On the menu of nearly every upscale New American restaurant, you will find crudo, a $25 half-chicken, pasta and a bistro steak. On occasion, a dry-aged strip dares to make an appearance. Bread is rarely free.
There's no shame in it — surely not when executed well. Innovation is not always at stake.
All Saints, which opened last fall in the space that was most recently Bardo, serves all these dishes. Some of them are good; some are almost there.
Cases in point: The crudo is hamachi, or yellowtail, and it sits on a pool of basil oil, beneath Fresno chiles cut like miniature rubber bands. Taken together, each bite is bright and colorful. And the chicken, brined overnight, cooked on the plancha and then finished on the grill, is delightfully moist.
Dishes like these embrace the model majority — one that All Saints emulates, to some extent. But many New American restaurants tend to lack character. All Saints, happily, has character.
Yes, it was once a funeral home (hence, to a certain extent, the name), but the past, like my skater phase, is history. What All Saints has created has the kind of charm that draws casually dressed walk-ins as equally as dinner dates.
For one, the patio preserves the old-school feel that made its predecessor, the landmark wine bar Bobino, so appealing — only it's now grander and more conducive to dining. During a recent visit, on a warm Thursday evening, that patio was brimming and loud. Inside, the vibe is more buttoned-up and modern: halo lamps, white walls, clean tiles and a long bar constructed with a thick, expensive-looking slab of marble. That's where you'll sample the eight terrific cocktails crafted by Scott Weller, who last lent his gifts at Parlour.
"It feels very West Village," my dining companion opines. "As in New York."
In a neo-bistro sort of way, maybe. More so, she's referring to the way the restaurant is filled with youthful patrons well into the evening. Although with poor acoustics, first dates might be challenging.
Nonetheless, co-owner Kim Tong is a stone-cold hospitality pro, and good (warm) service is second nature. She and chef/partner Dennis Leaf-Smith make All Saints their own, emerging from the tall shadows of the Walker Art Center's Esker Grove, where they met, as well as other industry heavyweights, like Piccolo and 112 Eatery, where they've each made their mark.
Aside from a few things creatively inspired by the 112's Isaac Becker and his protégé Daniel del Prado, such as a charred cucumber reminiscent of a similar dish at Martina, there's almost nothing that recalls those restaurants.
In fact, acid, a signature flavor of Becker's, is toned down at All Saints, in some cases to its detriment. That cucumber certainly needs it, as it is otherwise bland. Endive salad — with watercress and long nubs of basil frittata — carries more flavor, but I long for more bitterness and brightness. Swordfish, cut into pristine marble slabs cooked just until a trace of pink remains, and served on a bed of eggplant caponata, is a revelation of a dish. But it, too, needs acid.
Sometimes, sauce is the culprit. A few dishes need more of it — the chicken could use more jus to dial up the flavor — while an otherwise juicy and well-brined pork chop, accompanied by only some onions and mustard greens, could benefit from a full-bodied one.
And when the kitchen adds something extra, like an accessory, it doesn't always feel right. Should the cipollini onions in that pork dish be this sweet? Is kumquat the right ingredient to add sweetness to an otherwise well-cooked striped bass? And is feta the correct way to get more seasoning into the chicken?
I'm not sure.
Don't despair; there are strengths. When the kitchen leans more wholesomely into things like heat, great dishes, such as cauliflower, forthright with barbecue spice along with assertive salsa macha, appear. While the salsa takes away from the nuttiness of cauliflower — maybe it's better suited for the chicken — the plate is a joy to eat. Even better is grilled shrimp with a knockout sauce made from sweetened condensed milk, lime juice, lime leaf, Thai basil and an emphatic amount of chiles.
Maybe it's the smaller plates where Leaf-Smith excels. The menu certainly devotes plenty of real estate to them — and for good reason: Grilled asparagus and a jammy egg split in half are arranged atop creamy, paste-like "ranchovy," which has just enough funk to announce itself but won't linger; tiny granules of potato "crunch," golden and light, is a clever textural counterpoint; flanken short-ribs, done with textbook marinade and buried under a swarm of scallion, is faultless; and so is fried chicken, elevated by harissa honey. My favorite, though, is the fried salt-and-pepper mushrooms, a cobble of shiitake, maitake and oyster, carefully fried until crackling but not greasy. Eat one by itself and try another dipped into the buoyant ginger-scallion relish. Both will deliver elemental pleasure.
That isn't to say that the four main dishes aren't worthy. The fish and chicken are fine, but the other two have more to offer.
Mushroom Bolognese, as earthy and deep as a meat ragu, is the right pairing for housemade pappardelle that is as wide as bandages and more soft than chewy. And New York strip, while fatless, is still flavorful and comes with a bracing chermoula and fingerling potatoes, still crisp in the sauce.
Desserts, though, are to be ordered only if you must. A wobbly-enough panna cotta has a nice — if slightly medicinal — citrusy flavor, but much of it comes from the syrup, not the custard itself. And a dry chocolate cake feels no more sainted than one found off the rack at a grocery store.
Leaf-Smith and Tong call the menu "vegetable forward," and there are plenty of thoughtful dishes that confirm it, but a theme otherwise is noticeably missing. Dishes crisscross Korea, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Italy, then back to the States.
But that's the thing about good New American restaurants — they refuse to ascribe to any character but their own.
Location: 222 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-259-7507, allsaintsmpls.com
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu, 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Prices: Small plates and sides, $5-$13; mains, $19-$29, desserts $8.
Beverage program: Bar connoisseur Scott Weller offers new spins on classics, with craft cocktails like a Bloodstone Negroni and a Halleluhwah Highball ($11-$13). There's also more than a dozen wines by the glass ($8-$15), a half-dozen local brews on tap ($5-$7) and craft zero-proof offerings ($6).
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.