Craft's Fare

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

As I pushed away dish after dish at the Craftsman, I glumly considered what a jerk I was going to feel like saying negative things about the first really nice upscale birthday-destination restaurant in the recent history of East Lake Street. I thought about the bazillions of dollars, hours, and dreams that owners Mike Dooley and Susan Kennedy-Dooley had invested in the spic-and-span restaurant and the pretty outdoor patio. I imagined the unpleasantness my notes would wreak upon the life of young chef Dennis Marron, until recently the sous-chef at W.A. Frost. I considered all the sweet, young, well-meaning servers who would likely suffer. And I thought about how the difference between a great kitchen and a good one isn't in the quality of ideas, but in the consistency of execution. I also devoted a few seconds to thinking about how much more fun it is to be fun than to be critical.

As I toyed with my dessert, which on the occasion in question was a sort of rhubarb-strawberry cobbler topped with a scoop of ice cream and a chiffonade of fresh basil ($6.25), I wondered why such a pleasant, sturdy little cobbler was called an upside-down shortcake. I generally found that the desserts followed the same wildly unpredictable pattern as the rest of the fine-dining menu at the Craftsman: When I tried the "double-decker monster ice cream sandwich" it was made with oversweet M&M cookies that tasted like they could have come out of a convenience store, pressed together with a bit of nice chocolate ice cream ($6.25), and served with a tiny iced vanilla latte, which swam with odd white flakes.

Another night, another dessert had been nothing short of elegant: To one side was a stack of understated lemon ginger snaps, to another side a snappy scoop of sharp citrus sorbet, and in the middle of these two was a pale little flat-topped dome of coconut-and-passion fruit panna cotta wearing a curly crown of sweet and tart orange zest. Scoop a forkful of the two together, and you experienced the delightful sensation of mellow and sharp, creamy and bright, frivolous and accomplished.

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

I think it might have been at this point that I noticed something fairly obvious: While I sat at one of only two occupied tables in the fine-dining room, the bar was jumping.

I had an idea. I assembled a reconnaissance party. We went to the Craftsman bar. We ordered burgers, from the bar menu, and cocktails. We had the best experience of all my visits to the Craftsman, by a country mile. The burgers and fries were the highlights.

The Korean BBQ burger ($10.50) was fantastic. To make it, a big, buttery, fluffy patty of sweet meat is topped with thick, salty planks of well crisped bacon, a bit of white cheddar, sprigs of cilantro, grilled green onions, basil leaves, crunchy daikon, and, for wit and comedy, a little wad of translucent noodles. Then, the whole mess is sandwiched in a sweet, sturdy bun. The overall effect is like experiencing a perfectly executed boxing combination that leads to a knockout: sweet, spicy, meaty, salty, herbal, pow pow pow--and we're down for the count!

Dang. The burger comes with a mug of wonderfully crisp, caramel-sweet, salty, slightly spicy, and entirely addictive sage-dusted French fries; the fries were so good that my friends kept passing the mug around even after they were groaning with fullness. Set that devastating combo beside a pint of crisp Rush River Amber Ale ($4.50) and you've got a burger to enter into the pantheon alongside the ones at the St. Paul Grill, Matt's Bar, and Vincent, which is the highest praise I know. The blue cheese burger ($9.25) topped with good-quality, ashy Black River Blue, arugula, tomato, and grilled green onions is also excellent.

When you sit at the bar, you're more inclined to try the house special martinis, some of which are wonderful. The tomato water martini ($7.50), for instance, doesn't taste anything like tomatoes, really, but somehow the gin strained through them and steeped with white pepper and coriander comes out reminding one of ocean water made into a spear tip. The Minnesota pickle martini ($7.50), made with Minnesota Shakers' vodka and pickle juice and garnished with two little pickles feels somehow Depression-era and also deliciously modern, like eggs fried in a black iron skillet, or some other sort of thing that's so simple and simply brilliant it must be very old.

In fact, everything having to do with Craftsman's beverage program is charming: The wine list is an unadulterated joy, offering so many of my favorite wines that I almost wondered if it could read my mind. Funky, yeasty, profound Schramsberg bubbly is available both by the glass (their Mirabelle, for $9.50) and by the bottle (the flirty and lilting Brut Rosé Napa Valley for $53). Their by-the-glass Pinot Gris, King Estate, for $8.25, is so wonderfully energetic and floral you wish you could plant it in the garden. The Terre Rouge "Tête-à-Tête" is one of the roundest, fullest, most spicily, strawberrily pleasant wines I've ever seen on a glass list for $7.50. I've only had Smith Wooton Cabernet Franc a very few times in my life, but I remember the stuff tasting like floating through the night sky in a black velvet balloon, so the next time I have $54 in my pocket, I know exactly what I'll do with it: Splash out for a bottle, and pair it with a couple of the Craftsman's burgers.

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