Craft's Fare

A terrific bar lurks within East Lake Street's newest fine-dining restaurant

The Craftsman Restaurant
4300 E. Lake St.
Minneapolis
612.722.0175
www.craftsmanrestaurant.com

 

In a new fine-dining restaurant, it's incredibly easy to make a million dollars--if you start with five million. It's not just that the startup costs are astonishing. You think it's expensive to buy a new dining room set and a case of wine? Try multiplying that by 40. There's the rent, the licensing, the liquor, the pots, the china, the ovens, to say nothing of the everyday food costs, which in fine dining are nothing short of astronomical. You say you want to pay a Maine diver to jump off a boat, pry up some scallops, and Fed-Ex them to you? Prepare to dig deep, my friend.

Triumph of the lowbrow: The Craftsman's Korean BBQ burger and addictive fries are reliable winners on an iffy menu
Bill Kelley
Triumph of the lowbrow: The Craftsman's Korean BBQ burger and addictive fries are reliable winners on an iffy menu

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The Craftsman Restaurant

4300 E. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Seward/ Longfellow/ Minnehaha

Worse yet, when an aspiring fine-dining restaurateur finally spends more than he ever dreams possible, the customers drawn to fine dining aren't particularly frivolous or forgiving. Charge someone 10 bucks for dinner, and you can serve it off the back of a truck in a parking lot. Charge that same person 50 bucks, and you best compare favorably with that new TV that could fit in that one corner of the kitchen. And let's not even talk about the scrutiny: Every chef, every neighbor, every TV station, every architect, every interior designer, and every single amateur or professional critic within 40 miles will feel free to weigh in on your every choice, without any knowledge of the reasons you had to make them. Opening a fine-dining restaurant is wildly, desperately, insanely difficult. As a critic, I do know this.

Which is exactly what makes it so difficult to contemplate the Craftsman, the newest fine-dining restaurant in Minneapolis. For it is a place that is really just a few dozen minor adjustments away from pulling off that insanely difficult feat. Let me explain.

When I first started visiting Craftsman, I would enter the one large, very noisy, sage-and-mustard-colored main dining room, and I would contemplate the fine-dining menu. I would delight in the thoughtful grace notes of high living that the restaurant presents: the wonderful Rustica Bakery bread; the complementary vial of high-quality, high-priced Sciabica olive oil in all its eucalyptus and herb bouquet glory. I would order from the utterly ambitious fine-dining menu, and I would receive a parade of dishes that occasionally hit the mark, but were, more usually, a combination of various objects that showed some fine cooking skill, yet ultimately kind of fizzled out.

Let's dwell first on the triumphs. The kitchen's most reliable dish is its ahi tuna poke. (That last word is pronounced pokey, for some reason.) In it, cubes of red ahi tuna about the size of gumdrops are dressed in a sweet and spicy tamarind vinaigrette, shaped into a low cylinder, and crowned with a fluffy wig of baby herbs. It is served with a paper-thin cracker, and costs $10.75. Slip a forkful of the slick tuna into your mouth alongside a few tangles of herb, and you encounter a sparkling achievement in texture and taste: the glassy tuna and grassy herbs, the spice of chile and the sweet jungle of tamarind. Sometimes the cracker might be striped wittily with black and white tracks of salt and pepper, and it might taste fried and lilting and light, like one of those Chinese soup noodles, suddenly ennobled. And sometimes it just might be kind of over-browned and nothing. In any event, the dish is whole, accomplished, and well balanced.

It's the only appetizer that is. The Craftsman Caesar salad ($8.25) is a large volume of very thick garlic dressing coating two small, unseparated heads of lettuce beside a little block-stack of extremely hard homemade croutons. The Summit Oatmeal Stout-steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($9.95) is a generous portion served in a wide white bowl; sometimes that bowl is filled to brimming with a super-salty brown broth topped with acrid-tasting burnt onions, and sometimes you only get a cup of the liquid so that the mussels aren't too salty, but they are cold. Sometimes these mussels come with slices of grilled bread that are beautiful, olive-oil-swabbed, and as roasty and pure as an autumn bonfire. And sometimes they arrive with slices of grilled bread so hard and inedible that your friends think it's a funny joke to pass a slice to you saying, "Here, try this, it's great." The pleasant natural saltiness of good-quality cold smoked salmon ($9.25) is lost when paired with a very salty salad of baby arugula in a soy-and-wasabi vinaigrette.

The entrées have a similar swing-and-a-miss tendency: Grilled citrus-marinated Wild Acres Farm chicken with grilled leeks and blue smashed potatoes ($18.75) was served so dry and overcooked that it was charmless, but the grilled leeks were sweet and elegant, and the smashed blue potatoes were nice, earthy, and rich. A thick piece of hamachi ($18.95) was served in a bowl surrounded by an off-puttingly sweet broth; the irony soba noodles and baby bok choy that accompanied the fish only seemed to accent how weird the broth was.

A pricey nightly special of rose-salt-crusted marlin was disappointing: For $28.95, a big gray fist of fish was covered with a crust made of salt, rose petals, pink peppercorns, green peppercorns, and fennel, a crust which made it smell lovely, not just floral, but fresh and lively as a meadow. Unfortunately, the salt crust also made this fish nearly inedible. I found that any bite of marlin with any bit of the salt crust was so supremely salty that it turned my tongue to ribbons of fire, and any taste of the fish without the crust tasted unseasoned. The grilled ramps beside the fish were lovely curls of roasted springtime, but couldn't rescue the dish, which also came with dry and overcooked Yukon gold potatoes and mushrooms.

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