It’s in Minneapolis, it’s the best restaurant for miles around, and odds are you have never even heard of it.
Sauced, a little neighborhood bistro at 2203 44th Ave. N. (at Penn Ave.) isn’t just the best restaurant in north Minneapolis; it’s the only restaurant in north Minneapolis with a menu of contemporary cuisine and a real wine list. Chef John Conklin’s menu ranges from spaghetti squash cakes over a red pepper coulis ($9) and seared scallops with a chamomile glaze ($11) to seared salmon with saffron risotto ($18) and grass-fed beef tenderloin over roasted red potatoes with currant demi-glace.
North Minneapolis has some charming little neighborhood cafes, like the Sunnyside, 1825 Glenwood Avenue North; and Milda’s, 1720 Glenwood; and Emily’s F&M Café, just down the street from Sauced at 2124 44th Ave., but nothing nearly this ambitious.
When Carol and I stopped by for lunch yesterday, we grazed across the menu, starting with a Caesar salad ($9) and the duo of spreads – smoked salmon with tarragon and pancetta with blue cheese and roasted walnuts, and then moving on to a salad of garlic roasted vegetables with goat cheese, served over a bed of spinach with a balsamic vinaigrette ($10), and an entrée of bucatini with mushrooms, asparagus and caramelized onions in a red pepper cream sauce. We enjoyed it all – the flavors were lively and robust, but still had subtlety and nuance, like the notes of fresh tarragon in the smoked salmon spread. We really didn’t have room for the roasted peach-strawberry tart ($8), but we ordered it anyway, and ate every bite.
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There is a lot more on the menu that I would like to try, including the shrimp ceviche ($10) and the tarragon mussels ($11), the cold soup duo of cantaloupe peach and tomato gazpacho ($9), and the vegetarian sandwich of avocado, oven-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions and cremini mushrooms, topped with Brie and served on rosemary kalamata bread ($10). You don’t have to eat fancy, though; if all you want is a burger and a beer, the menu also offers a couple of Angus beef burgers and a tuna melt, and the selection of tap beers includes Surly Bender, Fuller’s ESB, and locally brewed Finnegan’s.
Later yesterday afternoon, I called Conklin and asked him about his plans for the restaurant. “We are not looking at doing anything fancy,” he told me. “I am not Doug Flicker (chef at Mission American Kitchen), I am not trying to do anything that has never been done before. “I am just trying to take the traditional French mentality and put to good traditional rustic food.”
Conklin didn’t learn French technique in France, or even at a cooking school. He learned his craft on the job, starting as a dishwasher in small-town Minnesota at the age of 12, and working his way up. He was as a line cook at a Bakers Square in Saint Cloud before going to work for Michael McKay at Gallivan’s in Saint Paul; when McKay was hired to open the Sample Room in northeast, Conklin joined him as sous-chef. He credits McKay with teaching him everything he knows about cooking.
Conklin and his wife Tricia Clark, and partner Susie Gilbertsen took over the restaurant in December, but the sign above the door still says Rix, the name of the burger joint that preceded it. He had hoped to have a new sign up by April 1, Conklin told me, but there have been some unanticipated expenses.
These guys are facing an uphill climb. A lot of very good restaurants have failed in north Minneapolis over the years, from Skip’s Barbecue and Lucille’s Kitchen to Rick’s American Café and Coconut Grove. But Conklin is an optimist. He and Tricia bought a house nearby in the Folwell neighborhood, and he is not discouraged by the abundance of For Sale signs nearby. “I see this neighborhood taking off,” he told me He sees families starting to migrate across the river from Northeast and buying homes on the north side.
Wouldn’t it have been a lot safer to open a place in south Minneapolis? The idea has no appeal for Conklin: “the people in south Minneapolis who can afford $180,000 – $220,000 homes have enough places down there.”