Posh spice

RICK NELSON | Updated 12/6/2012

The Kenwood adds a splash of flavor to an old-money Minneapolis 'hood.

There's now another reason to aspire to a Kenwood address. It's called, naturally, the Kenwood, and it's a sterling addition to a welcome trend: the ascendancy of the neighborhood restaurant.

On its surface, chef/owner Don Saunders -- who also runs the more formal southwest Minneapolis restaurant In Season -- engages in the familiar mechanics of the casual, just-around-the-corner restaurant, but the menu is infused with intelligence, integrity and a striking visual sensibility, traits usually encountered several notches above the genre's berth on the food chain.

Sure, there are basics, aimed at neighbors who might hit the place up a few times a week, but Saunders imbues them with unexpected finesse, minus the usual corresponding upcharge.

Take the burger, which utilizes ground beef from Limousin cattle sourced from an Osceola, Wis., farm. Saunders grills thick patties of the lean, juicy meat to just above rare, then gives them the fat-cat treatment, capping it with better-than-bacon pork belly, a slab of decadent Gruyère and a scrupulously fried egg, presenting the whole shebang in a glorious brioche bun.

There's also a Caesar salad. Sort of. Saunders grills romaine hearts until the outer leaves are traced with a smoky char, and the tightly crimped lettuce begins to open and tiptoes to the edge of the wilted precipice. Next comes a drizzle of a simple Dijon-white wine vinaigrette, and then the plate is dressed with a traditional egg yolk-lemon juice emulsion, a lovely acidic-creamy contrast.

The restaurant has the flexibility of a Bikram yoga instructor, easily segueing from morning coffee and pastries to a brunch-lunch hybrid before settling into dinner. At noon, several select holdovers from the evening menu are offered along with deftly prepared omelets, a decent take on shrimp and grits and a steak-and-eggs combo that is to the truck-stop version as the Vikings are to touch football. But the dish to order is a sublime Benedict, where sheets of velvety cured salmon and poached eggs are laid over a toasted slice of hearty ciabatta-like rye (the first-rate breads and pastries hail from Patisserie 46) and smothered in a supple, dill-packed Hollandaise.

At dinner, half the menu is devoted to two levels of eclectic small plates: snack-size and share-size. The former includes a mellow coriander- and cumin-scented hummus, and toasts smeared with a rich salt cod brandade, a hint of preserved lemon sneaking into each bite. Larger options are headlined by extra-plump mussels, retrieved from Maine's chilly coastal waters, steamed in white wine and finished with a sharp basil pesto and a flavor-enhancing splash of Pernod.

Dinner's entrees cover pork and duck, but seafood is where Saunders really shines, whether he's nudging a delicate pan-browned flourish on snowy, moist and gently sweet skate, or drawing out the enticing ruby color of seared tuna.

A disdain for the same-old, same-old makes for lively meals. Frog legs, tempura-battered and fried, with plenty of garlic? Decadent lardo, spread over toasts? Yes, please, to both, along with two other standouts. One is a blend of different confit duck parts -- shredded leg and chopped heart and gizzard -- all bound together with a paste of seared duck liver and rolled into a wonton wrapper, cigar-style, to create a memorably savory bite. The other is firm-fleshed, silver-skinned Spanish boquerones -- aka marinated white anchovies -- which boast a tangy vinegar bite. Saunders lays them over crisp, orange-kissed crostini, or serves them with the grilled romaine salad, and they are irresistible.

The standout dessert -- all are the work of sous chef Matthew Hughes -- is a sublime chocolate pot de crème, garnished with a palate-cleansing candied ginger.

The room's clubby overtones are an irony-free nod to the neighborhood's old-money aura. The astute floor plan offers a glimmer of the modern: The open kitchen, visible from most of the dining room, is fronted by a counter of ringside seats; dinner and a show, right?

THE KENWOOD ★★★ Where: 115 W. 21st St., Mpls., www. thekenwood restaurant. com, 612-377-3695. Prices: Snack plates $4-$8, small plates $11-$14, entrees $16-$26. Recommended: Butternut squash soup, mussels, beet salad, salmon Benedict.