meal by pairing it with the fantastic hummus, where the usual chickpea-tahini-lemon-garlic base is lightened by a fluffy cauliflower purée and served with pieces of charmoula-marinated roasted cauliflower.
For my favorite new bar snack, Rakun treats unshelled chickpeas like edamame, roasting them with a bit of olive oil and salt and then sending them out with traces of lemon juice, the vivid green pods easily broken to reveal the chewy legume within. Other side dishes also stand out: wonderfully sweet roasted carrots with a gentle cumin bite, zesty lentils laced with ginger and nutty, citrus-kissed quinoa.
Yes, several years of spa-inspired cooking at Mill Valley Kitchen have sharpened Rakun’s ability to avoid fats while enhancing flavors. But practice doesn’t always make perfect.
A pair of artfully composed seafood options — black cod and salmon — are served in disappointingly lifeless broths. At the height of farmers market season, it’s not out of bounds to expect more from a selection of roasted vegetables than the rote assortment a chain restaurant might serve in the dead of winter.
Another downer is the menu’s sole pasta dish, gummy ravioli filled with colorful but Gerber-like vegetable purées. The menu suffers from a bit of salmon overload; there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Soups were blandly forgettable.
Keeping in complaint mode, three cheers for the nutrition content printed on the menu, a helpful device Bentdahl first implemented at Mill Valley Kitchen. But does it have to appear in type so small that even a 25-year-old will feel the impulse to reach for reading glasses?
Sweets, drinks, good looks
There’s no nutritional info on the dessert menu. That’s probably a good thing, because pastry chef Matt Figueroa gleefully lures his customers over the caloric equivalent of Niagara Falls, particularly with his standout effort, a restraint-free exercise in contrasting textures, premium-quality chocolate and over-the-top embellishment. A cookie plate amusingly mimics supermarket standards: delightful Mint Milanos and Fig Newtons, a back-to-the-drawing-board Oreo. Lighter appetites will appreciate the well-crafted sorbets and fruit tarts.
Poll: Which 2013 Taste Holiday Cookie Contest entry do you most want to try?