It’s probably a little weird to be so gung-ho about a salad.
Particularly a relatively humble one. But here’s the thing: I can’t stop thinking about what amounts to the default dinner salad at the Bungalow Club in south Minneapolis.
Occupying a happy medium between a Caesar and a wedge, it’s a sterling example of how chef Andrew Kraft and sous chef Nathel Anderson detour off the usual straightforward path on their journey to menu magic.
The allure starts with gem lettuce. For those bored senseless by the zombielike field greens that are the salad default at so many restaurants, these crunchy, slightly sweet leaves — a cross between sturdy romaine and tender butter lettuce — will be a revelation. Even its deep green hue (if it were a paint chip, Benjamin Moore would surely dub it “Summer Meadow”) is a treat. And its network of wrinkles, nooks and crannies prove to be hospitable vessels for a tangy buttermilk dressing, each bite enriched with the mellow, smoky hint of charred green onions.
Tons of finely chopped hard-cooked egg suggest “Caesar” without bowing to that formula’s dietary overkill. On the subject of piling it on, carb seekers will appreciate the topper: a virtual bread basket of crushed croutons, fashioned from tasty, olive oil-rich focaccia.
That’s it. Simple but not simplistic, and appealing and wholly satisfying. Not coincidentally, that often describes Kraft’s and Anderson’s cooking. Especially in their menu’s centerpiece, five scrupulously prepared pasta dishes, each tastier than the last.
“Pasta has always been a part of the restaurants that I’ve been a part of; it’s my love,” Kraft said. “I’ve come to the place where what I want to do is a simple pasta restaurant. I just don’t want to call it ‘Italian.’ ”
Nomenclature is irrelevant when the pasta is this good. All hail the tortellini, where a sturdy, egg-enriched dough is folded and pinched around a zesty housemade chorizo. They rest in a broth that brushes the essence of sweet corn in broad strokes, and each serving is finished with roasted corn, the kernels’ inherent sweetness countered by the punch of chile oil and pickled shishito peppers.
Another wowzer is the spaghetti. It couldn’t be more restrained, or more enticing: skillfully rendered noodles, tossed with a just right balance of pecorino, pasta water and liberal doses of black pepper.
“It’s my favorite Italian dish,” Kraft said. I could say, “Same here.”
Don’t miss the rigatoni, paired with that classic summer trinity of tomatoes (their flavor intensified through the confit process), basil and pecorino. Also lovely are the half moon-shaped mezzalune, the dough tinted (yet barely flavored) with hibiscus, the centers filled with a sumptuous whipped ricotta and the plate decorated with whatever vibrant garden goodies — pea tendrils, for example — are coming through the kitchen door. Lovely.
Another reason to admire: All the pastas are all available in half ($9 to $12) and whole ($15 to $18) sizes.
The tightly edited menu offers several other gotta-try dishes. Kraft has a thing for octopus and burrata, and marries them in a this-tastes-like-August salad that also heralds fennel and pickled peaches. Those with a hankering for superb meatballs will be all over Kraft’s better-than-your-grandmother’s version.
As if to underline his strategy to reach out to casual diners, Kraft pulls together a dream of a cheeseburger. Instead of lettuce, it’s garnished with a freezer slaw of carrots, cabbage and celery seed, an affectionate homage to his grandmother. Instead of fries, there are potatoes that are boiled in aromatics, cooled, smashed and fried. They’re ridiculously delicious.
Like so many of his dishes, Kraft’s best entree has a great back story. While sorting through equipment left over from the previous tenant, the Craftsman, he came upon a small electric-powered smoker. He uses its low-and-slow abilities to transform Amish-raised chicken, finishing the birds on the grill to achieve a tantalizing juicy meat-crispy skin combination.
Desserts are uneven. When they’re good — Anderson bakes a peach pie that’s as luscious as a 1940s pinup — they’re great. But when they’re not — dry, uninspired cookies — they’re disappointing.
Sure, a toss of beans and other farmers market-fresh vegetables would have shined had the giardiniera vinaigrette been more of a shout than a whimper. And two entrees would have benefited from a bit of TLC: salmon, suffering from overcooked, slightly off-tasting fish; and a chewy sirloin paired with an ill-advised blackened eggplant sauce.
Kraft grew in Pequot Lakes, Minn., and spent a decade cooking in high-end kitchens in New York City. He returned to Minnesota four years ago, and after a stint at the Grand Cafe in south Minneapolis, he decided to head out on his own. Serendipity struck as he was driving down Lake Street and spied a “For lease” sign. A few months later, the Bungalow Club opened.
Lucky him, and lucky us.
The Bungalow Club
★★★ out of 4 stars
Info: 4300 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-866-3334, thebungalowclubmpls.com.
Hours: 4-11 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 4-9 p.m. Sun. Reservations accepted.
Service: Well-versed and personable.
Price ranges: Salads and starters $9-$12, pastas $9-$18, entrees $11-$25, sides $5-$7, desserts $5-$8.
Recommended dishes: Gem lettuce salad, octopus and fennel salad, meatballs, tortellini, spaghetti, mezzalune, smoked chicken, burger, peach pie.
Beverage program: A discerning, crowd-pleasing wine list that’s dotted with affordable surprises, including a number of first-rate by-the-glass options. The bar specializes in vivacious twists on classic cocktails ($8-$10), and 17 tap/bottle beers and ciders ($5.50-$8) emphasize local connections.
Special menus: A kids’ menu offers four comfort-minded options, each at $8.