After soccer practice at Kenwood Park, at the north end of Lake of the Isles, families used to head to the Kenwood Cafe for sandwiches. Piles of boisterous, happy kids in team T-shirts, shin guards, and those knee-high soccer socks would signal to the daytime laptop crowd that it was time to pack up and head home.
The cafe, somewhere between a coffee shop and a deli, was a casual, friendly place, beloved in the neighborhood and mourned when it closed. When Don Saunders, of In Season and the late, great Fugaise, announced he was taking over the spot, the neighborhood rejoiced and rallied around the newcomer: This is their own little Brigadoon, a one-block business node mostly hidden to outsiders, who get confused as the street grid starts to warp and bend around Lake of the Isles. The neighbors themselves have a stake in keeping open the frame shop, the kids’ art studio, and Louise Erdrich’s excellent Birchbark Books, because so few others even know they’re here.
So, during opening week at The Kenwood, a few of those same soccer families came back. They hesitated visibly at the door: This was not their old, casual deli. While not formal, the interior is decidedly grown-up and deliciously WASP-y, with green plaid fabric on the walls, portraits of hunting dogs, heavy reclaimed-wood tables, wrought-iron chandeliers, and a lovely gray-green banquette running the length of the wall of windows that look out on the playground of Kenwood Elementary School.
Most of those families came in anyway, with a stern look to the kids to behave (and they did). Chef Saunders clearly didn’t mind having them there, because he greeted them with a smart, thoughtful, real-food kids’ menu: spaghetti with (excellent) pesto, a mini steak frites, a root beer float, and the like.
The rest of the menu veers ever further and further away from the old neighborhood deli. Saunders has definitely created a more casual, everyday sort of restaurant than In Season and Fugaise, but he’s still Don Saunders and he hasn’t packed up the (metaphorical, if not actual) tweezers just yet. There are artful smears of sauce, precise dollops of cream the size of chocolate chips, and little hillocks of microgreens teased into place, just so. (Even the kids’ plates are elegant.) But nothing we tasted elevated fussy looks over flavor — not at all.
Pretty much the entirety of the Snacks and Small Plates menus (all sized somewhere between an appetizer and an entrée) hit the mark. The Duck Offal Cigars ($6) are surprising and fun: the greasy, crispy indulgence of egg rolls with an intensely flavored, salty, rich filling. (Don’t think you like offal? Just don’t think about it. There’s not even a whiff of liver about these things.)
The Gnocchi with Pesto ($11) is a homey plateful of comfort, while the Beef Tataki ($13) — a wide landscape of tiny bits of the tenderest seared beef with pretty, precise little pickled slivers of squash and cauliflower — is the closest of anything we tried to fussy.
The two must-tries on this side of the menu take strong influences from continental European home cooking. In the Cured Salmon with Celery Root and Apple ($12), the classic French remoulade — tart, bitter, sweet, and creamy — sits on top of delicate slices of cured salmon. It was a generously sized plate, perfect for sharing, and we couldn’t get enough of it.
And the Ricotta Cannelloni ($14) brings together everything that is good about Southern European cooking, from the tender pasta to the complex stew base, tasting of a long-cooked soffrito, familiar to Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese cooks (in treasured variations), to the warm, briny sprinkling of fresh snow crab on top. With a wink and a smile, our waitress brought us a basket of bread, knowing we’d want to sop up every drop of that sauce. She was right.
The Kenwood’s soups and salads are restrained and refined, including a light, elegant Sweet Corn Soup ($6), and a Grilled Heart of Romaine ($6) that comes together like a deconstructed Caesar salad on the plate, with a lemony “egg yolk emulsion” and the smokiness of the grilled greens. Saunders’ love for little details emerges again in the Roasted Beets ($9): super sweet golden beets, tossed with nutty red quinoa and orange segments. This is on a smear of avocado puree and surrounded by mini kisses of an intense coconut cream. It’s all good — but is it a bit much? This is the dish that takes you furthest from the neighborhood restaurant toward the fine dining end of things.
The Kenwood gets all its baked goods from Patisserie 46, including the soft, slightly sweet brioche bun for the burgers and pulled pork sandwiches. The Kenwood Burger ($14) is sure to become a neighborhood classic, with its messy, satisfying topping of pork belly and a runny egg. The Pulled Pork Sandwich ($9) is more restrained, with a sweet, tangy edge and a not-too-sloppy filling. They both come with great big, fat fries, soft and creamy in the center.
In addition to the remoulade and cannelloni, the dish we’re definitely heading back to The Kenwood for is the Swiss Chard Cake ($17). This is not just some bone (heh) thrown to the vegetarians and health food nuts to keep them quiet. It is deeply flavored and deeply satisfying, with the meatiness of chanterelles, the sweetness of corn kernels, and the pleasant chew of the chard itself — one of the nicest uses we’ve seen of this neglected leafy green.
The Kenwood serves a full brunch every day from 10am to 2pm (coffee and pastries before that). And Saunders throws himself into the hearty excess that is American brunch. He serves up a massive array of thick French Toast ($9) with a light crust of granola and a full cup of maple whipped cream on top. The Biscuits and Mushroom Gravy ($11, + $2 with sausage) are rich and hearty (and also generously sized), not greasy or leaden. And the roasted kale not only makes it feel more virtuous, but also adds a nice bitter note. The Ham, Cheese, and Spinach Omelette ($10), while also good-sized, is mellow and flavorful.
For something a little more restrained, there’s the Poached Duck Egg ($7, + $2 with bacon). The egg was perfectly cooked and rich, the roasted tomato was sublime, and it comes with that fantastic Patisserie 46 brioche, toasted.
At dessert, the tweezers and fine dining sensibility come out again, with micro beet greens on the Deconstructed Carrot Cake ($8). But we barely noticed them, because the tender cake was still warm and the smear of cream cheese frosting may have been on the plate instead of the cake but it tasted just like it did in every childhood memory. (We could take or leave the fruit-layered Tiramisu ($8) — the only thing on the entire menu that made us think, “Eh. Actually, we could do better than that.”) With Izzy Pops — golf ball-sized ice cream popsicles — for the kids, the whole experience comes full circle and the whole family is happy.
While this is certainly not what the Kenwood soccer families are used to, I predict they’re going to get along with Don Saunders pretty well (if they leave the shin guards at home). And the rest of us may finally learn our way around the curvy streets of Kenwood.
Restaurant in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis
2115 W 21st St
Minneapolis, MN 55405
CHEF / OWNER: Don Saunders