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

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.

"When we first opened, we thought we'd make our own mortadella too, but that just got out of control," Schoenefeld said, confessing that the only things his kitchen doesn't prepare from scratch are the tater tots ($3.50, served with ketchup and, to up the bar, spicy, house-made harissa mayo), the pretzels, and the ketchup. Steak tartare is fresh and good ($9), served layered with capers and eggs in a striking pyramid mold beside beautiful, golden strips of buttered toast. It makes the steak tartare at half the steakhouses in town look like last week's jalapeño poppers.

Speaking of jalapeños, Schoenfeld and Emery even manage to unobtrusively gourmet-ify chili dogs ($5.50, with those fries), which are cloaked in a potently fiery, Texas-style brisket chili made big and dusky with the power of smoked peppers. The salads at Bulldog are far more suited to ladies who lunch than guys who do shots—the Green Goddess ($6) was particularly charming, with a lively avocado-and-herb dressing and cracker-like wisps that are a sort of crisp, baked, spiced improvement on the old idea of croutons.

Of course, fine food requires fine drink—and while the Bulldog has a very nice little wine list ($85 Bollinger Champagne with your chili dog, Madame?), the real drinking delights are in its remarkable beer selections. The place has two dozen regional American and international taps on offer, and another three dozen bottles, including a great number of fine Belgian ales, triples, and so forth. I loved having the opportunity to try unusual beer styles and match them with food—the British import Young's Double Chocolate Stout ($6), for instance, starts off with a true cup-of-cocoa nose but mellows into something round and tart as it's sipped with food, reminding me of a big Côtes du Rhone—but the beer goes far better with the chili dog than wine ever could.

Arcadia Scotch Ale ($6) from Michigan was almost like a big, robust, yeasty, sweet iced tea, and goes brilliantly with the Bulldog's sole biggish-ticket entree, chicken and waffles ($14), in which a fluffy, fresh waffle is topped with fried chicken which is itself covered with maple syrup filled with little chopped bits of bacon. All you beer lovers who despair that wine bars have seized all the food-matching good times, cheer up! Bulldog even has the snazzy goblets and similar specially designed glassware to accentuate the various beer notes of yeast and citrus. To all you lawnmower beer types who hate it when people use big words about beer, cheer up! Bulldog also has $4 pints of Bells and Summit, bottles of Grain Belt for $3.50, and TVs on the walls showing lots of different sports, all at the same time.

To what do we owe this rare bird, this bar bar with fine-dining grace notes? To Amy Rowland, mostly. Amy is one of the Bulldog's co-owners, and she opened the place with her husband, Chris, locally famous as the lead singer in Dumpster Juice, and Chris's boyhood best friend, Matt Lakovich, who owns the other Bulldog in south Minneapolis. (The two Bulldogs have little in common except for an owner and a name, and are unlikely to sync up unless some chefs are cloned and a kitchen is rebuilt.)

Amy Rowland is a longtime behind-the-scenes Twin Cities restaurant force—in fact, a wine list she designed at the Modern Café once won a City Pages Best of the Twin Cities prize. She started in restaurants 20 years ago at the Reindeer Fountain and Grill, and has put in time at Origami, the Modern, dear, departed Marimar, and others. It was actually at Marimar where she first met Landon Schoenefeld, who at the time was hardly old enough to drink, but he impressed her so much that when she conceived of the Northeast Bulldog concept, she tracked him down.

"I just kept asking myself, what if you took people with a real fine-dining background, and applied it to bar food?" Rowland told me. "You use local ingredients, you make most things from scratch, you have the best beer, the best wine, the best food you can do, but have it be approachable and affordable? When you work at so many places and try to do a really good job, you start to take ownership of the successes and failures, you start thinking: Maybe I could do this myself. But then you're like: Maybe I couldn't! Matt [Lakovich] wanted to open another bar, with us, but with our two small children, I thought: No, that's nuts." In the end, the Rowlands went for it, and one family's nuts turned into a whole city's gain.

Of course, I am gobsmacked. And I have to wonder: Is this where Minneapolis is heading? Will every SuperAmerica hot-dog roaster soon spin duck-garlic sausages? Will our State Fair cheese curds arrive topped with shavings of black truffle? Is the boil-in-bag beer-cheese soup of our collective soul turning into some kind of sous vide stout-Parmigiano potage? As long as there's a chef who is young, hungry, and willing to spend the wee hours messing with butter and thyme, I say the answer is a definitive: Could be! In the meantime, beer goggles never tasted so good.

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