Go Get Sauced

A taste of things to come? Chicken skewers in coffee mole and orange-cilantro butter sauces

A taste of things to come? Chicken skewers in coffee mole and orange-cilantro butter sauces

Not once but twice I tried to go to Sauced during its regular hours and found the restaurant closed. The first time, on a Sunday evening, the parking lot was empty and the neon beer signs were dark. A note on the door explained that the staff had taken Mother's Day off. Totally understandable: Mom trumps everything. No big deal. The second time my efforts were thwarted, though, I was a little peeved. It was a Friday night, and the dining room was packed—with a private party, to which I hadn't been invited.

I'm sure my experience was less typical than unlucky, but it did give me pause. What to make of a new restaurant that hasn't bothered to take down the old restaurant's sign? Of an open kitchen with a box of Franzia on the shelf and two young guys in baseball caps at the stove? Of a place with Star Wars on the television, a waiter clad in leather pants, and a name that's a slang term for getting schnockered? Was Sauced a contemporary bistro or a fraternity-house kitchen?

Admittedly, I was hypersensitive about the impression that Sauced was making. It's an underdog facing an uphill battle, the only restaurant in north Minneapolis with truly food-forward ambitions. Yeah, that's what I said: north Minneapolis. And what came to mind? Violence? Drugs? Prostitutes? Fried-chicken joints? Foreclosed homes? Failing schools? To most Twin Citians, the North Side is synonymous with urban blight, and nothing more.

But north Minneapolis isn't a homogenous place. (That'd be like saying Phillips and Linden Hills are the same.) While the southern part of the neighborhood has struggled, the northern part, where Sauced is located, is becoming reenergized.

The building that houses Sauced has evolved in a way that reflects changes in the sleepy, working-class neighborhood, as longtime residents sell their bungalows to young professionals. Many of these new homeowners rented in northeast or south Minneapolis, and they're seeking the same amenities they found in their old neighborhoods, including foodie-on-a-budget dining options. First, the cute brick building was a 2.3 beer joint called Penn Station, then it was Rix Bar & Grill, which served upscale bar food, and now it's Sauced. The simplest way to compare the changes might be by the burger toppings: American cheese to jalapeño bacon to veal demi-glace.

As soon as an order of chicken skewers arrived at my table, it was clear how far North Side cuisine had come. The three kebobs—arranged like a tepee, sprinkled with orange zest, and dunked in a painterly swirl of two brown and yellow sauces—would have looked more at home in the Walker Sculpture Garden than in the neighboring diner or pizza-and-pasta joint down the street. And the way the acidic brightness of the citrus butter contrasted with the dark chocolate/coffee notes of the mole—holy tongue shui—you'd have to cross a river or a freeway to find something else like it.

John Conklin, who took over the kitchen and launched Sauced this winter, says he believes Rix's menu, which offered items like pasta nachos, fried green beans, and chicken wings "sold the neighborhood short" and didn't distinguish it enough from chain restaurants in Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Center. He cites the fact that he's seen two-year-olds come into the restaurant and eat scallops and mussels as evidence that neighbors are hungry for more refined tastes. "The only other real option they have is Applebee's," he says, "and it kind of kills me to see that."

Conklin developed his scratch-cooking mentality from his mentor Michael McKay, whom he worked under at the Sample Room in northeast Minneapolis. ("I was like, 'Make me your slave and teach me everything you know,'" Conklin says of his apprenticeship.). But his menu is less traditional than McKay's was at the Sample Room, and than the one at Mayslack's, where Conklin most recently worked. Sauced's dishes are refined yet recognizable, Conklin says, to "anybody who's even a half-ass foodie." And while the cuisine and ambiance feel upscale, the vibe is relaxed. "You can come in cutoffs," Conklin assures.

Lunch service at Sauced has been a little slow so far, which is too bad, as the sandwich section is perhaps the menu's most outstanding. The "crack burger," addictive as its name implies, is among the Cities' best, with its grilled sourdough bun, melty blue cheese, and roasted tomatoes, all ladled with velvety veal stock. It's an explosion of savory flavors, a bona fide umami bomb. The turkey cubano—turkey, ham, tomatoes, pickles, caramelized onions, gooey gruyère, and rustic mustard aioli—dripped and slopped from its tinfoil wrapper, as if to remind us its ambitions were far beyond those typically found between a baguette. And the vegetarian sandwich isn't shy on flavor, with Brie, avocado, tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms served on rosemary/kalamata olive bread. (If they're serving puréed gazpacho, be sure to add a cup.) The sandwiches cost $10-12, which is steeper than those at nearby restaurants, but a small price to pay for perfection.

Conklin was confident enough in his sauces to name the restaurant after them—and he should be. I thought the tomato-based ragout in a seafood special was a nice complement to the shrimp, scallops, and saffron risotto it contained, just as the buttery orange-ginger sauce brightened the seared ahi tuna. A tangy blueberry barbeque sauce spiced up the pork scaloppine, and a currant demi-glace on the grass-fed beef tenderloin made up for the fact that a medium-rare order was brown all the way through.

Overall, there were few complaints. I liked the sweet-hot interplay of the strawberries and spicy candied walnuts in the fennel chicken salad, but the caramelized fennel had lost its licorice flavor and instead tasted mostly of the vinaigrette. Nor was the short list of sweets very compelling. The made-to-order peach-strawberry tart sounded lovely, but some of the fruit tasted woody and unripe, and it could have used a little more of the Jameson caramel sauce. The truffles, rolled in nuts and served with strawberry-mint sauce, tasted fine, but their golf-ball size was awkward. Portioning the chocolate into three or four smaller truffles might make the plate look more elegant—and worthy of its $8 price tag. At half that price, the sorbet duo is the best bet of the three desserts.

One of my guests found the presentation of the beef tenderloin less than decorous—"I think it's kind of goofy to pay $20 for an entrée and have it served in a bowl"—but being from a generation that doesn't see the point of registering for wedding china, I didn't have a problem with it. Another issue due to Sauced's small space, albeit one largely out of the restaurant's control, is that it's possible for one table's merriment—say, a flamboyant foursome on a girls' night out, dishing bawdy banter like a Brooklyn Center-based Sex and the City—to overtake an entire restaurant. Fortunately, during nice weather, the patio can double as a quarantine zone.

None of these things would stop me from coming again, and, in fact, one of the nicest things about Sauced is how versatile it is, considering its short menu. It's as great for a workday lunch as it is for a nice dinner date, a beer and a burger, or a glass of wine and an appetizer. As Conklin's menus change with the seasons, he says he wants to add duck and lamb dishes—and hopes his clientele will follow. "Whether that's kicking and screaming remains to be seen," he says. Conklin has lived in the neighborhood with his family for two years and says he'd rather hold back on luxury ingredients than alienate his neighbors. "I don't think I'll ever get to the point of doing foie gras," he says, "though," he admits, "I'd want to." He is careful to check his ambitions with cues from his customers, something he says he learned from McKay: "You're cooking the restaurant's way," Conklin says. "It's not necessarily what my palate is looking for, but what my people are looking for."

It's a delicate challenge to introduce change to a neighborhood without altering its character. Eventually, perhaps, the condo developers will spread their plans out on the tables at Sauced, with dreams that 44th and Penn might be spoken in the same breath as tony 50th and France or hip Lake and Hennepin. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the fact that I can sip a nice glass of cabernet at Sauced and still feel the bass of a passing car stereo vibrating through the banquette.