Siblings join forces at Lake & Irving
A restaurant menu that features corn nuts and hot dogs as proudly and prominently as it does rillettes and arancini could be accused of lacking focus, just like an establishment that offers water three ways — chilled, sparkling, or "ambient" (room temperature) — could be perceived as being pretentious. But at Lake & Irving, a new casual chef-driven Uptown eatery with plenty of Pacific Rim influence, it's exactly this intriguing mix of high- and lowbrow elements that accommodates the diverse surrounding neighborhood, providing a laid-back experience that is not without a few foodie frills.
Although it's a new addition to Calhoun's restaurant row, a stretch that includes well-loved spots like Amore Victoria and Barbette, Lake & Irving has been a long time coming for co-owners, brothers, and St. Paul natives Chris and Andrew Ikeda.
"Once we realized we were going to take the same path and have serious careers in food, we had the idea of owning our own place together," says Chris, the older of the two, who takes on the role of executive chef of the restaurant. "But in order to build credibility we had to go off and have our own experiences first. I think the combination of places we worked — geographically and under the chefs we did — was a big influence on the type of menu we ended up creating."
Chris's culinary past is particularly evident in many of the less-familiar flavors and ingredients you see popping up in dishes here: Kabayaki-glazed chicken sprinkled with furikake (say that fives times fast), kalua pork, and togarashi on crispy fried Brussels sprout leaves with white soy and a generous glug of fruity olive oil.
"I spent several years cooking in Hawaii, but I really didn't set out to do a Hawaiian theme or get put in a box of the dreaded Asian-fusion thing. Hawaiian regional food encompasses so many other influences — Filipino, Japanese, Portuguese, traditional Hawaiian — and I wanted to show all sides of that."
At brunch, they go even further outside that cultural zone, borrowing flavors from Mexico and the American southwest in dishes like the spicy pork torta. Built on a solid foundation of Patisserie 46 sourdough bread, the torta is layered with tender pork, japones chiles, cool chunks of avocado, and crowned with a perfectly poached egg. We were also highly impressed by the springy, spritely, somehow positively light plate of chicken and waffles. It's served as a sort of sandwich with no trace of excess oil, just melt-in-your mouth Belgian waffle and a paillard of boneless, crispy-crusted, well-seasoned chicken, scattered with chopped chives. What really put this dish over the top, though, was the beer syrup, made with a reduction of Founders beer. The choice between that and Log Cabin syrup is an absolute no-brainer.
Chef de cuisine Andrew Ikeda also trained at the Culinary Institute of America but opted for the West Coast campus in California and then went on to work in Napa Valley. The style and sensibilities of California cuisine shine through in his restrained plating and emphasis on high-quality ingredients, like the dish of fresh beets with ume vinaigrette, teardrop tomatoes, thinly sliced cucumbers, and chevre. It's a welcome summery retreat from the nut-and-bacon treatment you typically see on root vegetables this time of year. Andrew is also responsible for one of the standout favorite dishes on any of our visits: the mushroom fries. With a deep-fried veggie appetizer like this, you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes it will be a heavily breaded grease bomb with no evidence of actual organic matter inside. On more auspicious occasions, you'll get a bubbly tempura-like batter that allows the mushroom to retain its texture and flavor, which is exactly what Lake & Irving delivers. It's matched with a pungent black garlic aioli that works perfectly with the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the whole thing is equally as good with a $4 beer as it is with a complex glass of Zinfandel.
Oh yes, they have a $4 beer. And it's not a Miller Lite; it's Bell's Two Hearted. And it's that price all day, every day — in Uptown, no less.
"That's what I tell people when they ask why we don't have happy hour," explains John Blue, general manager who also heads up the bar program at Lake & Irving. "It just makes better sense to have the value built in all the time, rather than slashed prices for just a few hours a day."
Blue applies his practical philosophy to the cocktail menu here, too, noting that even though he feels the realm of complicated mixology is "a little saturated," a classic cocktail still requires special attention. What makes Lake & Irving's classic cocktails distinctive is the use of more niche brands and spirits from craft distillers. For example, their outstanding Old Fashioned is made with High West Double Rye, and their martini is made with Hayman's Old Tom Gin, a revival of the not-too-sweet-not-too-dry Victorian recipe that was used in the original Tom Collins cocktail. He also uses a bittersweet vermouth from Imbue, an Oregon-based small-batch distillery.
"In the next phase of the restaurant, I'm planning to really build up the vermouth list," says Blue, who also alluded to an upcoming distillers dinner the restaurant will host in February with a Chicago spirit-maker. Stay tuned for details on that one, because based on what we drank and tasted — like the horseradish and jalapeno oil Bloody Mary with a brown sugar and salty Hawaiian sour plum powder coating on the rim — a distillers dinner sounds very promising.
For Blue and both the Ikeda brothers, keeping price points reasonable was of the utmost importance. "We started costing out food and liquor and everything probably six to eight months before the restaurant even opened," says Chris. "Accessibility and approachability is really key. We want a customer to be able to come here once or twice a week and not feel like they're burning through their paycheck."
That explains the addition of the $7.50 "D.C. Style" half-smoke, a beef chuck chili dog inspired by the classic from Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., where their eldest brother lives. "We actually had him send us some frozen ones," says Chris with a laugh. "We took them apart and tried a bunch of different things to re-create it." Eventually they brought their ultra-specific secret hot dog mission to Husnik Meat Company in South St. Paul, which custom-made them a truly fantastic 50/50 pork and beef blend dog. It's tucked into a split top, lobster roll-style bun and topped with a rich, almost cinnamon-y shredded chuck chili. It's undeniably delicious.
So for all its global influence, Lake & Irving is really an American restaurant with great classic cocktails, and for all their top-tier training and sizable talent, the Ikeda brothers remain humble. "We're laid-back people, we're not flashy. The restaurant isn't flashy, it isn't stuffy. Is it for everybody? Probably not. But we will always stay true to who we are."
Seems to be working well so far.
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