4300 E. Lake St.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This imaginary meal, I'll point out, unites the absolute most highbrow stuff on offer at the Craftsman, namely, one of their most expensive wines, and the most lowbrow, namely, a burger that costs less than certain appetizers. Is this silly? Yes. But also, in my experience, sensible.
And so I offer this recommendation to you, dear readers: There is a wonderful bar hiding in the front of the Craftsman, a bar with fabulous burgers, great beers, and fine wines, and if you go there, it will be worth your while. Meanwhile, I offer this advice to you, dear Craftsman: When I say to you that you need to integrate the high and low parts of your establishment, and fast, I say it not because I want to be a jerk, but because I think it would be better for all of us if you hear it from me now, and not from your accountant two difficult years down the road. Chef Marron has a bold vision and a certain confident fearlessness that is impossible to teach, and I can well imagine him leading the Craftsman to great heights.
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