A neighborhood restaurant can come in any shape or size, and while there is no formal definition for one, it is well understood that it must be accessible, locally owned and frequented by nearby residents.
For all its accolades and fanfare, Petite León, the Kingfield newcomer, is a neighborhood restaurant — if you look innocently enough.
The space, a mishmash of old bones from its predecessor, Blackbird, along with dressy upgrades — like dimly lit chandeliers that slink down from above, tufted booths that stretch across the room, and stained-glass doors — invites you to walk in even though it's not a recommended approach on busy nights.
It's not a fancy place. The hosts are always beaming. Conversations between diners and bartenders flow like the generous wine pours. And the bar snacks, like a wholesome trout dip shaped into a quenelle, sweet parcels of piquillo peppers and a knockout smashed burger, may be progressive but also crowd-pleasing — and substantial. So, too, are the small and big plates that are offered without much of a binding theme. But who cares when you can cobble together a meal with dip, crackers and bubbly and call it a grand time, any night of the week?
Neighborhood restaurants can be good restaurants, too. Petite León is a good restaurant — maybe even a great one, depending on what you order. To tell you why, consider the steak.
A bavette cut, an unsung cut more suited to bistros, is seared so it develops a handsome armor of a crust, with smoky, blackened tire tracks. The flesh is pink and fatless, yet lush and flavorful. Fat slices of the bavette rest on a swirl of steak sauce made from piquillos. It's incandescent and bright. A wedge of avocado, ripe and creamy, docks by.
Though there aren't many entrees on the menu, the steak convinces you to take Petite León more seriously than a neighborhood restaurant. It's the least you can do to reward the chef, Jorge Guzmán, for his efforts to bring flavors from his native Yucatán, Mexico, without being loud about it.
His technique and good choices certainly show. And Guzmán leans into them even more with his take on al pastor, the spit-roasted pork sweetened with pineapple. Here, he takes a deconstructionist approach, grilling pork collar until it's smoky and bedecking it with cured pineapple, along with onions. Below it is a silky habañero purée, sweet like a tropical ice cream. There are nixtamalized corn tortillas on the side, but you almost don't need them.
I'm equally smitten with Guzmán's bison tartare. Roughly cut, gently chewy pieces of bison commingle with appealingly earthy sunchokes, nori and an extravagant showering of Idiazabal, an unpasteurized sheep's milk cheese not unlike manchego. On top are thin potato crisps, which are a vessel for the tartare. Estela, a restaurant in New York run by Ignacio Mattos, uses sunchokes just as smartly, along with fish sauce, in its bison tartare. Both dishes are on my mind now.
If Guzmán is willing to bring back a few specials, I'd return in an instant. One, a barramundi tartine, was served as a special in April, and it distilled the essence of spring, when the weather turned just in time to serve sweet fava beans and good fish on crispy-grilled bread. It upstages another mainstay, the escabeche, which mimics the concept albeit with fish that wasn't very distinct from rather starchy garbanzos.
With more pruning, his other dishes could be more memorable. Slender broccolini, cooked just until snappy, rests on a vibrant mole — green, to match the vegetable — and would otherwise be a fine dish, except the miso vinaigrette is startling and the pistachio dukkah is oddly sweet. And I'm not sure if the robust, meaty flavor of rabbit sugo is the right pairing for squid-ink spaghetti and bonito, along with orphan flourishes of mint. The sugo is otherwise rich, the pasta silky and al dente, but taken altogether, they're a brave, if peculiar combination.
And with more consistency, more dishes can share the limelight. Mussels, for one, unfold like a Goldilocks fable: The first time I order it, every piece of bivalve is pristine, but the broth, made from the juices of the mussels, along with ham, dill and green garlic, is bland. On second and third orders, the broth is more intense — it alone would be a terrific dip for the terrific bread — though mussels are either sandy or less plump. I play Russian roulette with more than several rancid ones, too.
A fish special, for another, comes in the form of Skrei, a Norwegian fish that's firm and meaty like halibut and flakes like cod. It's perfectly cooked but salty, though the broth is deeply flavorful and appealingly spicy.
I wish Guzmán would expand his entrees — there are only four — only because I like his ideas for them. For the most part, anyway, the rest of his menu is fine, like a textbook beet appetizer, a serviceable Caesar and for desserts, a velvety Basque-style cheesecake that really feeds three, and a clever take on arroz con leche, where the cardamom and cherries are lilting and fresh.
But I suspect that's a matter of time. Petite León opened during the throes of the pandemic and operated as takeout-only for the first several months, until restrictions finally allowed indoor dining.
Guzmán now has the right platform to grow. The neighborhood is better for it, and the city is, too.
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Location: 3800 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-208-1247, petiteleonmpls.com
Hours: 5-10 p.m., Mon.-Sat.
Prices: Snacks and appetizers are $7-$15 and range from burger and fries to smoked salmon rillette and mussels; a handful of entrees ($24-$37) and desserts ($8) round out the menu.
Beverage program: With co-owner and cocktail maestro Travis Serbus in charge, bar offerings are inventive and plentiful. Choose between standards (Old Fashioneds) and "deep cuts" (try the Pisco, Love & Understanding) as well as a respectable lineup of wine and beer and an adventurous agave list.
Did you know: Chef Jorge Guzmán is a finalist for a James Beard Award in the Best Chef-Midwest category, his second nomination.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.