Raising the Bar Bar

Is it just beer goggles, or does the Nordeast Bulldog have the best bar food ever?

Bulldog N.E.
401 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612.378.2855
The Bulldog MySpace page

With all the big-dream restaurants closing lately, much ado has been made about the possible death of Minneapolis's fine-cooking future—I know, because I've been the one making much ado. As ados go, however, call this ado addended: It turns out that young, ambitious chefs will make their name even if it means they have to sleep on a cot in a storage closet next to the Jim Beam bottles, and serve their painstakingly handcrafted terrines betwixt air hockey table and Golden Tee arcade game.

Bulldog hits a bull's-eye: Chef Landon Schoenefeld and owner Amy Rowland with some of their too-good-to be-bar food
Jayme Halbritter
Bulldog hits a bull's-eye: Chef Landon Schoenefeld and owner Amy Rowland with some of their too-good-to be-bar food

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Bulldog NE

401 E. Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55414

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: University

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What? You never thought you'd see the words "betwixt," "ado," "Jim Beam," and "Golden Tee" in the same paragraph? And sugar, I never thought I'd see hand-ground Kobe beef burgers rested before service in a beurre fondue for $8 in a place with an air hockey table, but we live in an age of miracles. An age of miracles in which a big old bar-bar, the kind of place with napkin dispensers on the tables, plastic baskets for the burgers, and hockey on the TVs serves powder-pink terrines of carefully layered fresh and smoked pork and has chefs laboring in the basement over pyramids of steak tartare, nursing Thomas Keller dreams.

Seriously. Welcome to the world of the new youngest chef in town: Landon Schoenefeld, a 25-year-old who's busy following one of Minneapolis's most hallowed paths to success: fleeing South Dakota for the big city, and then working till his teeth bleed. What, you don't think teeth bleed? I bet you'd think otherwise if you were working 20 hours a day and catching an hour's nap here and there on a cot next to the Jim Beam bottles. "I don't see too much daylight," Schoenefeld told me, explaining that the long, long hours came from trying to come up with systems to produce fine-dining-quality food in a tiny bar-basement kitchen.

Take the burgers, for instance. To make them, chef Schoenefeld trims Wagyu beef till he thinks it's down to about an 18 percent fat content, then slices it and cures it in the refrigerator overnight with thyme sprigs, black peppercorns, and kosher salt. The next day they take that beef, brush off the cure, double-grind it, and form it into patties. The burgers are then seared on a forge-hot iron skillet, removed from the heat, and allowed to rest in a sort of emulsified butter broth called a beurre fondue. All of these steps are designed to prevent the meat from becoming tough; they also allow the juices to distribute evenly through the burger, using the same logic with which you "rest" a steak after grilling it. Finally, when you order a burger, said burger is brought to temperature in an oven, which allows the extra fat from the beurre fondue to bubble out while preventing a dollop of precious moisture from escaping.

Sound complicated? Boy howdy, is it: Schoenefeld came up with this process by combining tips gleaned from various great chefs' cookbooks, including Judy Rogers's and Thomas Keller's, and from brainstorming with the various cooks he has worked with in local fine-dining superpower restaurants including Restaurant Levain, Restaurant Alma, 112 Eatery, and Café Lurcat. Of all the chefs he had late-night, recipe-deconstructing conversations with, none was more simpatico than his friend Erik Emery, a longtime Restaurant Levain sous chef. Now Emery is Schoenefeld's sideman at Bulldog, and the two spur one another on to ever finer and ever more difficult preparations.

Is this Bulldog burger worth all that headache? Boy howdy, squared: That's some burger. The meat is tender as tears, pink as roses (at least, if you want it that way, and I do), and has a flavor as big as a cattle drive. The burgers at Bulldog come in five varieties, including plain, for $8, and high-class, with truffle oil and brie, for $10—I fell hard for the $9 "Junk" burger, with big, crisp slices of local Fischer Farms bacon; mushrooms; leaf lettuce; tomato; onion; roasted garlic aioli; and your choice of cheese. Holy cats. That thing hits every note—salty, sweet, rich, richer, tangy, savory, big, bold, balanced, heavenly.

I'd thought that the gourmet-burger category was sewn up in this town, but serious burger junkies are now going to have to do same-day side-by-sides between this thing and the short-rib-stuffed burger at Vincent. Need I add that these burgers come with a complimentary pile of fresh, square-cut fries that arrive as golden as croissants and taste as real as daylight? In all my fry-eating days, I have never had French fries that tasted so very, very much like my dear, departed grandma's homemade ones, in all their carefully made, homespun, old-plain glory. Then again, if homespun old-plain isn't your cup of spud, you can get the things as appetizers in a Provençal style, dusted with fennel and served with tarragon aioli ($4), or sprinkled with truffle oil and graced with Parmesan cheese ($5).

If burgers and fries, even with truffle oil, don't sound like your idea of fine dining, then you should attend to the jaw-dropping "cold cuts and cheese" plate ($9), which features a gorgeous, peony-pale pâté of layered fresh and cured pork inset with cornichons such that when slices of the pâté are cut, circles of green pickle seem to float in the pink like Martian moons in a Star Trek sky—how pretty. The chicken liver pâté on the same plate is fresh and ethereal, its creamy lightness anchored by a scattering of preserved cherries. Three generous wedges of cheese, some adorned with Italian mustard preserves, or mostarda, and a few artisanal salamis round out the offerings.

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