Nightingale lures Twin Cities night owls
Nightingale's small-plates menu includes this stylish bruschetta with mushrooms and quail egg. Take the tour...
In all kinds of classic written works, from ancient literature to Renaissance poetry, the common nightingale has acted as a source of inspiration, a sort of romantic muse that symbolized creativity, spontaneity, and tenacity. For Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston, the husband-and-wife team behind Nightingale, a new Uptown hotspot, the bird represents a decade-old idea for a small-plate-focused restaurant, hatched (sorry) while traveling to other American cities that seemed to have a leg up on the late-night market. "It's not that there isn't anywhere to go for a late-night meal in Minneapolis," McCabe-Johnston explains. "I think Barbette and obviously 112 have a great reputation for catering to that crowd, but Jasha and I live in Whittier, and we just really wished there was a place to have a slow-paced, small-plate sort of meal, with drinks involved, that was close to home."
When you want something done right, sometimes you just have to do it yourself. McCabe-Johnston enrolled in culinary school at Art Institutes, got a dream internship at Restaurant Alma, and worked closely with Alex Roberts as he opened Brasa, eventually taking the position of head baker there. "I got some great experience, but Jasha and I always knew we wanted to open our own place. We were sitting across the street at Common Roots, and this place had been on the market for nine months, and we thought it was just perfect. It all came together in about a year." Though they moved fast, their concept was carefully crafted, especially when it came to their target audience. "Jasha tended bar at Mortimer's for 15 years, and I had been working in restaurants since I was a teenager, so it was important to us to give people in the industry somewhere to go when their shift is over that serves the whole menu, not just a limited late-night thing."
Limited it's not, but the spread isn't overwhelming either. Divided into snacks, bruschettas, and small plates, McCabe-Johnston's menu is eclectic with a bit of a French twist. I'd recommend ordering two plates per person and making your own little painter's palette of food with a spoonful or slice from each dish. The kind of people who are opposed to sharing food (a.k.a. the wrong kind of people) may not love to eat this way, but for in-between meals, slow grazers, and eaters who can't commit to just one dish, it's perfect. Start with one of the crusty bruschettas — either the version with roasted oyster mushrooms and gently fried, sunny-side-up quail's eggs or the one with ricotta, mint, and a sprinkle of duqqa, an Egyptian spice blend that's sometimes served as a side dish and consists of cumin, caraway, and hazelnuts. Simple and delicious. Move along to one of the dishes that features seafood, which are some of the best things on the menu. Absolutely order the scallops, which are prepared with an ethereal combination of sour green grapes and a rich, toasty, almond-thickened sauce. The enormous mussels are also a good bet. They're sweet and light, cooked in beer with smoked tomatoes and thyme, and served with a bit of bread for sopping up the faintly garlicky broth. Get a bit of freshness and crunch with the lively market salad, which is subject to change but for now features figs, fennel, dry jack cheese, and a vinegar-heavy dressing made with walnuts. Finally, get into the real meat of the meal with the braised pork shoulder (Brasa's influence really comes out in this dish) with roasted red peppers atop little squares of stiffened grits. Try a side of roasted, slightly caramelized cauliflower with harissa. Then split the flat but tasty burger, bursting with flavor thanks to the high-quality aged cheddar and bold, herbacious aioli. Oh, but get it with an extra side of fries, because those will be gone in a flash.
Just a few dishes seem to lack balance. Skip the wings, for example, which needed more sweetness to balance out the soy and could have spent longer in the fryer. "The more I eat them the less I like them," said my dining companion, which is not a great endorsement. The itty-bitty lamb chop (we figured it would be, but it was really extra mini) was one-note, and though I loved the idea of the plate of duck confit, duck-fat-soaked rye croutons, and beets as a fall version of an Italian panzanella salad, it was lacking in acid and the meat was especially salty.
The one thing McCabe-Johnston says gets overlooked on the menu but deserves more attention is the Swiss chard, which comes from Dragsmith Farms. "I always like to, and probably will always have, a leafy green on the menu even if it doesn't get ordered that much," she says. "The Brussels sprouts are an easy sell because they have bacon, but I love this chard. It's a little bitter, so we sweeten it with some bourbon-soaked raisins, and then it's got pine nuts and crème fraîche. It's just a really nicely balanced dish and a great thing to round out a meal."
Nightingale is in the middle of lots of bar action, right next to the Bulldog and near the CC Club, so it could have more accurately been named Night Owl. The restaurant opens for business at 4 p.m. and keeps the party going until 2 a.m., with the kitchen closing at 1, even on Sundays. Rejoice, citizens of Minneapolis, there is actually somewhere to get food past 8 on Sunday night! Oh, and drinks too. Plenty of drinks. Many of Johnston's cocktails seemed to veer toward the sweeter end of the scales, and they are reasonably priced at $8. I especially loved their take on the classic Sazerac and the Dark and Stormy, with Gosling's rum, a very spicy ginger beer, and a good dose of lime juice. The bar was also very accommodating and made up some fun, fruity, non-alcoholic drinks for the teetotalers at our table. McCabe-Johnston says she's also in very early talks with Boom Island Brewery about the possibility of doing a beer dinner. "Theirs is my favorite beer on our menu, and I'd love to maybe do a four-course tasting menu with four Boom Island beers. That's one of the benefits of having your restaurant be closed on Mondays. You have the space to do events like that."
So Nightingale proves that late-night eating doesn't have to be all pizza and chicken fingers (not that there isn't a time and place for that), but the million-dollar question on the minds of Uptowners is: When will you start brunch? "'Soon' is the best answer I can give, if that's an answer," laughs McCabe-Johnston. "I've had a lot of calls about this, and Jasha is raring to get brunch going, so we're aiming for a later November date. Definitely before Thanksgiving." Mark your calendars for that Sunday, because the real meal that fuels the most die-hard night owl is brunch, and we're guessing Nightingale's will include a killer bloody Mary and maybe some silver-dollar pancakes. We'll just have to wait and see.
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