“You Can’t Go Home Again,” the conflicted Thomas Wolfe entitled his final novel. Thank goodness brothers Chris and Andrew Ikeda paid no attention. The Minnesota-born chef duo, CIA graduates, earned their culinary chops in the fantasy climes of Hawaii, while Chris cooked for the likes of Steve Jobs and Christina Aguilera, and California, where Andrew donned his whites at Robert Mondavi Winery.
But you know the saying — once a Minnesotan, always a masochist — so they returned to their home state to open a restaurant during a week of 20-degree weather. They call it Lake & Irving, which pinpoints its Uptown location.
It’s Arts & Crafts all the way, from the simple décor of that Midwestern architectural style, to the 14-tap tower of artisanal brews, to what goes on in the open kitchen — an homage to both artistry and craftsmanship. It’s also a salute to Midwestern producers, from Kadejan Farms chicken to breads from Patisserie 46, with a few unpronounceable Hawaiian seasoning tossed in.
Tables and bar stools wee full on a recent Tuesday, evidence that, yes indeed, the neighbors welcomed a new hangout that offers affordable, homey, yet creative eats. From the list of enticing small plates ($7–$12) we snagged one winner after another, starting with a quartet of tiny, aren’t-they-cute tostadas built upon wonton crisps. They’re topped with sweet bites of butter-poached lobster enrobed in creamy guacamole, tossed with “Texas caviar” (black beans, here dusted with togarashi, which turns out to be chili peppers. (Servers-as-translators earn their keep.)
The smoked walleye rillette is a paean to our North Woods. Inhale that addictive smoky essence as you smear the yummy spread over paper-thin crostini. Add a dab of Dijon mustard waiting at the side to wake any unsuspecting Swede. Pile on the sweet, pink pickled onion strands, and you’re good to go. (Well, add the coffee stout if you’ve a mind to. And you’d better.)
On to the mushroom fries — a Lincoln Log arrangement of portobello spears dressed in a light tempura batter, ready to thrust into an inkblot arrangement of subtle black garlic aioli. Then call for the trio of St. Louis ribs, sawn into rather awkward two-inch slabs of bone to which bits of hoisin-glazed pork cling (all too well). White sesame seeds and tendrils of green onion act as the backup band.
Sated, we could have paid the check right then. But a quartet of entrees ($20 range) sang its siren song: pork chop in gochujang glaze, salmon with kabayaki drizzle, snapper crusted in masago arare, and shoyu short ribs. We settled, all too willingly, on the beef, glazed in soy (by now, I’m getting bored with that) till lusciously languid, attended by frizzled broccoli that almost explodes in your mouth like Pop Rocks, and a toss of kimchee (not high on my personal wish list). Were this Old Country Buffet — or grandma’s —we’d ask, “Where’s the mashed potatoes?”
Desserts? Who needs ’em? But there’s Sebastian Joe’s on hand if you do.