Sometimes the city's chain of lakes feels like a bit of an inconvenience. Seriously? There's only one way around Lake Harriet and now I have to weave through South Minneapolis church traffic? It seems our irritation tends to recede as we head North--up and around Lake of the Isles, skirting Lowry Hill and passing beautiful old Minneapolis estates as we enter the Kenwood neighborhood. Any leftover shred of annoyance immediately dissolves as we pull up to one of our favorite brunch spots, just West of the lake, and right next to Birchbark Books. The Kenwoodopened its doors in the summer of 2012, and has since made itself a neighborhood fixture. We recently met up with owner and award winning chef, Don Saunders, to learn more about his vision for the restaurant, and partnership with the community. How did The Kenwood come to be?
My wife had seen something on Facebook saying the Kenwood Café was gonna close up shop. She just was like, 'Hey, if you ever wanna do another neighborhood spot, you might wanna take a look at this space.' It’s sort of in a prime, awesome neighborhood...so, I guess the short answer is: location, location, location. It just seemed like a spot that I couldn’t pass up. It seemed like a spot that I would be able to listen to the neighbors, and see what they wanted, and bring my style to it, and it would be a really great match.
How have you blended your vision for a restaurant with community expectations?
Well, at my first restaurant, In Season...we just did dinner service. At the Kenwood, we do brunch all week, and have a little snack menu...and that idea was inspired by a trip to Chicago. I ate at a place called Longman and Eagle, and that’s what they do. They do a brunch menu throughout the week. I thought it would be perfect for the Kenwood neighborhood, where you have those different reasons for coming here at noon on a Wednesday. Some people are on a business lunch, some people are just taking a walk around the lake and getting a coffee and some eggs, you know?
What parts of In Season do you bring to the Kenwood, and do you see a kind of evolution in your work?
I don’t think my cooking style has really changed from In Season to the Kenwood. It’s just more of a comprehensive offering that we have here. In Season was so focused on just seasonal items--nothing’s gonna stay the same, we’re always gonna change, there's no real signature items. Where as here, we've developed a few main stays. Between all the menus, I'd say there’s 5 - 7 items that are staples, that I don’t think I’ll ever change. Things like our grilled romaine, our Kenwood burger, our mussels, our huevos rancheros...I tried to change the huevos, but there was a big uproar! I won't do that again.
Where do you source your ingredients?
We use a lot of local farmers--definitely for proteins I have some favorite local farmers. I got Pat from Wild Acres--his ducks are, like, better than anything local or national I've ever had. We’re now finally switching to his pheasants. He does pheasants, ducks and turkeys. He’s up in Pequot Lakes and he just has a reputation with chefs. He’s awesome.
What about produce?
For produce, in the spring through the fall--I have my list of 80 or so different vegetables and fruits that I want to use--I first look at what my favorite three or four local farmers are carrying. Sometimes I’ll do that in reverse--I’ll see what they’re offering and that will inspire me to use that product. Not only am I supporting a local farmer, which feels great, and people want that, but nine times out of ten, the product is superior to what you’re getting elsewhere.
How does the space reflect the restaurant’s function? Also, tell us about the plaid walls!
So, there’s a guy, and he’s getting a lot of press lately--he’s been in Mpls St. Paul Magazine for being one of the best dressed people. He’s, like, the sharpest, classiest guy, and he’s really funny, too. His name is Jim Smart. What’s cool about Jim, is not only is he one of the top restaurant and retail designers in the cities, but he and his wife live in the neighborhood. She’s even cooler than he is... you can say that.... Anyways, Jim approached me when he knew I was taking this place, and he was like, 'I’d love to work with you. This one is dear to my heart because it’s my neighborhood, and I know you’re gonna build an awesome restaurant here, and I’d love to be a part of that.'
Jim and I got together and determined we wanted it to blend into the neighborhood. I imagined this kind of old English feel to it...without looking like a pub, but with some of those elements. It's funny, because the plaid thing tied in with that, but Jim also has a personalthing for plaid. He’s, like, a super sharp dresser, but he always has one piece of plaid on, whether it’s a handkerchief, or tie or even socks. It's like this weird rule of his... and so I think plaid walls were kind of a personal statement, too.
What are some of your favorite restaurants?
My favorite type of food is sushi. My wife and our six-year-old son--that’s our special night out. We’re kind of sushi aficionados, I would say. Origami is probably my favorite, but we just found this place called Sushi Fix. I was skeptical at first. It’s in a strip mall in Wayzata, and they started as a food truck, but it is awesome. It’s super good. I think they’re building a name. You can tell when you eat there that everyone that’s coming in is hooked. It’s all regulars coming in there to get takeout, and the owner knows their names every time they come in. It’s like people are addicted to it.
How about in the city?
We really like Corner Table. I love his food--I think his name is Thomas Boemer. I love that place. When we did live in South Minneapolis, there were a lot more restaurant choices that we really liked--Broders', Tilia…
Oh, I gotta mention, Yogurt Lab is my favorite place on the planet. I go, like, twice a week, and I get the same thing every time. My wife and son give me a lot of crap for it. It’s a blend of salted caramel and vanilla with puppy chow and a little bit of Reese’s Cups, and one squirt of hot fudge over the top. I finally hit double digits--it cost over $10. It’s kind of embarrassing.