What does it take to be hip these days? Not long ago it was a mullet, a PBR tallboy, and a pair of tapered jeans. But after a few visits to Kings Wine Bar in southwest Minneapolis, it looks like the new standard-bearers are sporting a glass of red wine, a 55419 zip code, and an infant wearing a onesie over a long-sleeved T-shirt.
Those of you who know Kingfield know that it's one of those neighborhoods attractive to grown-up Uptownites who have paired off and started to raise families. It's largely residential, with most of its commercial activity limited to its borders. Considering the relative affluence of its inhabitants, Kingfield is something of a restaurant/café dead zone: It's the kind of neighborhood you want to hang out in, but it lacks a real neighborhood hangout.
Kings Wine Bar aimed to change that when it opened this fall across the street from one of the area's few restaurants, the likeable but inconsistent Café Ena. The new wine bar/restaurant/coffeehouse was launched during a period of rebirth for sisters Samantha Loesch and Molly Hanson, who had recently been separated from their husbands through death and divorce, respectively. Already Kings has become a gathering space for a crowd that's a bit too mature for the bar scene taking place between 31st and First streets. Put it this way: It's not easy to find a place with a liquor license that also has its own book club.
Kings' decor has an urban, industrial look, reminiscent of the cheap-chic office spaces that popped up during the dot-com boom. The walls are beige and the ceilings are snaked with mechanical ducts; the bar and most of the furniture are painted glossy black. A back nook has a wine display on one side and flocked wallpaper on the other. A corner lounge resembles a Design Within Reach window display with its cushy mod furniture. On one side is a dartboard, on the other, a gold statue of Buddha.
The design reflects Loesch and Hanson's intention to have Kings be a multiuse space. One night, the dinner crowd included a woman sitting at the bar reading a book and another pecking at a laptop. Typically, there may be a few twentysomethings—I saw one toting a helmet bearing a skull and crossbones and a Pizza Lucé sticker—but most of the crowd looks a little too old (and too preppy) to blend in at Caffetto or the CC Club. In many ways, the vibe at Kings reminds me of Armatage's wildly popular Café Maude—iPhones are scattered across tabletops, SUVs are parked outside, and the kids are probably a few blocks away, having just been tucked into bed.
While Kings bills itself as a wine bar, I'm not sure that's its strength. Loesch and Hanson's brother, Mike Barnes, a sales rep for the Wine Company, helped them develop the wine list, but, particularly while servers are relatively new, its benefits aren't always being well communicated.
The beer list, in fact, feels better curated, particularly for its size. When I was there, the bar's four taps included the regional Farm Girl Saison and Bell's Two Hearted, along with two other interesting domestics: the crisp, hoppy A Little Sumpin' Sumpin Ale from Lagunitas Brewing and Left Hand Brewing's caramel-smooth Milk Stout. Hopefully the servers will soon be explaining the beers with the same thoroughness as the descriptions spooled out on the Kings website.
Kings' casual atmosphere suggests that it's the kind of place to go for a sandwich or a snack. In fact, Loesch and Hanson's original intent was to hire a kitchen manager to oversee just a brief list of pizzas or tapas dishes. When they connected with chef Pete Maccaroni, previously of the Sample Room, they soon found themselves elevating their ambitions.
Maccaroni's style is similar to that of his previous gig: local, seasonal New American cuisine. In the appetizer section of the menu, homemade tater tots attract the most attention—"Midwesterners go crazy over tater tots," Maccaroni notes. To achieve his goal of running an all-scratch kitchen, Maccaroni eschews frozen tots for weekly 400-pound deliveries of potatoes from Wisconsin's Dragsmith Farms. The potatoes are peeled, soaked in saltwater, and shredded; then resoaked, shredded again, and rolled into a dough and cut into squat cylinders roughly the size and shape of 35mm film canisters. When they come out of the fryer, their shells are crisp and their guts have a moist, glutinous consistency that reminded me of sticky rice.
You have to admire Maccaroni's commitment to his cooking, because, while the tots are great (be sure to dunk 'em in the bacon-Gruyere sauce), I'm not sure, from a sensory perspective at least, that the mass-market tater tot is something that asks for improvement. You could probably douse a batch with antifreeze and Hot Buck Scent and Midwesterners would still eat 'em by the casserole bowl-full. Still, I think the integrity of the ingredients justifies Kings' extra effort. Apparently, there's one guy in the kitchen whose sole duty is to make the tater tots. "It's an unbelievable task," Maccaroni admits. "A lot of love goes into those."
You know what I truly loved? Kings' French fries. Just when you thought that everything that could be done to a French fry had, Kings brought fresh perspective to the category. The fries are hand-chopped in irregular shapes that make them look like a pile of lumber scraps. They're twice fried to have an extra-crisp exterior, while their interior stays moist and pleasantly chewy in a way that's unlike any other French fry I've tried. I know it sounds weird, but it's good. The extra-browned nubs in the pile had the same appeal as the half-cracked kernels in the bottom of a popcorn bowl, without quite the dental risk. Maccaroni likes to approach dish development with a scientist's rigor, having run seven varieties of Russets through a battery of cooking regimens and recording the results before settling on the best potato and technique.
The fries are good enough to eat plain, which is fortunate, as the super-sweet homemade ketchup is a little too close to cocktail sauce for my taste. Still, I had to respect its provenance: a 100-year-old recipe that involves stewing tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers with brown sugar, molasses, and 15 spices, then pushing the sauce through the food mill several times.
Maccaroni's processes may be labor-intensive, but they're also efficient. During salmon season, fish portions that didn't make their way to an entrée plate were subjected to a three-day cure, then served as lox with crostini and dill crème fraîche. The Pete's Macaroni and Cheese is made with a luxe, gooey mix of béchamel, Parmesan, truffle oil, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve—a cheese most would consider too costly to melt and mix with pasta, except when its source is pieces rejected from cheese-plate service.
Maccaroni's grilled cheese sandwich is another interesting affair. Soft foccacia is egg-battered and griddled to resemble savory French toast stuffed with Gruyere, fresh mozzarella, and aged cheddar cheese. I like my grilled cheese a little more assertive—sourdough with razor-sharp cheddar—but there was a lot about this one that appealed. Kings serves a few requisite soups and salads, though I wouldn't recommend the beet salad with goat cheese, spiced almonds, and raisins due to its odd, overpowering balsamic vinaigrette.
Since Kings opens at 10 a.m. every day, the kitchen does serve brunch, though frankly I was happier with a cup of coffee and a Rustica croissant than the goat cheese and spinach crepe I tried (I found the wrapper's sweetness at odds with the filling). After sampling several of Kings' breakfasts, lunches, and snacks, I think the kitchen makes the biggest gains with its dinner entrées, which stand up to those at more upscale eateries, but at a more value-oriented price.
My favorite dish was the pan-seared Alaskan halibut, served on a bed of French lentils and sautéed Swiss chard, then smeared with caramelized shallot marmalade. These lentils could convert the most strident lentil hater: tender but firm, infused with carrot, celery, onion, garlic, shallots, and herbs. The only flaw was minor—the marmalade was refrigerator-cold—but otherwise it was a nice dish for $15.95.
For the same price, I also liked the Fischer Farms pepper-crusted pork chop, which was flavorful and moist from being seared in leftover breakfast bacon fat and topped with cream sauce. Even better: It's served with sides of maple-syrup-kissed Brussels sprouts and orzo that's sautéed in pork drippings. The portions aren't huge, but they seem more than generous for the price.
Go ahead and dig in, as there's not much reason to save room for dessert. The apple crisp I tried was all sweet, no tart: a hot, sugary mush. I liked the chocolate chip cookies stacked into a sandwich, but their espresso mousse filling tasted like whipped cream flavored with weak, church-basement coffee. That said, the homemade s'more that will soon be added to the menu could be another story.
Kings' attitude is friendly enough that I found myself willing to forgive a few minor service foibles. One night our waitress accidentally tipped a plate as she set it before us and sent a pile of lentils sliding onto the table. She immediately offered to replace the entrée—a savvy and generous response. We declined, as we'd only lost a few bites, and the incident would have barely registered had she not forgotten to come back and wipe up the mess immediately after she removed the finished plate. My group spent several unfortunate minutes gazing at what looked like a pile of cat barf.
Kings' advantages are its flexible offerings and reasonably priced, scratch-made fare. As it hosts more social clubs and neighborhood meetings, I think it will quickly achieve Loesch and Hanson's dream of becoming a community hub. With a lot of neighborhood notables staffing the bar—writer Jim Walsh, Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman, and John Schreiner, co-owner of Stroker Ace screen-printing—it's not a bad place for an interesting conversation, either.