It's palates in wonderland at the Rabbit Hole

It's palates in wonderland at the Rabbit Hole

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," says the Queen of Hearts to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, admonishing her for taking a stance against magical thinking. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Possibility, whimsy, invention, and a sprinkling of a flavorful fairy dust known as furikake is what eating at Thomas Kim and Kat Melgaard's newest venture, the Rabbit Hole, is all about. Ever dreamed you'd be able to summon a server to your table at the touch of a button? You can here. They have a system where customers simply press a doorbell-like contraption, sending a silent alert to their waiter. It's like being on a plane and having your own personal flight attendant, but with much better food.

Never thought a Korean-inspired menu would include some of the best burgers you've had in recent memory? The Rabbit Hole's Goobers, an apparent portmanteau meaning "good burgers," are phenomenally juicy, stacked with coarsely ground, loosely packed beef patties perched on gold and glossy buns from neighbor the Salty Tart. They skip the standard toppings in favor of stuff like pork belly, pickled watermelon rind, hashbrowns, and kimchi aioli.

Would you believe that you can get a chef's-table experience with all the flame-licking, wok-tossing, sausage-grilling, sauce-smearing action that happens in this busy central kitchen, without paying anything extra? It's true. If you're one of the lucky couples who get seated in the front row for dinner or you manage to snag these seats during the daily happy hour, you'll be treated to a show along with your meal.

Okay, so we've stopped short of six impossible things, and those we've mentioned aren't technically impossible, but perhaps the best surprise of all is that this wonderland exists in the heart of Powderhorn, an area populated by restaurants but none quite so chic and boisterous as this. Kim and Melgaard have transformed the long-dormant standalone space right outside the entrance to the Midtown Global Market, where the pair landed just two years ago and set up their much-raved-about stall, the Left-Handed Cook.

Walking into the restaurant is indeed like falling down Alice's rabbit hole and ending up in a very hip part of L.A.'s Koreatown. Host stands are positioned under a suspended arc made of vintage books. A labyrinth of dark wood booths lines the main dining area, creating all kinds of hidden corners. Clusters of paper lanterns emit soft light, flashes of grass show up where you least expect them, and sawed-off pieces of furniture are fixed to the walls, so that you don't know which way is up.

All these details help create a very real Wonderland, only at this mad tea party they're serving soju, a distilled rice-based liqueur that's basically Korea's answer to Japanese sake. Though it's wildly popular in Asia, only a few restaurants serve it here in the Twin Cities, which is a shame because it goes so well with food, especially spicy food. The Rabbit Hole offers two different kinds of soju by the shot, or you can get a carafe of it with optional add-in flavors like watermelon, yogurt, or pineapple. (If you want to partake in soju properly, be sure that you never pour your own shot and don't refill anyone else's glass until it's totally empty. That's just a little soju etiquette for you, folks.)

Though most soju is low enough in alcohol content that restaurants with just a beer and wine license can serve it, vendors inside MGM are not allowed to serve booze of any kind. The allure of operating with a full liquor license is part of what made Kim and Melgaard decide to take on the standalone space, and to exercise their newly acquired rights, they've created an extensive menu of tap-poured cocktails and some fun house-bottled adult beverages like the intensely but delightfully bitter and bubbly negroni soda. There's also a handful of more involved mixed and muddled drinks like the smooth and sour Citron and On and On made with a blend of Benedictine, soju, and yuja — a Korean citron tea, or the tawny Dae Chu Julep that starts with bourbon and mint and ends with port and date syrup. All the drinks seem to have that sweet-and-sour thing down pat, likely designed to work with the salty and sometimes unexpected flavors of this Korean cuisine.

Like the Left-Handed Cook before it, the Rabbit Hole shows an appreciation for the small-plates style of eating that's in high demand these days. The street-food-influenced menu features a few shareable skewers ranging from a vegetarian option of glazed and grilled sweet potato to the far more adventurous one with beef tongue and pickled onion. All were well cooked and tasty, but spare — not so much in portion as in variety of stuff on the skewer. Another fruit, veg, herb, or sauce component would add more interest, especially to something as basic as chicken teriyaki on a stick.

We found more love and care in small plates like the tender-crisp charred long beans with softly caramelized onions, almonds, and pungent black bean-garlic sauce. The bacon haemul pajeon was like a crispy seafood pancake, strewn with scallions, sweet scallops, and shreds of crab meat. Cut it into wedges and dip into the soy-based sauce for a bite that will easily top your best-ever tempura experience. The most polarizing appetizer had to be the Duck Duck Dduk. It was described to us as a rice cake and duck dish, and during the Rabbit Hole's preview dinners it consisted of little tubes of mochi fried in duck fat and topped with a sweet chili sauce and duck confit. It's evolved into a much saucier, at times almost gummy, gnocchi-like dish that was blissful comfort food on one visit and heavy and overcooked the next. Conceptually it was a hit, and the flavors were great on each occasion, but this one seems to still be a work in progress.

All of the entrees were done to practiced perfection, giving off the impression of a restaurant that's been around much longer than the few short weeks the Rabbit Hole has actually been open. Even though some of the dishes were only peripherally Asian, like the stick-to-your-ribs bone-in beef kalibi, which had all the tenderness of a really fabulous pot roast with roasted pearl onions, carrots, and kimchi mashed potatoes, there was no denying their satisfying effect. Our favorite was the bowl of fluffy rice and buttermilk-fried pork katsu, a dish that's rooted in Japanese cuisine but became popular in Korea thanks to cultural diaspora in early 19th-century Asia. Pork gets pounded thin, bathed in egg wash, covered in panko, fried until crispy, and cut into planks perfect for dipping into the sour, tamarind-based sauce or for breaking into the yolk of the soft boiled egg that tops this dish.

The idea behind the Rabbit Hole versus the Left-Handed Cook was not only to offer a fuller, more rounded experience, but also to introduce Korean street food to an audience that might not be so familiar with it. They've done a bang-up job in that regard, but it's worth noting that if you go in expecting super-traditional Korean cuisine, you may be disappointed.

What will come next for Melgaard and Kim, who are quickly establishing themselves as the dynamic duo of creative restaurateurs? We can't be quite sure, but we're getting curiouser and curiouser.

Our favorite entree, buttermilk fried pork katsu
Katie E. Holm for City Pages

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