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Postcard From Tom: Minneapolis

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

The menu at Craftsman in Minneapolis does not shout "Local!" The restaurant's beet-and-goat cheese terrine, duck leg confit and potato gnocchi are the kind of dishes you could find at a contemporary American outpost . . . frankly, just about anywhere. But a tip from a trusted food friend steered me to the place last month, and all it took for me to change my mind about the restaurant's intentions was a platter of sausage.

Hang on. While charcuterie has become the molten chocolate cake of dinner introductions from coast to coast -- ubiquitous, in other words -- the arrangement at Craftsman reveals surprising personality and a sense of place. Rabbit terrine finds chopped rabbit bundled in house-cured pancetta. Duck liver mousse, whipped up from fowl from northern Minnesota, is sweetened with local apples and pears rather than booze. There's dry-cured ham, too, aged by the restaurant, and salami, one of the trickiest specialty preserved meats to do well.

Michael Phillips, Craftsman's 43-year-old chef, figures he spends a quarter of his work time on his charcuterie. The effort shows. Even the accompanying crackers, seasoned with coriander and caraway, are made in-house. Their faint briny flavor? It comes from sauerkraut, worked into the dough before the crackers are baked.

"We like to ferment vegetables," jokes Phillips, a self-taught chef who has manned the stove for four of Craftsman's five years and previously worked for himself at the late Chet's Taverna, another kitchen that focused on regional accents. The chef's flat accent and unprepossessing manner give him away as a man from the heartland. (He's from Iowa.)

The secret to Craftsman's superior pork chop? "Salt, pepper and a good product" from the pedigreed Fischer Family Farms Pork, shares Phillips, who also knows not to leave the meat on the grill too long. His popular hamburger gets its kick not just from Gouda cheese but from kimchi -- Korean-style fermented cabbage -- tucked between the beef and the bun. The best compliment he says he can get from his customers: " 'Oh, my grandmother used to make this.' I love that one." (Such feedback probably does not apply to the house cocktail, the Minnesota Pickle Martini spiked with the brine from crocks of sauerkraut, and something of an acquired taste.)

The warm interior of the restaurant, just a few blocks from the Mississippi River in the city's Longfellow neighborhood, supports its name. Built in part by owners Mike Dooley and his wife, designer Susan Kennedy-Dooley, the minimalist 75-seat dining room is mostly wood: maple on the walls and oak on the floor. An outside patio is lined with salvaged pavers, red clay bricks from turn-of-the-century roads.

Trips to Italy, France and Greece over the years have shaped the chef's cooking, but when he's asked to name his biggest influence, Phillips doesn't hesitate to praise the area farmers who fuel his recipes with their milk, butter, pork, squash and honey, among other staples. The Minnesota emphasis extends to state-brewed suds and even a red wine on the drinks list.

Craftman celebrates much of what is local, but the establishment has its limits, like the Nordic staple of dried cod soaked in lye. "I don't think lutefisk would go over so well," reasons Phillips.

4300 Lake St., Minneapolis. 612-722-0175. http://www.craftsmanrestaurant.com. Dinner entrees $17-$28

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