At Bardo, your reservation comes with a warning: “Please be advised that we only hold late reservations for 15 minutes and do not seat incomplete parties.”
Fair enough, considering the razor-thin margins of running a restaurant and the demands of a small dining room. Bardo’s intimate space, in the former Rachel’s on East Hennepin Avenue, certainly presupposes a tight turn of tables and a smoothly operated seating chart. Its elegant double-sided bar welcomes guests and takes up a third of the room; behind it is a cozy, sometimes brimming seating area for diners with reservations.
But what reciprocity, if any, exists with this 15-minute warning? One Friday night, rushing to make our reserved time, lest we lose it to the table vultures of Bardo’s hypothetical scenario, we found ourselves not welcomed to our seats, but crammed into a front entryway, where we were told it would be 15 minutes or so before our table was ready.
Waiting is a natural part of the dining order. Restaurants are run by actual human beings and subject to the fickle nature of guests, some of whom spend 20 minutes rehashing the week’s events together after the bill’s been paid.
Here is where hospitality shines: in the open communication between staff and would-be diner, and in the furnishing of a fresh cocktail in the waiting patron’s hand. What a difference a seasoned host would have made.
A drink would have been especially helpful in Bardo’s case, as the caliber of cocktail coming from the bar is high. When we were finally able to squeeze in at the bar, almost everything we ordered was balanced and expertly engineered. The You Can’t Beet This ($12), a deep-pink gin flip, sported a foam top smoother than any we’ve had in town—simultaneously firm enough to stay afloat but velvety enough to integrate fully into the body of the cocktail with each sip.
Shortly after ordering our round of drinks, we were ushered to our table, where the lingering bitterness over the 30-minute wait dissolved as our server cheerfully set our places and reset the mood. Though we had another service hiccup—when a different server approached before we ordered entrees and asked if we were ready for dessert—overall, the ship was righted once we began our meal.
The dinner menu at Bardo is arranged for sharing, with half-plates available for nearly every offering. Interpret the word “sharing” loosely here, as most of the portion sizes divvied up to an amuse bouche for the five of us. In the cold scallops appetizer ($16), wafer-thin quarter-rounds of scallop disappeared almost as instantly as they arrived, with only the shock of the yuzu sauce as a reminder we’d eaten anything at all.
A restaurant takes a gamble by placing itself in this echelon of fine dining, a plane of high prices and correspondingly high expectations. Chef Remy Pettus, formerly the opening chef of Eastside in downtown Minneapolis, is up against a growing field of exceptional institutions—some, like Spoon & Stable, within a mile of his doorstep. The Twin Cities continues to mature into a nationally recognized food scene; the fight for diners’ pocketbooks is fiercer, the regulars harder won. Even as Midwesterners relinquish their death grip on the meat-and-potatoes value meal, the budget-minded consumer is a fixture. The smaller the portion size, the more jaw-dropping the dish must be to warrant a princely price tag. Bardo didn’t always connect the dots.
In the crispy shrimp with white beans and black garlic gremolata ($17), the plump, rosy shrimp were toothsome and snappy, but the beans were chalky and undercooked. The boquerone and soft egg tartine ($14) layered flavors beautifully, counterbalancing salty pops of curled anchovies against harissa paste, cooling cilantro, and charred bread. But the soft egg was cold, as unwelcome as an ice cube on warm toast.
From the Fresh Pasta and Grains section of the menu, the agnolotti ($14/$25) rose to the occasion with its delicate, cheese-stuffed pillows, uplifted by lemon and herbs and the textural flourishes of bacon and diced squash. The gnocchi ($13/$23) was elegantly prepared with smoked tomato, leek, mushroom, and preserved egg yolk, but the “large” portion was far too precious for the price. A mixed grain risotto ($12/$19) lacked the creamy, filling quality of a risotto and came together more as a wild rice pilaf, all the more disappointing if you’ve ordered it as your main meal instead of a side.
As it turns out, the sides aren’t a bad place to build your meal; we found the greatest successes of the dinner menu hidden there. The Aligot potatoes ($9) with chevre and chives were pureed to silk and made for bowl-licking. The blistered kale ($9), though more braised than blistered, was bright and garlicky with little flecks of chiles and pepitas for crunch. Do not miss the house bread ($7), a buttermilk quick bread with a craggy crust and soft interior, served alongside herbed butter with lavender honey and chile flakes.
Each of these would pair well with the a la carte meat dishes, like the game hen torchon ($15/$26), a roulade of tender meat with crispy skin, served with a sweet carrot puree, chanterelles, and a savory jus. Ditto the tender bison steak ($17/$32), cooked to a sumptuous rare red and practically crying out for a plate of potatoes to ride alongside.
Since it opened in late August 2017, Bardo has made a few changes. It ended its brief experiment with an automatic 18 percent service charge in lieu of tipping, and hiked its menu prices, adding a buck here and there. It also recently nixed its knee-buckling lamb burger for reasons we cannot comprehend or forgive.
Overall, the greatest use for Bardo we found was in front of us all along: at the bar, where the exceptional cocktail menu and some very reasonable prices await. A short happy hour (4-5 p.m.) offers beer, wine, and a featured cocktail all in the $4-$12 range. With the lounge menu, available from 4-6 p.m. and 10-12 p.m., you can get most of the side dishes and a fried chicken sandwich ($12). It’s no lamb burger, but it’s enough to lure you into a seat at the bar.
222 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis