Review: Kim Bartmann's Book Club banks on hyper-local community in a fast-casual world

Balinese chicken thigh and scallion

Balinese chicken thigh and scallion Alma Guzman

A few hours before your Friday night dinner plans come to fruition, you realize you haven’t picked a place to eat yet.

You suggest Book Club. Your friend balks.

Did she misunderstand the evening’s plans? Not that she hadn’t read the book, because she definitely had... but what was the title again?

“It’s the new Kim Bartmann restaurant,” you say, and the name rolls off your tongue as easily as “burger” or “Italian.”

Kim Bartmann has spent the past 25 years making herself a known entity in the world of Minneapolis eateries. Odds are, you’ve eaten in one or more of her restaurants, whether or not you were aware.

Bartmann is the queen of the neighborhood restaurant, the maestro behind a litany of the city’s mainstays: Bryant-Lake Bowl, Barbette, Red Stag Supperclub, Tiny Diner, Gigi’s Cafe, Pat’s Tap, the Bird, Bread and Pickle. She’s also stepped in as a mentor or a management consultant in a handful of other places, including Kingfield’s Kyatchi and Nighthawks, after chef Landon Schoenefeld unexpectedly bowed out in 2016.

From top right: lemon shrimp, crispy fried tofu, Balinese chicken thigh and scallion and Korean steak satay

From top right: lemon shrimp, crispy fried tofu, Balinese chicken thigh and scallion and Korean steak satay Alma Guzman

Before you picture her diving into piles of gold ducats like a real-life Scrooge McDuck, consider the recent story by Twin Cities Business about Bartmann’s empire. She reveals, candidly, that her operation is just breaking even, and that from 2015 to 2017, sales were down 15 percent. In today’s world of fast-casual counter service, Bartmann’s brand of dining out is taking it on the chin.

So why do it, then? Running restaurants is a notoriously difficult pursuit. Perhaps there’s something altruistic about Bartmann, this steward of neighborhood restaurants, keeping them alive because she knows how they keep neighborhoods alive.

Take Tiny Diner, the futuristic farm-meets-diner of south Minneapolis’ Powderhorn neighborhood. Bartmann sized up the area’s hippie roots and prescribed a hub of sustainability, complete with solar panels, an apiary, and a rooftop garden. A farmers market sprouts up in August and September, when special events include a visit with baby goats and a dog costume parade. Classes on organic farming, rain gardening, and permaculture are offered year-round. And, yes, there’s a diner, with all-day breakfast and a happy hour and an array of burgers and salads.

For Uptown, Bartmann recently conjured a weekends-only champagne bar, Trapeze, serving a sort of reckless extravagance that befits its name. It’s a slinky little nook that stretches alongside her French bistro, Barbette, with flickering candles, soft pillows, and murals of giant trippy flowers against the peach walls. The scene entices loosened pocketbooks, but stumbling out an hour later, $200 poorer and buzzing on champagne, you might well wonder how the market will bear such luxury. Will new condo denizens and lakeside residents flock for the cachet of a Jeroboam of Champagne for $670? We wouldn’t expect it in this frugal Midwestern state. Then again, Bartmann has spent a quarter-century learning how to read a crowd.

Which brings us to one of her most recent, though surely not her last, restaurant openings. In the former Cafe Maude space in southwest Minneapolis, Bartmann offers locals a concept far from the radical vibe of Tiny Diner and equally distinct from the indulgence of Trapeze. It’s a casual spot, fit for family Saturday brunch or the post-work nosh, and, yes, your mom’s book club could meet here over dinner.

Book Club bills its menu as California-inspired. We’d call it “Bartmann eclectic”; just different enough from her other concepts to feel new and just similar enough to appease less adventurous palates. To execute that balance of curious and comfortable, Bartmann has brought on Asher Miller, who once worked at Barbette, then for Wolfgang Puck, and then ran Andrew Zimmern’s food truck operation. In keeping with the hyper-local theme, Miller is also a resident of the Armatage neighborhood.

The kitchen makes use of a woodfired grill and east Asian flavors to achieve West Coast in the Midwest. Of the more successful items, the grilled skewers in crispy tofu with a creamy spicy sauce ($6), tender Balinese chicken thighs with notes of coconut and scallion ($6), and lemon shrimp ($8) make a nice array for sharing alongside a pre-dinner cocktail. (You can also get the excellently prepared Balinese half chicken as your main dish, one of the many healthier items on offer.) A whole sea bass also makes the menu, fried and served with nuoc cham, lemongrass pickles, lettuce cups, and brown rice. The mussels with dumplings come in a delightfully creamy green curry coconut broth you’ll have to save for wetting your fries.

Vegetarians will appreciate salads that go beyond halfhearted vegetal appeasement: grilled eggplant and chickpeas with roasted tomatoes, golden raisins, and feta; kale and cabbage with candied walnuts, pickled carrots, parmesan, and lemon vinaigrette. Not that you should be satisfied by salads alone. One of our favorite dishes—and unexpectedly so—was the crispy cauliflower chimichanga ($12), a calorie splurge for the non-carnivorous set. Tiny cauliflower bits folded in creamy Jack cheese are stuffed into a fried shell, topped with a fan of avocado slices, and served on a bed of ruby red salsa. We ordered it on a lark, and now we can’t forget it.

Other items are more straightforward—nothing to write home about or drive across town for, but worth the pitstop if you find yourself in the area. The burgers ($13-$14) are classic, the fries are skin-on, and hefty enough to scoop up a dollop of tarragon aioli. The fried chicken sandwich ($12) displays Miller’s capacity for extra crispy fried meats, though the sweet and tangy white vinegar BBQ sauce was a one-note letdown, improved with a few dashes of Tabasco. The allium grilled cheese ($12) with shallot, three kinds of onion, leek, and garlic, was fairly mild for all the pungent dragon breath it promised; get it with the tangy, rich tomato soup to add some punch.

In keeping with the neighborhood restaurant ethos of “something for everyone,” the drinks menu welcomes your Chardonnay-sipping aunt, your mocktail-gulping pal, and your craft-beer snob co-worker. At happy hour, wine and taps get knocked down to $5, select cocktails to $6, and a smaller version of that chimichanga or a serving of fries will set you back only a fiver.

Service was attentive on every visit. At brunch during the World Cup, lamenting that we were missing the first half of a match, our server offered to reseat us near the dining room’s only television. Once, when I snapped a photo of the dining room, a hostess appeared and handed me a card for a buy-one-get-one drink. She asked me to tag the restaurant if I shared any photos on social media.

I was unsettled by the suggestion, and the fact that she’d watched me take the photo. But I understood, too. We are all marketers these days—unpaid, usually, except in drink tickets—for businesses we like. The card meant more than a free drink. It meant: Keep us in your newsfeed if you want to keep us on your street. Even the neighborhood altruist needs to make a living.

Click here to view a photo slideshow of Book Club

5411 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis