Describing a place as a neighborhood restaurant puts it in a collection that refers to eateries nestled in largely residential areas; it doesn’t actually mean the neighborhood owns the restaurant, does it? You’d think. But I have never seen such neighborhood “ownership” as with the opening of The Kenwood, tucked into the streets just west of the tip of Lake of the Isles.
Don Saunders saw the empty Kenwood Deli next to Birchbark Books and thought it could be a great space for a full restaurant. Instead of cheering for joy that someone was breathing life into the old space (and someone as accomplished as Saunders instead of, I don’t know, a Taco Bell), more than one resident expressed concern to me. Would they be able to get their morning coffee? Would there be takeout? Is the food going to be fussy? I kept waiting to hear about parking and noise issues, maybe the booze concerns that usually come up as operational problems with neighbors and restaurants, but their worries were conceptual.
Maybe these are things that most neighborhoods think about when they hear a restaurant is moving in, but this one actually had a meeting with Saunders after he signed the lease. I have never heard of a chef of his caliber trying to win over his neighbors before there’s fire in the stoves. I understand that the neighbors want something to be successful and they want something that will fit with their lives, but does a small, vocal group have the right to dictate the concept?
I guess that’s Saunders’s bag, and at least he knew it going in. Whether he tweaked his vision to fit the ’hood or not, what he’s created is quite a nice little neighborhood joint. With the help of designer Jim Smart, who actually lives in the area, they have turned a spare boxed room into a horse and hunt club with loden plaid walls, paintings of hounds and hunts, and overstuffed chairs for the waiting. There is no bar, but it is a cozy clubroom.
The Kenwood serves brunch daily. I rather like this trend that lets you have your breakfast for lunch. It creates a relaxed flow of eating into the afternoon, especially if you happen to be noshing on the croque madame, here served with a perfect egg on toothy bread holding in the ham and cheese. The huevos rancheros with braised pork had a good kick from harissa, and the Benedict with cured salmon on top of some Patisserie 46 ryebatta, drenched with dilled Hollandaise, is a win. On the sweet side, French toast comes caked with house granola, and pancakes with black walnut butter are simple, good, and hit the spot. The heartier side of brunch comes with a small number of entrée plates; sautéed skate was fine if unremarkable, same with a wild boar Bolognese, but the ricotta and crab cannelloni with a delicate lobster sauce was elevated and opulent yet satisfying. The signature burger is made with Limousin beef, pork belly, gruyère, and a fried egg; it’s a lush and sloppy bomb of happiness.
Dinner brings a bit more of the technique and refinement that Saunders is known for at his In Season, yet it’s still a notch more casual. Snacks run from easy (fries, marinated olives) to adventurous: Duck offal cigars are crispy little fried fingers in which velvet richness overrides any livery tang, and La Quercia prosciutto with lardo gives a clean, nutty, creamy excuse to enjoy fat. While a few plates cross over from the early menu, it's the dinner-only gnocchi with lively pesto and pickled tomatoes and the wild mushroom tart with binding fonduta crowned with a poached egg that are nourishing and delicious enough to make a place memory. There are a few things that seem out of place—the grilled romaine and the roasted beets seem to stretch into the fussy category. A surprising win was the Swiss chard cake, a vegetarian dish that provided an ample meal for the non-meat eater. It was earthy and real, not some sad side dish nod.
From the looks of the place, I’d say the neighborhood is happy. And if not, there seem to be plenty who are willing to drive in for it. It may not be all things to all people, but with a refined yet comforting menu, it is certainly finding fans.
The Kenwood, 2115 W. 21st St., Mpls., 612-377-3695