Do you remember the last time you threw a dinner party? You thought you had it all under control, didn't you? The roast was roasting, the champagne was chilling, the bulldog was quiet in her kennel, and the candles were flickering. You even vacuumed. But then you remembered you forgot to buy a baguette, you left the Rocky Road to melt in the trunk, and you had two fewer steaks than guests. And then you dropped your wine glass and shattered it on the floor. And, bloody hell! There was the doorbell.
Entertaining is stressful. It's stressful if you have the entire compendium of Woman's Home Companion on your shelves. It's stressful if you've got an arsenal of pressed vintage aprons. It's stressful if you have Martha Stewart chained to your Viking range.
Now imagine that you've got a finer-dining bistro churning away downtown (Haute Dish) and a new and wildly successful diner agitating on the other side of the wall (Nighthawks), and you're entertaining 12 guests who've paid a premium to sit in your kitchen, stare at you while you cook, and who expect with every fiber of their beings to be wowed.
Then you might understand how at 7:40 on a recent Tuesday night, when two straggling guests strolled in the door of Birdie, chef Landon Schoenefeld (mastermind of it all) was visibly sweating and endearingly apologizing for their "Tuesday night jitters."
The latest, greatest, most interesting incarnation of fine dining around these parts is this tiny restaurant here: Three nights a week, 12 guests, 12 (or 13) plates, seven wines, and four chefs acting as your personal stewards to paradise.
"The days of 150-seat fine dining restaurants are over," says Schoenefeld, who has had a vision for something like Birdie for years. And while he's made a name for himself with cheeky takes on Midwestern favorites, and for being a meat-centric guy, he's a much more accomplished chef than all of that may indicate.
"I feel like, as a cook, I can cook anything."
After a night at Birdie, we agree.
The 12 or 13 dishes you'll have here comprise of-this-moment ingredients that verge on the fetishistic. As each plate is presented, Schoenefeld's culinary team (an all-female cast of Savannah Rose, Brittany St. Clair, Jessi Peine, and pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman-Teipel) will tell you: The kale just came out of the ground this morning, from one of their very own gardens, just down the street; these are the first Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms of the season and they, too, arrived this morning; and the kitchen has finally, finally taken delivery of some cardamom pod flowers. And so on.
So, if they've finally taken delivery of some cardamom pod flowers, then you'd best believe they'll be building an entire dish around them tonight, and the handwritten menu allows for just such last-minute enthusiasms.
In this case, a housemade paneer with green tomato "gravy" and sorrel chickpeas that was somehow three bites of everything you've ever tasted that's good about Indian cooking — nose-tickling, deeply complex, ancient. Close your eyes and you're far away from this little corner in south Minneapolis.
Schoenefeld has always been masterful at creating transporting memories and flashes of revelation via food. A two-bite king crab and daikon "rollup" — the seafood wrapped, cigar-like, together with julienned apple and radish in a diaphanous rice paper, next to a daub of shrimp mayo — is like every time you've ever sat at a sushi bar anywhere, but better.
The casually named "baby potatoes," or more aptly described by Schoenefeld the night of the event, "potatoes a million ways," is a circle of silkiest-ever potato puree, studded with jewel potatoes in various colors, and topped with miniature potato chips the circumference of your thumbnail, so delicate they're transparent. Infused with sour cream and potato peel stock, and strewn with roasted garlic and potato gnocchi, these will evoke every whipped potato your grandmother ever made for every holiday. Go ahead, close your eyes again. It's Christmas, 1980.
And so the plates arrive, for about two-and-a-half hours, with impeccable timing. You'd be well advised to spring for the $50 flight of seven accompanying wines, which again, arrive in perfect succession. Never are you dry, but nor are you hammered — just happily soused in the candlelight. Like the cuisine, these bottles are carefully chosen, complex, and surprising. Tedium wasn't invited to this party.
Notably, virtually the entirety of the meal is "produce-forward," meaning it all but eschews meat. Yet it still makes admirable play of veg to the extent that a smoked carrot dumpling screams BBQ, or a single kale chip arrives daubed with beef fat for umami-on-umami.
The sole meat course, pigeon, which they've aged in-house, accompanied by a little pot pie of chicken liver, next to a pool of pinecone syrup contained by a buffering circle of apple butter, was like scratching the needle off the record during "Brick House." You see, they have a lovely little groove going with the levity of it all — the zip and the zoom of clear vegetal and fruit-forward flavors. When the meat course comes along you're practically disappointed, in spite of the immense skill apparent on the plate.
The experience has been described as an intimate dinner party, and we wish it were more so. While the tiny slip of a space is barely bigger than the dining room of a Kenwood mansion, the fluorescent bulbs in the stage-like kitchen make the steely concentration of the cooks quite palpable in the dining room. The staff is understandably focused and working diligently, and the plates are diminutive works of art, but as with art museums and churches, the reverence here can be the excruciating part.
Add to this that Minnesotans are notoriously awkward at communal table relations, and things can begin to feel a little sterile. While you may be seated at one big table, the veil of awkwardness makes for six little pod-like couples, divided by the invisible mist of Minnesota Tense.
Food and drink seem to taste better when the environment is loose and fun — it's why fine dining has lost its shine for younger generations. Schoenefeld has been a visionary and leader in the field of giving people fine cuisine in rollicking settings and we hope he doesn't lose sight of that here. His DJ prowess with the turntable in the corner serves to lighten the mood somewhat, but it's not quite enough. Though you could do worse than an evening with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Nina Simone.
A potentially easy fix: Begin the evening at 7 rather than 7:30 with a punchy cocktail. Spin those records. Let the group mingle a bit before the main event, much as they would at any good dinner party. Insist they settle on some common talking points, like the snowbanks in Fargo, and if they can't — insist on a tequila shot.
At Birdie, they're taking chances, swinging for the fences, and not playing it safe. We understand the desire for diners to appropriately revere their efforts.
But Schoenefeld and the gang needn't worry. They can go ahead and unfurrow their brows. This food speaks for itself — loud, clear, and uncanny as a birdsong in the night.
Birdie is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday only, and seating is at 7:30 p.m. You must preorder tickets online at: nighthawksmpls.com/birdie/.
3753 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
$100 per ticket, $150 with wine flight