Drink in the delectables

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2009 - 9:30 AM

The Bradstreet Craftshouse is serious about mixology and selective about dining.

Spend more than 20 minutes at Bradstreet Craftshouse Restaurant, and I can almost guarantee that you will hear the words "flavor profile." But here's the thing: At this slick new taste-of-New-York addition to the Graves 601 Hotel, the staff isn't referring to the food. They're talking cocktails. Boy, are they ever.

Drinking here is treated as a serious pastime, but there's a refreshing absence of the brand of self-conscious pretense that often shadows the mixologist-as-tortured-genius experience. Inside the tome of a menu -- Guttenberg published slimmer volumes -- the tone is strictly business. The only whimsy seems reserved for some of the names of the 50 or so cocktails ("Elk Horn Toddy," "Cooper's Union," "Dark & Stormy"), each chased by an ingredients rundown. That's it. No sappy prose, no swaggering boasts, no insipid marketing ploys.

The care and feeding that goes into these concoctions resembles that of a top kitchen. There's a cavernous selection of house-made bitters and syrups, an herb-fruit-berry selection that rivals the Wedge's produce department, an earnest commitment to heritage liquors, an array of slow-melt ice that's crafted with a sculptural sensibility, even a vast, envy-enducing selection of pretty stemware; all work in concert to make Bradstreet a super-premium drinking experience.

Time for a talk

The staff's enthusiasm ratchets up the restaurant's appeal. When I asked my server just what exactly constituted a "Romeo and Juliet," he smiled. "Like everything else in this restaurant, that requires a lot of dialogue," he said with a smile. I'm listening, I replied. "It has an amazing flavor profile," he said (see, I wasn't exaggerating) and then he was off, describing nuanced flashes of mint and lime and cucumber before launching into the drink's considerable (and, I have to admit, captivating) back story: This is a beverage so irresistible it turned its creator's long-term girlfriend into his fiancée, hence the star-crossed-lovers' name. Sold.

Here's more good news: Value. Each splash of labor-intensive gorgeousness in a glass is priced at $10 a pop. When I think of all the watered-down, overhyped drinks I've knocked back in this town at equal or higher prices, it only makes me appreciate Bradstreet more. But all that muddling, juicing, frothing, brûlée-ing and other assorted feats of libations-making dexterity can have a downside: A considerable wait.

"What does a guy have to do to get a drink around here?" groused my thirsty friend. He had a point, as nearly 15 minutes had lapsed since we'd placed our orders. That wasn't always my experience. On a subsequent visit, one where I suspect a secret gong went off the moment the Restaurant Critic walked in, the barkeeps, cucumber cool despite a full-house slam, sent out an amuse bouche in the form of a vivacious citrus punch. That generous gesture kept our collective thirst occupied until our cocktails materialized, calmed our impatient ways and elevated our esteem toward the restaurant by roughly 1,000 percent. It made me wonder why everyone doesn't get the same treatment.

Bite-by-bite pleasure

The food, by contrast, flies out of the kitchen. Since opening in January, chef Jesse Spitzack has wisely pruned his small-plates-only roster, chucking several notable losers and adding a few new instant stars. While the food isn't always as innovative as its liquid counterparts, it's produced with the same painstaking attention to detail. This can be grade-A grazing.

At the top of his menu, Spitzack balances the cocktails' complexity with simplicity: thin, tasty shears of cured hams and air-dried salted beef, sultry smoked almonds, steamed edamame glistening with herb-scented salt, a primo pride-of-the-Midwest cheese sampler.

The guy can fry. Snappy shrimp, delicately battered, had me longing for the State Fair, although no carny comes close to Spitzack's deft touch. Its sharp-sweet pear-pickled ginger slaw is an inspired finishing touch. Golden, salt-twinkled fries rank among the best in town, paired by a house-made ketchup that -- gasp -- actually tastes like tomatoes. They share a plate with two possible clichés in the form of a lamb slider, but this spicy, juicy version is pretty darned swell. Oh, and the crisp polenta fries? Love them.

Spitzack's more elaborate ideas often pay off. An eat-every-morsel spin on the BLT layers soft, sizzling pork belly over braised Swiss chard, a thick swipe of tomato jam and a fried egg. Foie gras is done up Tootsie Pops-style (except that the magic center is liver), and results are fabulous. Wontons standing in for taco shells are filled with smoky bits of walleye and drizzled with a pretty avocado crème fraîche. Even a quesadilla -- so Chili's, right? -- is worthwhile, filled with succulent duck confit and pungent raclet and paired with a zingy kimchee. The richly flavored chicken satays put a glossy new spin on a familiar standby.

Pastry chef Khanh Tran offers just three ingenious desserts, headlined by a super-cool float that's a sort of raspberry Jell-O shot topped with bright lemon gelato and a squirt of fizzy house-made lime soda. None is nearly as extravagant as her creations upstairs at Cosmos, but they certainly bear a family resemblance. Did I mention that they're just five bucks?

For the street-level bar that his hotel needed, co-owner Ben Graves shrewdly time-traveled back into Minneapolis history for a dollop of local color. John Scott Bradstreet was an influential Minneapolis tastemaker in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and traces of his refined arts-and-crafts sensibilities have been cleverly grafted on to what had been the hotel's Infinity nightclub. Instead of looking like so much glue-gunned glitter, the decorative touches fit right in.

It helps that the hotel's signature Monte Carlo-vein cut marble, spread everywhere like so much butter on toast, is still there to serve as a luxurious backdrop for intricate wood cutouts that could have been produced at Bradstreet's famous Craftshouse studio. The effect is sleek, sensuous and slightly exotic. The irony is that all this compelling design takes place inside Block E, a prime contender for the city's most egregious crime against architecture.

It's fun to take a ringside seat at the bar and watch the bartenders go through their paces. Ditto a perch at the roomier kitchen counter, with the cooking staff showing and telling a few feet away. The one iffy proposition is the rear lounge, with its precariously low furniture and incongruous "Star Trek: The Next Generation" decor.

So here's my advice: Demand a seat out front. Introduce your taste buds to the pleasures of an Aurora Fizz and some of Spitzack's greatest hits. Then say a silent word of "thanks" to the hospitality-obsessed Graves family for giving downtown Minneapolis just exactly what we didn't know it needed.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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    Bradstreet Craftshouse is serious about mixology, selective about dining

  • Chef Jesse Spitzack

  • BRADSTREET CRAFTSHOUSE RESTAURANT

    ★★★1/2

    Location: 601 1st Av. N. (Graves 601 Hotel), Minneapolis, 612-677-1100, www.graves601.com

    Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

    Atmosphere: Sleek Graves chic. Oh, and who needs Botox when the lighting is this flattering?

    Service: Charming, well-versed in the menu's endless intricacies and so good-looking you'll wonder if you've seen them in Target circulars. But what's with the mandatory 20 percent gratuity?

    Sound level: Conversation would be easier if the stereo's volume was a bit lower.

    Recommended dishes: Battered shrimp, BLT, foie gras bon bons, walleye tacos, cheese plate, lamb sliders, desserts.

    Wine list: The menu's 50-plus cocktails are the libations of choice, but the bar also stocks 22 decent, affordably priced wines, all available by the glass (averaging $6.25) or the bottle (averaging $29).

    Price range: Cocktails $10, snacks $3 to $4, small plates $6 to $10, desserts $5.

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