Icehouse is very cool

Icehouse's imaginative dishes include the brunch menu's savory eclair, with glazed pork belly and cheddar sauce. Take the tour...
Icehouse's imaginative dishes include the brunch menu's savory eclair, with glazed pork belly and cheddar sauce. Take the tour...
Ben Lansky

It's Hollis Roads's first day off in a month and a half, and he's going to celebrate it by not baking a single thing.

For most people that task is usually pretty easy to achieve, especially in the midst of the sweltering heat wave we've been experiencing, but as the pastry chef at Icehouse, the fun-for-all restaurant and music venue on Eat Street, Roads has a steady stream of pie crust to crimp, bread dough to proof, and choux to pipe. In the weeks leading up to the launch of a new restaurant, it's a safe bet that both kitchen and managerial staff will experience some anxiety over how smooth (or bumpy) service might be at the soft opening. They will spend long hours carefully planning menus. They'll agonize over how a certain dish should be plated. They will engage in ridiculous arguments with co-workers about whether white or black napkins will better reflect the intended feel of the interior space. All that is enough to make any sane person's head spin, but restaurant people are a unique breed, and Roads says bringing this particular "restaurant with a stage" vision to fruition has been both a team effort and a labor of love.

"A lot of people here have worked together in some capacity before, so we already have a good rhythm," Roads explains. "Matt [Bickford], our executive chef and co-owner, and I worked together for three years at Be'wiched, and he met Tomas Baistrocchi, who is our sous chef, at a catering event. All the while Matt kind of had this plan brewing to open a second deli, but over time the concept evolved and really became his baby."

Food-wise, that concept was to create a chef-driven menu of imaginative, elevated small plates, and they have pulled that off quite well. There are sweet and perky gulf shrimp in a vibrant, pesto-tinged broth with itty bitty rectangles of potato cooked risotto-style, until the starches come out and thicken the dish. There's a boat of adult mac and cheese, blushing ever so slightly thanks to the dollop of tomato sauce and three little fried crab croquettes that finish the dish. There's all manner of house-made charcuterie (something Bickford is very familiar with, having made a name for himself and his meats at the aforementioned Be'Wiched Deli in the North Loop), including a daily-changing hot dog on a glossy homemade bun and a chicken-foie sausage that I'll plan to recall when going to my own personal happy place. Also in that category is the savory eclair served at brunch, a small glazed pastry sliced tip to tail and stuffed with maple-brushed pork belly and a smoky, smooth cheddar cheese sauce.

Though small plates are the focus for late night and dinner, Bickford hasn't altogether abandoned his deli roots. He's still doing his signature pastrami and smoked brisket (among other simple and tasty sandwiches, like the smoked chicken with pungent yet buttery manchego cheese and the sushi-inspired cured salmon with avocado) and has added a truly excellent burger to his repertoire for Icehouse. We ordered ours with the more conventional mushroom and Swiss accoutrement, but if you're really feeling indulgent you can add foie gras and truffle to the already richly flavored beef. Yes, it means you are getting a $20 burger, but really, that's not so expensive for a luxury culinary experience, right?

As for the non-food (and food-enhancing) concepts behind the restaurant, Bickford and co-owner Brian Lieback tapped Dave Wiegardt, former manager of the Turf Club in St. Paul, to manage the bar side and bring in a variety of musical acts. "There are other places in town that have food and are music venues, but they are usually weighted more heavily to one side," says Roads. "Matt's plan, and what we all wanted going into this, was really to be able to be respected as both a music venue and as a full-blown restaurant." The two really go hand-in-hand here. On our visits, the music always perfectly complemented the time of day and the setting: Jazz for a casual dinner, a DJ during late-night cocktails, and old-timey bluegrass at brunch. Nothing was ever so loud that we couldn't comfortably hold a conversation, but the dining room has several different sections (as well as an outdoor patio) to accommodate your particular proximity preference.

The owners were also wise to enlist the talent of bartender extraordinaire Johnny Michaels, whom Bickford met while working briefly at La Belle Vie, to design the bar program — and what an extensive and delightful bar program it is. After eating and drinking a handful of times at nearby Eat Street Social, the other new kid on the block, I doubted that anyone else in the area could compare to the level of whimsy, sophistication, and pure deliciousness one can coax from an alcoholic beverage, but Icehouse gives Eat Street Social a run for its money. The specialty drink menu includes dynamos like the powerful yet refreshing Full Grown Man, a mixture of bourbon and rum with house-made ginger beer; the fruity and sour Mothership Rita made with grapefruit juice, rhubarb, and a bitter hint of aperol; and, perhaps their most notable cocktail (aside from the epic bloody Mary they serve at brunch that's garnished with a mini doughnut), the Little Richard, which arrives at your table with the image of its namesake's face floating atop the vanilla cream foam. If there's not enough for you to choose from or you desire a drink that's a little more to the point, turn that drink menu over and discover the world of the aptly titled "Icehouse Rocks." These $5 oversized shots are designed to sip and savor, made with specialty bitters and what one server described as "weird herbs." If that isn't enough to intrigue you, I don't know what is.

To go with your many cocktails, Icehouse offers a bar/late-night menu that includes sloppy nachos of fried corn tortillas with pico de gallo, guacamole, and thick strips of brisket; crusted, lovely mini-meatballs in a cheesy sauce (my ideal bar food); and Bill's Electric Beans, one of Roads's overlooked favorites, which he describes as a "spicy, Midwestern version of a cassoulet with our house-made sausage and chiles." Our chosen spicy kick came in the form of the dry-rubbed chicken wings, served with crescents of crunchy pickled celery and craggy little hunks of blue cheese. At a heat level of two (out of three), they were tear-inducing. I applaud the boldness, but I feel the need to make a public service announcement for those who like to have an appetizer and still be able to taste their entree.

One of my favorite things about the small-plate concept at Icehouse is that it extends all the way into the dessert menu, where just a few bites of something sweet to end your meal is more than enough. We loved the simple rhubarb crisp flavored with vanilla and rose, and the just-so-sized bourbon and bacon sundae with homemade ice cream. But Roads says his main focus is on the fruit pies. "I love to work with the seasonal ingredients and really show people how good they are when they aren't messed with too much. I want all the desserts to be familiar but really well executed." It's a guiding principle that results in his fabulous crumble-topped blueberry pie simply bursting with unmanipulated fruit and served with pale, golden, not-too-sweet sweet corn ice cream.  One bit of advice he did take: "Steven Brown from Tilia came in to eat one night and was so complimentary about everything, but Matt kept prodding him for constructive criticism. Finally he was like, 'You should add cinnamon to the rice pudding. That's how my mom made it.' Needless to say, I added it. Like, immediately."

Bickford's vision certainly seems like it's been realized. He and his band of merry Twin Cities scenesters have created a hip, fun, Frankenstein's monster of a bar/club/deli/diner/restaurant with carefully prepared, approachable food, loads of ambiance, and cocktails to draw a crowd, no matter the time of day. Put it on your short list for an awesome first-date spot.

Ben Lansky
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2528 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404


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