One of the local dining scene’s most glorious visions can currently be had by ordering the aptly named “Abundance” platter at Kieran’s Kitchen Northeast.
It’s a dazzling cornucopia of handcrafted expertise, and an edible microcosm of the talent gathered under the roof of the Food Building, that northeast Minneapolis enclave that’s home to three national-caliber artisan food producers: Red Table Meat Co., Baker’s Field Flour & Bread and Alemar Cheese Co.
For $17 — a steal — a group of diners can gather round and graze upon all kinds of seemingly unassuming sumptuousness. It’s an ever-changing, dealer’s-choice assortment that showcases salami, chorizo and other cured pork products (Red Table); fresh curds and Camembert- and Brie-like creamy cheeses (Alemar); and rustic breads and hearty pretzels (Baker’s Field), all accompanied by a tantalizing array of ferments, spreads and pickled vegetables produced in the restaurant’s kitchen. What an impressive and profoundly delicious way to confidently announce This Is What Minnesota Tastes Like.
Fortunately, the restaurant’s collaborative powers extend far beyond an affinity for assembling meat-and-cheese platters. Chef Ian Gray makes full use of the riches at his disposal, taking an illuminating approach to channeling those top-shelf ingredients. While, miraculously, keeping prices relatively affordable.
Check out his “Ham-burger.” Although it doesn’t come off as economical, that’s exactly what it is. Rather than beef, the patty is composed of prized heritage breed pork scraps from Mike Phillips and his crew at Red Table. They’re smoked, braised, shredded, seasoned with a ham hock glaze and formed into a patty, and the results are impressive, especially when you factor in the sturdy Baker’s Field bun and the creamy, palate-cleansing swipe of Alemar’s fromage blanc cheese.
Another treat, the meatballs, an over-the-top mix of ground pork and Phillips’ world-class pancetta (one of a dozen or so Red Table products incorporated into the menu), tarted up with tons of oregano, thyme, chives and parsley and baked in a lively tomato sauce. In a word, wow.
OK, one more all-hands-on-deck example. It’s the reigning monarch of the menu’s small sandwich section, the “NE Italian.” It’s a play on the formulaic Italian sub from the Subway-Jimmy John’s circuit, but that’s like comparing the Vikings’ Adam Thielen to a wide receiver on a third-rate middle-school team.
Gray starts with Baker’s Field’s spot-on focaccia, piling it with every fat-laden meat — mortadella, salami — from the Red Table playbook, then adds pickled banana peppers and red onions tossed in a fragrant sofrito vinaigrette, which is designed to overshadow any thought of a bottled Italian dressing.
More to love
Gray is a masterful soupmaker. He knows exactly how to call upon aromatics and offbeat ingredients — for example, a jolt of whiskey-infused pork fat to enrich a wild rice soup — to build bases that shout “flavor” without reducing them to overheated concentrates. He then builds on their inherent appeal by incorporating last-minute components that pop with color, flavor and texture.
His salads are also a cut above. A refreshing haystack of matchstick-cut Keepsake apples, their bite sweet and juicy, is finished with red onions, blue cheese and a zippy housemade crème fraîche. It’s a play on a formula that Gray’s mother relied upon “for every get-together,” he said.
Its polar opposite is similarly appealing: roasted fingerling potatoes, still warm, are tossed with shallots and spinach and finished with a runny-yolked egg, each forkful touched by a superb vinaigrette that’s equal parts bacon fat and mellow aged sherry vinegar. I could eat it every day, at least as long as there’s snow on the ground.
If the restaurant were nothing more than a long-awaited retail outlet for Baker’s Field baked goods, then it would still belong on everyone’s dining-out radar. Owner Steve Horton’s wholesale operation supplies a number of local natural foods co-ops, but none carries the one-stop-shopping selection available at Kieran’s Kitchen.
Most of Horton’s output is represented here, and it’s one treasure after the next.
His extraordinary breads — made with heritage grains milled on the premises, naturally fermented and baked in a wood-fueled oven — occupy a class unto themselves. I challenge anyone to gaze upon the filone, with its chewy crust and honeycomb-like crumb, or the mind-bending “Hundred Rye,” a brick-shaped beauty with an intensely tangy bite, and not buy them.
Dessert here isn’t fancy, and it doesn’t need to be, when Horton is supplying orange- and almond-scented bostok, or an apple fritter for the ages, or glorious spiral cinnamon rolls fashioned from a divine brioche dough. Then there’s my personal favorite, palm-size chocolate cookies. They’re fortified with zesty rye flour, and the grain manages to unlock the chocolate’s darkly bitter, thirst-inducing virtues.
The superb bagel program is another exciting Food Building cross-pollination effort. Horton supplies the dense, chewy, slightly sour and deeply golden bagels (in plain, poppy, sesame, cinnamon-raisin and “everything” variations), Alemar provides the cream cheese, and Kieran’s Kitchen staffers take that luscious, tangy product and fold in all kinds of goodies: chives, kimchi, jalapeño.
Oh, and the doughnuts. My gosh, the doughnuts! Who knew that Horton was such a gifted doughnut maker? The cake doughnuts — rich, tender, uncomplicated — are contenders for tops-in-the-city status. Ditto the bakery’s delicate, naturally leavened raised doughnuts, especially the versions filled with boldly flavored preserves from Heidi Skoog, the savant behind St. Paul-based Serious Jam.
Another reason to cheer is that the counter also stocks Red Table Meat Co. output, plus cheeses from Alemar as well as several Minnesota farmstead operations, including Singing Hills Goat Dairy and Shepherd’s Way Farms. Bakers can pick up Baker’s Field flours, too.
A few issues
There were stumbles. Gray is fluent in pasta making — and he’s clearly finding inspiration in Horton’s freshly milled flours — but the kitchen’s performance isn’t always consistent.
On one visit, giant, toothy ravioli, filled with ham hocks and a smoky blue cheese, was a Dish of the Year candidate; on another, it was disappointingly salty, making it inedible.
The same could be said for tender dumplings, fashioned from a stone-ground hard red spring wheat flour and filled with cream cheese (think cream cheese wonton, only infinitely better) and seasoned with feisty fermented Thai chiles. I was so taken with it that when I returned I reordered, and immediately regretted it, the chile-fueled heat dialed up so precariously high that I feared a third-degree burn.
That said, when the pastas are good, they’re great, starting with the thin twists known as trofie. Gray tosses them with sweet winter squash, honey-fermented beets, Red Table’s singular bacon and shmears of that squeaky-fresh fromage blanc cheese, and the combination is a gift to winter pasta-craving appetites.
Then there’s another plus-size ravioli. It’s stuffed with tangy goat cheese and finished with well-seasoned ’njuda, that spreadable pork salume, a welcome lesson in the pleasures of simplicity.
The basic breakfast menu turns out a handful of well-rendered renditions of classic a.m. fare, including a pair of winning egg sandwiches, pretty French toast, well-garnished granola and an over-the-top breakfast poutine.
The charmingly cramped and invitingly laid-back setting is outfitted with a jumble of mismatched (and occasionally uncomfortable) furnishings. In a transition that’s set to finalize by Jan. 13, the counter-service format is morphing into table service.
“It will give us more opportunities to tell our story,” said Gray. He’s right. On my last visit, our attentive server was a fount of insider information, and we lapped up every word, a connection that would have been truncated or nonexistent had we been moving through a line at a cash register.
Be sure to set aside time for a quick self-guided indoor tour of the entire property, an Instagram-bomb of a stroll that offers fascinating glimpses into the inner workings of all three workshops.
By the way, hiring Gray? Such a smart move. If his name isn’t familiar, it should be. Or, with Kieran’s Kitchen, it will be.
He wowed diners — certainly this one — with his short-lived (2012-2014) Gray House in the city’s Lyn-Lake neighborhood, then upped the food truck ante with his Curious Goat and Smoking Cow vehicles. It’s great to have Gray back in a brick-and-mortar kitchen, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch the restaurant’s evolution as he continues to dig deeper into the riches at his disposal.
Kieran, of course, is Kieran Folliard, the tireless and tirelessly charming entrepreneur behind the Food Building. How fortunate we are to have this Irish native here in the Twin Cities, nudging the local food scene ever-forward.