When it comes to visiting a new restaurant for the first time, especially one that has not yet established a reputation, critics have varying opinions on what dishes should act as the calibration for their review. If you're going to an Italian restaurant, most agree that basic marinara sauce should be your test. Some critics claim their radars are attuned to things even more elemental: good-quality olive oil, aged vinegars, homemade stock, and the distinctly acrid taste of fryer grease that needs changing. Most concur that if you're going to a breakfast place, the deceptively simple poached egg is a pretty good indicator of what the rest of your meal will be like. I interviewed a chef once who told me that even if your restaurant doesn't have eggs on the menu, everyone on your line should be able to make them poached, sunny-side up, over medium, and in an omelet, or they have no business working in a restaurant. If that sounds unreasonable, just think back to the last time a too-runny egg managed to put you off your whole brunch. It's the worst. For my father, who is admittedly not a professional critic but makes a good point nonetheless, the mark of a good restaurant is simple, and he encountered it when we visited the Kenwood, a new restaurant in — you guessed it — Kenwood, owned and run by critically acclaimed chef Don Saunders. "Well, they serve their beer at the right temperature," he declared after his first sip of a Fulton. Things were off to a good start.
While the Kenwood may be a new restaurant with an unformed reputation, Saunders has already proven to have a culinary Midas touch. He is known for the classic yet innovative French food he served at Fugaise and A Rebours, and now for the exquisite, ambitious, seasonally inspired menu at his current restaurant in Armatage, the aptly titled In Season. With the Kenwood, Saunders has not abandoned his fancy dinner service roots, but he did take a different approach when developing this new restaurant concept.
"The ideas behind the Kenwood are based very much around the demand of the neighborhood," Saunders explains. "Before we started our plans, my wife and I did a lot of research, talking to neighbors, talking to In Season customers, talking to the people who used to go to this place when it was the Kenwood Cafe. The main thing people seemed to be worried about was losing that all-day hangout kind of place — somewhere to go for coffee in the morning or lunch at 2 p.m. Oh, and they wanted beer and wine, too."
To address the morning coffee problem, Saunders went straight to outsourcing. "I just wanted the best possible product for that morning crowd, so I reached out to the places that, in my opinion, serve the very best. So all our pastries, bread, and the brioche buns for our burgers and sandwiches are from Patisserie 46. Our general manager Rachel was the one who made the decision to bring in Dogwood as our coffee supplier, and I think that product really speaks for itself."
Something else that's an entirely new challenge for Saunders is also pretty new to our local restaurant scene in general. "I thought that offering brunch throughout the week would be a great way to cater to lots of different crowds," says Saunders. "That way you can come get bacon and eggs or pancakes with your kids in the early mornings, or get something sophisticated, like a poached egg dish, in the middle of the day, any day of the week."
The brunch is indeed fabulous, and I should mention that those eggs, served atop a glorious mound of silky cured salmon and dill-infused Hollandaise sauce over Patisserie 46's ryebatta bread, are poached perfectly. On the sweeter end of the brunch menu, there's French toast, made extra crunchy thanks to a layer of homemade granola, and lovely thin pancakes with walnut butter, which, interestingly enough, represent a new and exciting challenge for Saunders.
"My absolute favorite thing to do right now is to flip pancakes on the line," he reveals giddily. "I never really had to cook them in a restaurant before. I've seared a thousand scallops but never had to flip a pancake, so this is pretty great."
Dinner, and the more substantial, lunchy portion of the brunch menu, are where Saunders and his sous chef Matthew Hughes seem to really dig in and showcase their creativity. I loved the texture play in the simple but gorgeous beet salad, where red quinoa provides a chewy foil to the fresh beets, oranges, and creamy avocado puree. With chanterelle mushrooms now in season, a handful of wonderful vegetarian dishes use them well, including a rich, buttery mushroom tart with onions and fonduta, and a Swiss chard cake dressed with uniquely tangy sorrel yogurt.
The selection of proteins is also plentiful. There's duck with polenta and cherry jus; lobster-like monkfish in a light broth with rapini; and skate, a fish in the ray family, which is showing up a lot more on Midwestern menus, but Saunders was one of the first to popularize it in our home state. His current preparation uses squash, buttery cauliflower puree, and bright, acidic capers to complement the light and vaguely stringy-textured fish. They are a bit of a strange beast, yes, but if you've never had skate before, I can think of no better introduction. The New York strip is a cut of deeply flavorful Limousin beef, which is also what Saunders uses to create the Kenwood burger. "I would say that burger has developed a bit of a following, and it just goes to show that, as much as it sounds cliché, the ingredients are really what matters."
Desserts are all made in-house: Ginger-chocolate pot de creme, deconstructed carrot cake with black walnuts, and tiramisu with cherries that had robust flavor but texturally came off closer to a trifle. All offerings were solid but a bit been-there-done-that, save for the sweet corn creme brulee. It was absolute divinity for the first few bites — with the pure and focused flavor of the corn working its magic on the meltingly rich custard — but then became a little too sweet in the end. It's a monster portion, so plan to share it and you'll be in good shape.
So what else will be coming soon from the Kenwood? "The menu will change fairly frequently," says Saunders. "We've only been open a month and I think we have already changed five dishes to fit with seasonal ingredients. We'll also be applying for licenses and trying to add some sidewalk seating in the spring." What won't change is the level of quality in the food being served at his other restaurant, In Season. "You won't see me there as often, but I only decided to go and open an all-day restaurant because I have complete confidence in Peter [Thillen] and Joel [DeBilzan], who are now pushing out even better, more creative dishes than we had when we first opened."
The Kenwood exemplifies what can happen when an old pro combines his training and connections with a willing ear, allowing his new venture to be influenced by the hopes and opinions of the people who are mostly likely to frequent it. What results is a restaurant that's equal parts beloved neighborhood cafe and impressive destination restaurant. It's the kind of place you can go for a post-tennis brunch while still in your workout clothes, or take the in-laws when they're visiting from out of town. Much as Steven Brown did with Tilia in Linden Hills, Saunders has managed to create a menu and an atmosphere that's accessible yet exciting, fresh but completely comfortable.