WHEN WE VISITED THE CRAFTSMAN at eight o’clock on a Friday night, we found the place in the middle of what people in the restaurant business call “getting slammed.” This came as a surprise. We’d always thought of this Longfellow restaurant as a sleepy, neighborhood place, but there we were, wedged into a corner of the overcrowded bar, watching other diners eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves.
The Craftsman is at an interesting point in its three-year history. When the current chef Mike Phillips—formerly the chef and owner of Chet’s Taverna in St. Paul—came on board a year-and-a-half ago, he found the restaurant undergoing “an identity crisis.” The favorite local bar, Molly Quinn’s, had evolved into an upscale restaurant with polished Arts-and-Crafts-style furnishings and a San Francisco chef—but the neighborhood remained middle-class mellow. Who was this restaurant for? Phillips consolidated the separate bar and restaurant menus, focused on quality ingredients from nearby organic and sustainable providers, and steered the menu away from its original fusion concept, bringing it more in line with his haute-Midwestern aesthetic. Now, thanks to good press and word of mouth, the restaurant seems to be on the upswing. Can the Craftsman’s ambitions transcend its location?
One benefit of running a neighborhood restaurant is that since your patrons aren’t coming far, you rarely have to manage inflated expectations. When we learned our eight o’clock reservation still meant a 20-minute wait, the harried look on the hostess’s face made us nervous. But, when we were finally seated, our knowledgeable, professional server made us feel well taken care of.
As for the food, our favorite was the pizza, piping hot and generously topped with purÃ©ed potatoes and chorizo. The pizza hails from the old bar menu, as do the grass-fed beef-burgers. We saw a lot of the latter—smothered with bacon, white cheddar, and harissa—and wondered if the regulars knew something we didn’t. Phillips says that they used to sell 60 burgers a night, but now that they are seeing more 952 and 763 area codes on the reservation book, that number has gone down by half, with those diners ordering more upscale dishes. It seems that the travelers want something more.
As for the more ambitious offerings, the elements seem to be there—the ingredient list is a Who’s Who of local producers, including Wild Acres duck, Fisher Farms pork, Star Prairie trout—but we found the execution to be hit-or-miss. The lamb loin was a beautiful cut, crusty and rare—perfect. The flatiron steak with fries and bÃ©arnaise was harder to judge because it seemed to have lingered in the kitchen a tad too long. The pork chop split the difference, and was perhaps most remarkable for the accompanying grilled maple sausage.
Phillips is a passionate and thoughtful chef and Longfellow should be grateful to have him. Whether or not the Craftsman will become a destination restaurant remains to be seen. But the neighbors seem to like it just the way it is.
4300 E. Lake St.
Dinner daily, Sunday brunch
Appetizers $6—$12, entrÃ©es $17—$27