The Craftsman on East Lake Street, Minneapolis
For five years, Chef Mike Phillips was the heart of The Craftsman and his cooking (and work on the restaurant’s famous cured meats) helped shape the place into one of the premier spots for locavores in the know. But as any Craftsman fan knows, Phillips left the restaurant late this summer in order to start an artisanal meat company called Green Ox Foods.
This raises an obvious question: How’s his replacement, the experienced but new-to-the-executive-spot Ben Jacoby, making out? And how’s that best-of-the-region charcuterie plate holding up?
A recent visit on a Saturday night revealed a mixed bag of both promise and peril.
The menu as a whole has shifted somewhat, but not dramatically — the restaurant’s soul feels intact. There’s still plenty of seasonal and local fare, although the formerly carnivore-catering menu is now tempered with more vegetarian options (including a hummus plate) and a sheet of daily specials. An intriguing new duck leg confit / pork confit cassoulet-like dish hints at a shift in direction, but it feels like an organic one that can easily be folded into the existing spirit of the restaurant.
More specifically on the “good” front, a few elements of our meal were out-of-the-park tasty. A cup of butternut squash bisque ($4) was creamy, comforting, and richly flavored although — and this really, sincerely isn’t meant to be any sort of a knock — it conjured up a flavor balance vaguely evocative of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. “How can that not be a knock?” you may be asking yourself. It isn’t. The soup was great. It just had an oddly evocative flavor profile. That’s life.
Cinnamon sugar beignets ($6) were one of the most faithful and skillful renditions of this dessert we’ve encountered, pillowy and light as they should be. Kudos also for serving them straight up, without the idiot-friendly caramel and chocolate syrup dipping sauces that so many places seem to favor when ruining this dish. (For an example of beignets gone bad, see our State Fair roundup.)
And a pre-dinner drink, a Cherry Sidecar featuring apple infused brandy ($9), was spot on, a sign that the bartending has maintained the standards it enjoyed before the departure of skilled mixologist Steve Filla.
One of the specials last Saturday was a vegetable lasagna featuring wild mushrooms. Purely based on the $23 asking price, the thing promised to be a dramatic reinvention of the dish — the expense suggested a painstaking preparation, exotic flavors, and a subtle perfection that would justify laying out a reasonably large stack of bills for veggie pasta.
No such luck. It was overly moist, and the overcooked mushrooms absorbed the watery tomato sauce and took on its flavor. The fungi never had a chance — it was overwhelmed by eggplant and tomato sauce and cheese — and the final result was a passable Italian dish dressed in fancy clothes.
THE PRETTY GOOD
The visit revealed a charcuterie plate that had evolved, with some missteps, without falling apart — there’s no question that it still ranks among the city’s best. The lack of a thinly sliced dry-cured prosciutto-like aged meat was regrettable, and the two salami-style meats were underpowered flavor-wise. (One had a stringy, essentially inedible casing which was no fun.) A stack of thick, barnyardy-tasting pickle slices was another lowlight.
That said, two different terrines were pleasant and light on their feet; pickled beans, ramps, and kimchi were all well-executed; and the duck / chicken pate was just superb, with a smooth, buttery texture and deep, soothing, rich flavor. With time and tweaking, the plate could easily return from its delicious-but-imperfect status back to impeccable. And in the meantime, it’s only $12, a $3 savings over the old price.
There’s no question that the Craftsman is a different place than it was six months ago. There’s also no question that it’s a place with a lot of promise that’s still a ton of fun to dine at. With some diligent attention to detail and an eye on the always-baffling but critical question of giving diners a fair value, The Craftsman’s future is a bright one.
BEST BET: Still the charcuterie plate ($12). It’s a kaleidoscope of delights.
Upscale farm-to-table on East Lake
4300 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55406
CHEF: Ben Jacoby
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes on weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $13-24