When the waitress at the Butcher Block brought me a plate of chicken wings coated in peanut butter and chocolate syrup, I couldn't help but wonder if fine dining was finally dead. Was a chic Italian trattoria actually serving 29 kinds of chicken wings? Had the former home of the upscale Fugaise, on a gentrifying stretch of East Hennepin, been reborn as Dinkytown's long-shuttered BW3?
Butcher Block's menu wasn't really what I'd expected from a kitchen run by Filippo Caffari, former executive chef at I Nonni, and his longtime chef de cuisine, Darin Koch. But then again, Butcher Block's eclectic approach seems right for its location, which is as quirky a restaurant space as they come. As much as I liked Fugaise chef-owner Don Saunders's cooking, I was surprised by how long the restaurant was able to overcome the albatross of its beige, windowless dining room. The space feels warmer now that Fugaise's depressing abstract paintings are gone and a few bright accent walls have been added. (While taverns and speakeasies can pull off such dimly lit digs, in fine-dining restaurants I think there's some expectation of seeing sunlight or moonlight reflected through one's cocktail glass.) The new owners wisely retained Fugaise's cute three-seat bar, in case you want to sip a mango Bellini or a glass of wine—affordably priced to compete with Surdyk's across the street.
Caffari spent several decades working as a master butcher in Rome, so Butcher Block's menu is unsurprisingly meat-heavy. Its signature entrée is the grigliata mista, or mixed grill, which is essentially a plate full of Fogo de Chão: a double lamb chop; a four-ounce New York strip or flatiron steak, depending on availability; a four-ounce slice of pork butt; and one deboned chicken leg and thigh. When I ordered the dish, each piece was about half an inch thick and nearly as big as my hand. Piled on top of one another, the meats looked like a heap of grill-scarred flapjacks, paired with roasted potato, grilled scallions, and asparagus. Caffari makes his own pancetta and guanciale, and he cuts and grinds his own meat to keeps costs down. He passes those savings on to the diner, so the restaurant's entrée prices top out at $17, making the grigliata mista a real bargain for meat lovers.
The menu also features several pastas, and while I usually prefer larger gnocchi, pan-seared and pillowy, Caffari's petite gumdrops had a pleasingly chewy texture that married well with a smoky tomato sauce, fresh basil, and mozzarella. The ravioli, which are also house-made, didn't work as well. The cheese-filled pockets and lamb ragu were disappointingly bland.
My favorite dish was Butcher Block's fish of the day, which reminded me most of Caffari's cooking at I Nonni: a generous portion of snow-white corvina, one side seared to a salty crisp, served with a sweet orange-carrot coulis that balanced the bold, bitter notes of sautéed rapini. Finished off with one of the house-made desserts—the strawberry-topped cheesecake, cherry gelato, and dense, creamy chocolate cake spiked with olive oil and sea salt are all top-notch—I felt like I'd had a taste of the famed Lilydale osteria, for a fraction of the cost.
In addition to offering dinner service, Caffari and Koch have been trying out a few other ideas in the restaurant's opening months: box lunches and a late-night menu of burgers and snacks served until 2 a.m on weeknights and 4 a.m. on weekends. (Remember, the restaurant is within walking distance of the U of M campus.) Neither concept has really taken off, Carrari says, and they may be reconsidered in the near future. I hope they keep the sandwiches, which are available both for takeout and after 9 p.m., as those made with slow-cooked meats—barbecue pork, pulled achiote turkey, a sweet, mustard-flecked chicken confit—are delicious. The only changes I'd make would be to add a fresh herb or vegetable garnish to the sandwiches and skip the weird-tasting sugar-sprinkled French fries.
All 29 flavors of chicken wings are available anytime, though Caffari says they may pare down the flavor list eventually, as all the sauces take up a lot of room on the line. ("Darin's the kind of guy who likes to overdo things," he teases.) While I try to keep an open mind when I'm reviewing restaurants—bring on the jellyfish, chitlins, and guinea pig—I'll admit that I've never been a big fan of chicken wings. When eating on my own dime, they're not something I'd order at a restaurant, nor would I snatch one off a Super Bowl party buffet. In my world, wings hover one notch above chicken feet and one below chicken nuggets—neither of which cross the threshold of things I willingly choose to eat.
First of all, their appearance reminds me of the sharp, spindly elbows little girls use as weapons on the playground. And second, how does one even grasp the grisly little things? Until someone invents a chicken wing version of those corncob prongs, there's no choice but to pick up the sauce-slicked appendage with your bare hands, a gesture conveying all the elegance of a finger-painting child.
While deep-fried chicken wings can have skin that's pleasantly crisped, sometimes it comes out a little slimy, and peeling it back one finds a lot of bone, tendon, and cartilage—indisputable reminders that you're biting into what was once a living, breathing being. When gnawing on a chicken wing, I can't help but feel like a prehistoric beast, or a pecking vulture, stripping a carcass as I poke my fingers between the tiny bones to access a bite of flesh. Not that my process is ever very successful: My waitress at the Butcher Block could hardly distinguish my finished pile from the uneaten one.
By the time we were done, my dinner companion had chocolate on his nose, peanut butter all over his fingers, and a napkin that looked like the "before" image in a Tide commercial. It's not the mess that bothers me, really—I'll happily saw through a plate of ribs or bite into a toppling chili dog—but the payoff needs to be worth the hassle.
And what does a chicken wing taste like when it's been coated with the equivalent of a melted Reese's Peanut Butter Cup? The concept made theoretical sense, as a riff on chicken and waffles—certainly sweet flavors can complement chicken, as can peanut sauce or mole. But these wings tasted like they'd been coated with Hershey's syrup and Jiff, which is to say they tasted pretty disgusting. I would have put the test batch on the chopping block, not Butcher Block's specials list.
Yet on subsequent visits, the more wings I sampled, the more their skin seemed to crackle and their sauces seemed worth the mess: a soy-flavored house variety, a syrupy brown sugar (a successful chicken and waffles riff), and a tangy mango curry yogurt were all lip-smackers. I even liked the kitchen-sink wings, whose spicy red sauce made the dish taste a bit like General Tso's chicken—tossed with pickles, French fries, and a few spaghetti noodles. (Perhaps it could be the American version of poutine?) Each time I sampled one of the bony little buggers, I gnawed a little closer, picked a little cleaner, and learned to love the lowly chicken wing.