Birdhouse is good and good for you
Birdhouse's simple, homey desserts include a tart lemon curd with fresh berries. Take the tour...
E. Katie Holm
The owners of Birdhouse, Heidi and Stewart Woodman, who also own the famed New American restaurant Heidi's in Uptown, are getting locals to think about going out to eat a little differently. After all, most of us don't save restaurant dining just for special occasions anymore, so for the sake of our own health and the health of the planet, we are (or should be) trying to consume foods that are leaner, more sustainable, and less reliant on animals. But we also don't want eating out to feel like it's only fueling up, and the great thing about Birdhouse is that it doesn't. The Woodman's new restaurant on Hennepin serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an all-day menu, showcasing moderately sized, simply prepared dishes that are as healthy, thoughtful, and sustainable as they are surprising, enjoyable, and accessible.
Birdhouse tries not to exclude anyone. A couple of brunch-goers, for example, could order the savory, if a little Puritanical-sounding, barley porridge with mustard greens and a freshly made carrot-orange juice spritzer (so delightful), along with a plate of sweet and earthy root vegetable hash topped with bacon, egg, and cheese, along with a bold cocktail with watermelon and sharp, clean, cilantro-infused tequila.
Though you'll see a lot of twig-berry-nut, ancient forager-type ingredients on the menu, including quinoa, dandelion, turnips, and radishes, the food is far from trendy and may surprise and convert the type of person who refers to anything remotely healthy as "rabbit food." One of the best executed examples of this almost imperceptibly made-over comfort food was the keen waffle. It's hard to believe that anything made from spelt and quinoa could achieve the crispy exterior grid and still nail the buttery-tasting, melt-in-your mouth quality of a great diner-style waffle, but Birdhouse did it. With nearly every bite we remarked how fluffy, how flavorful this miracle waffle was, and it was made even more lovely and homey by spooning on some slightly peppery creamed chicken. If you're feeling more like a traditional, sweeter waffle for breakfast, you can order it with fruit compote, but we loved the throwback, creamed-stuff-on-toast idea of the savory option.
Another dish that initially inspired some scrunching up of noses was the lettuce soup. We'd imagined limp leaves floating around in some dismal, bitter broth, but the soup was smooth and luxurious — a vibrant puree of slightly piquant greens thickened with a bit of starch and cream. While some people might complain about the upcharge for bread on the side of your soup du jour (the charred sweet corn veloute was also impeccable, though we found it curious that neither soup was vegetarian or vegan), consider the type of bread you tend to get when it is free. Often it's the par-baked, flour-and-water variety, whereas Birdhouse's bread is substantive: hearty, crusty, seed-flecked, and well worth the $2 price tag.
Truly, we found very few gaffes when it came to the food. The sunflower-seed-encrusted whitefish was probably the biggest letdown, but it wasn't a bad effort. While the beluga lentils and Swiss chard under the fish were well seasoned, the fish itself didn't have much flavor, and calling anything on this dish "encrusted" (how did that term become popular? It's wholly unappetizing unless you're talking about jewels) is pretty misleading. The seeds were sort of fused to the fish but were scattered sparsely and didn't add much of anything. I was also somewhat disappointed with the quinoa and wild rice croquettes, which tasted like tiny bites of a good, hearty veggie burger, topped with super-finely chopped tomato, mild onion, and pickle. The issue was textural: They didn't have anything to bind them, nor were they fried enough on the outside to hold the grains together. As soon as fork hit croquette, the dish transformed into a rice salad.
Beyond this produce-laden and lighter fare, dinner is where Birdhouse brings out the big guns, offering dishes that appeal to even the most traditional, Midwestern, meat-eating palate. The best example is the braised bison short ribs. They're served with gritty, soft polenta, which was pretty bland on its own but provided the perfect textural backdrop to the stringy (in a good, classic pot roast kind of way), tender yet lean meat and the intensely smoky bacon-braised greens. The farro salad with roasted lamb was a study in harmonious pairing and confident execution. The medium-rare slices of lamb didn't upstage toasty pearls of farro tossed with creamy sheep's milk cheese and identically shaped sweet peas. Though the portions may be more moderate than what some people are used to, so are the prices, especially considering the quality and sourcing of the ingredients.
Desserts here are simple and homey: a warm peach crisp; a sundae with Sonny's vanilla ice cream and salty sunflower seeds; super-tart lemon curd with fresh, perfectly formed wild blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries.
Though Birdhouse could have relied on Stewart Woodman's celebrity status as a draw, he is rarely seen there; instead, he is putting the fate of the food in the more-than-capable hands of head chef Ben Mauk, a transplant to the Twin Cities who finished first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) before becoming the chef-owner of Twist Restaurant in upstate New York. Instead of the exclusive chef's table experience at Heidi's, where patrons can rub elbows with the culinary chic and witness a master at work grating hazelnuts or spooning out paddlefish caviar, Birdhouse is a more relaxed affair. Post up at the downstairs bar and watch, rapt, as Mauk and the rest of the white-coated kitchen staff deftly weave around stainless steel prep tables, reaching over each other's workstations, washing and destemming Jurassic-looking bushels of kale, beating eggs for the next day's mystery quiche, and filling delicate white ramekins with minted sweet pea pate — one of the most winning yet simple dishes we ate, finished with a thick layer of the purest, most subtly flavored goat cheese.
The space that is now Birdhouse used to be home to the quintessential Uptown date spot the Duplex, and when it closed in mid-December of last year, locals mourned the loss in a manner generally reserved for heads of state. In retrospect, this collective foodie blue period was warranted: The Duplex was a unique space with really solid food, unpretentious service, and inexpensive wine. Mauk and the Woodmans have rejuvenated the space while still preserving many of the architectural and atmospheric charms of the Duplex. It's a bright, airy, intimate bistro that feels somewhere between a very cool boardinghouse and a modern West Coast diner — a perfect place to get acquainted with some new ingredients without feeling trendy or preachy. In short, they're making very good food that you can feel good about eating. Just like its avian muse, Birdhouse seems poised to take flight.
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