Aside from being one of the most heralded local chefs, Landon Schoenefeld is also a Phish-loving hippie kid from Aberdeen, South Dakota. And also: Midwestern through and through, affable goofball, infectious laugher, quick wit, and an unmatched bouncy strutter in white kitchen clogs.
Over the years his cooking at Haute Dish (they celebrate their fifth anniversary this week) has taken on a mind of its own and risen to the ranks of cuisine -- clever somersaults of a middle America kid's staples: a greasy takeout bag of General Tso's chicken gone, you know, haute -- here it meets foie gras. At the new, hotly anticipated Nighthawks, here's what we see: casual, inviting, inclusive, and a place where the chef gets to doff any shackles and be a kid again. Here's our take on a first meal.
Schoenefeld and crew are of the "trial by fire" mindset -- they served around 150 people every night for the past three nights for soft openings, and both the bar and the dining room were packed shoulder to shoulder. They know they need to be ready for prime time; the whole summer will likely be this way.
The modern American diner concept takes its inspiration from classic diner faves, but more pertinently, it's like the chef took Haute Dish, threw the kitchen into reverse, and whipped a few shittys along the way. The freewheeling (and extensive) menu is divided thusly: soup and salad, fried, sandwich, hot dogs, eggs anytime, and pancakes. And true to Schoenefeld's style, these are not "any old" of any of the above.
Long known for his signature chicken and waffles at HD, here Schoenefeld spackles the chicken with fat, syrup, and bacon to form an exterior that crunches like tree bark yet satisfies like sticky candy. The meat is moist within, and we're already anticipating a Revival/Nighthawks fried chicken-off. The accompanying waffle was in fact not the promised Eggo, but a tender house-made affair.
One of the reigning kings of local burgerdom, this one is another not to be missed. Wholly the opposite of HD's towering take on a Big Mac, this is Smash Burger/Shake Shack style, all squishy bun, special sauce, and pickles. A note: I don't know where Nighthawks stands on the question of ketchup, but we wanted some here. HD's dehydrated ketchup powder is one of the few Heinz substitutes that actually works, but no whiff of ketchup was found near anything at Nighthawks. We say it's a non-negotiable at a diner, and hope to see some manifest.
Word to the wise: If a chef starts touting one of his own dishes as the best he's ever had? Order it. With campfire levels of smoke and lush edges of fat to rival pork belly, the pastrami here is surely the best in the state. Travel to Katz's if you want it any better. Another word to the wise: Ask for mustard on the side -- the sticky sweet, locally produced Uncle Pete's was too abundant to let the meat enjoy its rightful place on center stage.
Here they take the current hot dog trend mightily seriously -- they're footlong Kramarczuk's endeavors, mammoth enough to require one of those stands to keep them intact and upright. We double dog dare you to take one down in a sitting -- the Minnesoter dog is so heftily piled with potato salad, pickled herring, and trout roe it either requires two hands or a knife. Probably, both is better.
This is an ambitious menu -- over 40 items long, plus nightly "Blue Plate Specials" -- down-home faves like meatloaf with ketchup "frosting" (there's some ketchup), green beans, mashed potatoes, and gravy; or spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread and Parmesan. If we know Schoenefeld, and we do, those are dishes culled straight from his mama's 1980s kitchen.
A few other tidbits: Not only is he paying homage to American diner tradition, Jewish delicatessens are sneaking in around the edges too, not just with the pastrami, but also chopped liver and a classic matzoh ball soup. Pancakes are Shopsin's crazy -- embedded with things like bacon-kimchee-scallion and chorizo-cheddar-corn. Three styles of chicken, three styles of french fries, French dip, turkey gizzards! If there are any young cooks out there who want a comprehensive crack at the entire repertoire of American cooking, start here.
The space is casual, welcoming, even plain -- with lots of natural light streaming in from floor-to-ceiling windows, dark wood floors, cushy booths, a few pieces of American art (including the Nighthawks painting, naturally), and the best seat in the house is at the diner counter, which is actually an up close and personal bench seat on the line. It's close enough that one could reach over the counter and garnish the hot dogs.
3753 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis 612-248-8111 nighthawksmpls.com
The hours posted on their Facebook Page are as follows (though we have been told: "Dinner only for now. Brunch will start in another few weeks once everything gets a bit more dialed in and stable.") So, it is probably wise to call ahead: [Update: Sunday brunch will be served this week!]
Mon - Fri: 4:00 pm - 12:00 am Sat: 9:00 am - 3:30 pm & 4:00 pm - 12:00 am Sun: 9:00 am - 3:30 pm
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