Chef Thomas Kim electrified certain segments of Minneapolis’s food community when he opened his first spot, The Left Handed Cook, in the Midtown Global Market. Kim, the son of first-generation immigrants from a rural area of South Korea, was raised in Los Angeles and Hawaii.
By his late 20s he had already scrambled to the top of the California white-tablecloth Asian-fusion food scene, opening a few restaurants for Roy Yamaguchi, the five-star chef of Hawaii, and working for Nobu Matsuhisa. Then he fell in love with a midwesterner, Korean adoptee Kat Melgaard of North Dakota. The two moved to Minneapolis to pursue their dreams of family and small-business ownership, starting with what was essentially a taco stand. But what a taco stand!
Kim announced early on that The Left Handed Cook was a trial balloon to see what customers in his new home responded to. And we now have the answer: The Rabbit Hole, a full-service sit-down restaurant also in the Midtown Global Market. What does careful, on-the-ground market research by an accomplished out-of-town chef reveal about us? We really like meat, potatoes, and extraordinary cocktails.
Nothing has surprised me about The Rabbit Hole as much as its essential conservatism. The prices are exceedingly conservative: six bucks for a plate of drinking snacks to share, a half liter of soju (the traditional Korean drink and the most popular hard alcohol in the world) for nine dollars, and most everything else on the menu is less than 20 dollars. The business model is conservative: The Rabbit Hole has now swallowed up The Left Handed Cook, serving its menu at lunch, thus conserving resources.
The food, though, is the most shockingly conservative: a nice watermelon arugula salad, truffle parmesan French fries, short ribs and mashed potatoes. This is the cutting edge? Well, no. Still, the food is often extraordinarily good. Those French fries, for instance, go straight into the local hall of fame. They’re hand-cut and thick, sometimes as thick around as a thumb, but double-fried in such a way that they’re like perfect supper club baked potatoes in the middle, wrapped in a nanometer sheen of ultra-crisp all around. They arrive at the table in a two-quart saucepan, covered with thick shavings of fresh parmesan, gilded with the barest hint of truffle oil, and they’re so good they’re almost frightening.
A few other dishes purpose-built for us Minnesotans are just as devastatingly good: The Omma burger—a meaty, smoky burger topped with further layers of oink, including tender pork belly and a bacon jalapeño jam—is a fistload of creamy umami flavors, delivered in the fresh graceful sweetness of a bun from Salty Tart Bakery. Some of the other comforts are underwhelming. The short rib with kimchi mashed potatoes is flawless, with utterly tender meat falling off the bone, and it’s absolutely boring—the kimchi lending the potatoes more color than flavor. If the goal of this dish is to please the most timid Lindey’s Prime Steak House fan, mission accomplished, but I’d be surprised if that diner would be found in the heart of punk rock and artsy Powderhorn. The charred green beans are similarly innocent, cooked in an exceedingly subtle garlic black bean sauce and sprinkled with a midwestern Thanksgiving camouflage of sliced almonds. There’s a lot like this, expertly done and safe as houses: broccoli salad, a batter-rich fried scallop and crab pancake, a simple fried pork cutlet rice bowl.
There were times at Rabbit Hole when I wanted to shout: “Chef, throw off your self-imposed shackles!” The food at The Left Handed Cook is actually often easier to love, with its tossed-off quality of I’ve-got-talent-to-burn-so-I-think-I-will.
My favorite dish has that brilliant afterthought quality; it’s the innocent-sounding kimchi fried rice, a concoction Kim served as a staff meal once and the staff clamored to have it put on the menu. Order it. It’s a bright orange soft thing, made by stirring bacon cracklings into porridge-like soft rice with butter-cooked kimchi and garlic confit until a sort of savory rice stew develops, which is then crowned with a soft-poached egg. Imagine cassoulet, sort of inverted and made Korean punk rock after-bar with five-star French technique. It was a dish that struck me as being as fresh and as sparky with easy genius as Isaac Becker’s fried egg sandwich was when he opened 112 Eatery in 2005. More like this please!
Do this: Order the poussin, a perfect, small fried chicken, tender and boasting a skin like the most delicate tempura, golden and good. Then get the banchan, the various housemade fresh pickled vegetables, and now you’ve got something fun, jangly, and spicy and fresh.
The cocktail bar at Rabbit Hole excels in all things. The bloody mary, called a Bloody Rabbit, sizzles with kimchi juice and is spicy and energetically good; every time I sipped one I felt like I just took an energy potion. The Cabra Vieja, made with Kim’s mother’s special bokbunja syrup, which includes imported wild Korean blackberry-like berries, is already on my list of the best new drinks of 2014.The combination of tequila, rhubarb bitters, Cynar, lime, and bokbunja syrup results in some of the most bewitching aromas I’ve ever experienced—now it’s a campfire, now currants and lychees, now mint—balanced on the fulcrum of an overall brisk and balanced citrusy cocktail. A fresh Wisconsin ginseng-infused whiskey cocktail called the Will Power (after the farmer, Will Hsu, who grew the ginseng) is made with absinthe. It’s a whirlpool of woodland and mentholated flavors, and it’s both a Sazerac and a tribute to Asian drinking traditions. Rabbit Hole is already the best cocktail bar in south-central Minneapolis, and it’s faster than anywhere else due to the many kegged cocktails, made by Kim himself. There is also an excellent beer list and a very good (tiny) wine selection, as well as options for soju, that halfway point between sake and vodka.
Rabbit Hole takes drinking so seriously that it shouldn’t be surprising it takes the Korean pojangmachas, small street-food eateries for drinkers, as its inspiration.
“One of the things I like about the pojangmachas is that everyone seems to end up there: CEOs, university students,” explained Kim when I spoke to him on the phone for this story. “First and foremost, I don’t even consider myself a chef; if anything, I am a glorified cook. I consider my job the service industry. I’m here to make people feel welcome and happy. So to start, we were going for comfort food, because no matter how we slice it, we are in the Midwest, and we have embraced that. We made sure a lot of our dishes were things people would be able to relate to in their daily routine and cuisine. I never wanted people to be pushed so far out of their style of dining that they feel alienated.”
To that end Kim also gave a lot of thought to how guests might use Rabbit Hole. There’s the bar, a number of large private booths that seat four to 12 people, and then chef-counter bench seats for two—for intimate special-occasion date nights.
When I asked Kim about the surprisingly conservative bent of Rabbit Hole, he told me to wait for the next phase. By springtime the Rabbit Hole hopes to be serving brunch, and then Kim hopes to use some of his newfound bar favorites in unexpected ways—bokbunja bourbon syrup French toast, perhaps? And when trust grows with a bigger customer base, Kim tells me, I may regret that I wanted more adventure. Why? Well, first we need to get this trust-building process done, so please know and please tell all your friends that the Rabbit Hole is a very hip sort of Korean-inflected Modern Cafe with a great bar.
When the trust is built, he may start taking more risks, for instance, by bringing out the notorious Korean snack of beondegi, or silkworm larvae. “I marinate them in soy, so you get that tang and saltiness, but then when you chew the larvae you get this sweet and nutty aftertaste. With whiskey it’s a really cool pairing.” Really? If you say so chef.
One thing is assured, if Rabbit Hole puts larvae on the menu it’ll get written about coast to coast, so you might want to get in there first so you can say it’s been your comfort-food burger joint for ages and ages already, just your regular Minneapolis pojangmacha with the epic French fries and indescribable cocktails and your dad’s favorite short ribs. 920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-236-4526, eatdrinkrabbit.com