Restaurant Cru, the Kitchen serve the suburbs fresh gourmet

Both restaurants offer distinct takes on sophistication

At the Grand Garage building in downtown Stillwater, someone had hastily taped a homemade sign to the glass doors, right under the words "public restroom." The inkjet-printed placard looked slicker than what might advertise a child's lemonade stand, but less polished than something created by a professional. "Crab cakes at The Kitchen," it read. "Have you tried them? DO IT!!!" With that, we yanked open the door and proceeded inside.

The Kitchen is the sophomore venture of Erick Harcey and Ben Hiza, who formerly worked as the executive chef and general manager of the Nicollet Island Inn and have recently started launching their own restaurants. Harcey and Hiza snapped up the Grand Garage space abandoned by Stone's just as they did the building vacated by Sauced in north Minneapolis, which they reopened as Victory 44 earlier this year.

The Kitchen doesn't feel so different from Stone's, with its pleasant but unremarkable interior and massive, worth-the-drive patio. Harcey and Hiza gave the space a bit of cheeky attitude with the addition of several retro-style paintings of curvaceous babes. The letter "i" in the Kitchen's logo doubles as a silhouette of a pinup girl—all legs, high heels, and micro-mini apron—with a chef's hat covering her curls and a meat cleaver tucked behind her back.

The Kitchen's crab cake: Best one on the planet?
Jana Freiband
The Kitchen's crab cake: Best one on the planet?

Location Info

Map

The Kitchen

324 S. Main St.
Stillwater, MN 55082

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

Details

THE KITCHEN
324 Main St. S., Stillwater
651.342.1556; Web site
appetizers $9-$12; entrées $9-$24

RESTAURANT CRU
10340 Baltimore St. NE, Blaine
763.717.2235; Web site
appetizers $6-$15; entrées $9-$25

We asked our server about the crab cakes, of course, and he explained that the proprietor of one of the other Grand Garage shops had liked them so much that she devised her own promotion. "It's the best crab cake on the planet," our server advised. "The way they should be—99 percent crab." Ours arrived at the table just as promised, a bulging puck of pure seaside succulence. The cake was carefully complemented by pureed avocado, cilantro leaves, and a grapefruit segment, delicately stripped of its bitter membrane. To the two prior endorsements, I add my own: You really should order the crab cake.

Our server explained the menu as if delivering a religious oratory, with palpable sweat on his brow. He offered so much detail that it seemed he might have cooked the dishes himself. Turns out he wasn't the chef, Jim Kyndberg, whom Harcey and Hiza recruited after his elegant Bayport Cookery shuttered, though he was one of Kyndberg's former Bayport staffers, which explained his dedication to the fare.

With several of its owners and employees well versed in fine dining, the Kitchen exemplifies the idea that casual never needs to mean sloppy. The menu—mostly brasserie-style American comfort foods with a gourmet touch—includes several of my favorites from Victory: a mixed-greens salad with sliced apple and cheddar cheese, the remarkably crisp fish 'n' chips, and a "Piggy Platter," which resembled Victory's signature entrée. A few Stone's favorites have been reprised, too, including the pepper-edged, pastrami-style smoked salmon.

Many of the dishes bear Kyndberg's thoughtful, precise imprint, whether they feature foie gras or country fried chicken. His chicken, by the way, was a gentrified version of its soul-food kin: a crunchy, rough-hewn crust protecting the tender meat within. The chicken is slathered in mushroom-tarragon gravy for extra richness, and served with mashed parsnips and roasted asparagus instead of the typical potatoes and collard greens.

Grits, barbecue sauce, and a divine succotash added Southern flair to scallops—the plate was licked clean faster than you could whistle "Dixie." But Kyndberg's signature entrée is the Duck Duck Goose: sliced duck breast, duck hash made from confit duck legs, and a poached goose egg on top. Drizzled with a rich foie gras sauce and runny yolk, it's deliciously rich, but perhaps could have used one more balancing element.

I thought Kyndberg's work was better exemplified by his chowder, which is less like the traditional East Coast version than the deconstructed French onion and wild rice soups Steven Brown whipped up at Porter & Frye. The bowl arrived containing bits of ham hock, puffed wild rice, and shrimp, which our server drowned with a pitcher of liquid. The result was a delicate interplay of sweet-salty flavors and crunchy-creamy textures: ham, milky broth, crisp rice, and juicy corn kernels.

Harcey is a former pastry chef, and knowing his skill (I'm still dreaming of the Banoffee pie at Victory 44), I wasn't going to pass up dessert. We hit the jackpot with a gourmet s'more made with chocolate ganache, homemade graham cracker, and roasted marshmallow semifreddo. The semi-frozen cream tasted just like a fire-kissed campfire treat, and when we raved about it to our server, he brought out its main ingredient—a large platter of toasted marshmallow whose swirls resembled a meringue pie top—which gets folded right into the cream.

As we ate the elegant s'more, we noted the contrast between our meal and the room's sports-bar ambiance. (Did that server's T-shirt really say, "We've got great cleavage?") One of my friends looked at the televisions hanging above the bar and remarked, "It doesn't seem like this should be on our table," as she pointed to our graceful spread. Sports bar or not, I couldn't remember the last time a server at a place with such a casual ambiance replaced my silverware between every course. And I hope the Kitchen won't be the last one.

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