Love's Labor

The rite of spring rolls: Consultant-free dishes made by people in love with their recipes

The rite of spring rolls: Consultant-free dishes made by people in love with their recipes

There is a very special kind of restaurant that opens every few years in every city. It is not a restaurant in the usual way. It is not planned by consultants; it does not have a concept designed to exploit a gap in the market; it is not even a restaurant in which a chef uses his well-honed professional skills to present the best ingredients in some kind of cohesive menu based on a single cuisine or set of personal concerns. Oh no, no, no. This is the restaurant of passionate home cooks and restaurant customers who take their love of food, their love of people, their dreams, and their favorite recipes, and pile them all into one overstuffed jumble bag to share, share, share.

South Minneapolis's new Blackbird Café is such a place, and if you love people, and restaurants, and enthusiasm, and not spending too much on a good dinner, you are going to just love it. It's the work of husband and wife Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner, who once worked in restaurants, notably the long-gone St. Paul Table of Contents, where she waited tables and he cooked. Seeking a more stable life, the couple took many years off from restaurants to work in government (Stevens doing the Lord's work, at least in my book, in mosquito control). But then they decided that paid holidays and health insurance weren't all they were cracked up to be, so they threw everything they had into this little love's labor, and debuted with a menu of all their favorite home recipes, so that you all could come over to dinner.

I found out all these details in a phone interview with Gail Mollner, but I didn't really need to talk to anyone to know that Blackbird was not the work of restaurant consultants. I knew it the second I sat down in the distinctly not-focus-grouped room of graphic black and white, mirrors, and a taxidermist shop's worth of mounted antlers, and considered their outsider-art menu of absurd mismatches. I mean, if you gather a big enough party you can share all these appetizers between you: spicy curry lamb meatballs, crawfish hot dish, classic supper-club shrimp cocktail, spring rolls, duck rillettes with blue cheese, apple-brie pizza, and haricots verts in black-bean sauce. This is a menu assembled by people in love with their recipes, not by dispassionate professionals.

Now that I think about it, though, I should have known that this was one of those restaurants simply by driving by: There already is one world-famous Midwestern restaurant called Blackbird—it's in Chicago—and no restaurant pro would ever even think of stepping on the toes of another team of chefs by grabbing the name. Gail Mollner, though, says she and her husband hadn't even connected the two until it was too late.

The name, actually, was originally going to be Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a reference to one of Mollner's favorite children's books—a nursery rhyme collection with Gothic illustrations that also inspired the restaurant's dècor—but they came to think that was too long and went with the simpler version. The first they heard of the other Blackbird was when Mollner met one of her heroes, chef Gabrielle Hamilton at New York City's Prune, and Hamilton told her that using that name wasn't cool. Ouch. Oh well. The same things that make this new Minneapolis Blackbird Café so perplexing from a restaurant-insider's perspective—like the name, the mismatched menu, the menu's odd organization and pricing, and the wine and beer lists' idiosyncratic themes (a quarter of their beers are from one east central Japanese brewery)—are often the same things that make the place charming.

For instance, the food is way cheaper than it needs to be. Entree sandwiches, such as the Vietnamese banh mi on focaccia, with your choice of a side of good skin-on fries or a balsamic-dressed green salad, cost only $7.95. Pair that with a crisp glass of Portuguese vinho verde ($4.95) and wrap up with a gigantic cup of jasmine tea crème brûlée ($5.95), and you're doing the impossible in lakes-adjacent South Minneapolis—you're dining for less than what you'd pay the babysitter.

Unless, of course, you bring the tots along for a $4.95 kids' meal (pizza, chicken fingers, or grilled ham and cheese, with your choice of milk, soda, or real house-made lemonade), in which case you're feeding them for less than what you'd spend on a comparable Amy's frozen dinner and drink—which might explain why on one recent night I counted six early school-age kids dining with their parents at five of the restaurant's tables. It's the perfect restaurant for dining with kids of a certain age because the dècor is full of conversation pieces, the friendly staff hands out crayons and a kids' menu to color on, and the noise level is high enough that the other tables can't really hear any whining or breaking of lemonade glasses.

When I went there with friends, their adventurous five-year-old twins pronounced the duck rillettes with fig chutney and blue cheese to be perfect and the spring rolls ideal, but they rendered a split decision on the fried chicken-liver salad ($7.95), which the kitchen, unasked, graciously split for them on separate plates. I had to agree with the twins: The duck rillettes ($8.95) are creamy and plush, the rich but mild duck well contrasted on their pretty toast planks by the accompanying sweet and tart fig chutney and bits of sharp, salty blue cheese. The spring rolls, made either with shrimp and steak ($9.95) or shitake mushrooms and tofu ($5.95), were tender, fresh, and filled with an ideal ratio of herb-to-everything-else. I had to agree with the less-pleased twin about the battered, fried chicken livers on a salad of frisée ($7.95); I thought they were overcooked, and consequently tight and grainy, and also needed a sauce beyond the vinaigrette that graced the chicory salad.

Other dishes I can recommend after multiple visits to Blackbird include a simple presentation of good chèvre ($6.95) topped with an apricot chutney; surprisingly fiery, but tender, curried lamb meatballs; very simple, good flank steak served with fries and béarnaise ($18.95); a whole trout fillet slathered with an herb pesto and cooked on a griddle until it was tender and flavorful, then served with a side of lentils ($14.95); and a tender beef brisket sandwich made with caramelized onions, tomatoes, provolone, and a spicy horseradish mayo ($9.95) all stuffed in Italian focaccia bread.

If you're wondering why a banh mi sandwich and a beef brisket are both being served on focaccia, that's just how they do things here, and if you're prone to noticing such things, Blackbird will probably drive you nuts. Like, I bet Blackbird is the only restaurant in the whole, wide world to offer guests the opportunity to add fried chicken satay ($3.95) to their anchovy-graced Caesar salad ($6.95). (Should we Twitter this info to pregnant ladies across the land?)

Some of the entrees are nearly as peculiar: The "fish fry" of utterly plain, boneless pieces of salmon, panko-breaded and deep-fried until they were mahogany brown ($13.95) and served with half a lime and a dipping dish of a sweetened soy sauce, seemed little more than unseasoned and odd. I thought the thick layer of caraway, mustard, fennel, and sesame seeds on the "seed and mustard crusted" pork loin ($12.95) overpowered the thin slices of meat, though the fresh crescents of plum and the wild-rice pilaf that came with the dish were both nice touches.

Desserts are the strongest course at Blackbird, and all are, in the budget-minded heart of the place, amply sized to share. The carrot cake ($5.95) is an autumn harvest thick with carrots and nuts, the cream-cheese-like frosting given a nice tang with a bit of goat cheese. The "half pound cake" ($5.95) is a happy dome of good, sturdy pound cake topped with lots of seasonally changing fruit (I had it with wonderful ripe, sweet nectarines and plums) in a bit of syrup with a good, fresh vanilla custard sauce and whipped cream. The jasmine tea crème brûlée ($5.95) is something I forgot crème brûlée could be: surprising. Here a fat teacup is filled with distinctly funky, flowery, almost mushroomy depths of jasmine-tea-infused custard, the whole thing given a burnt-sugar lid and a sidekick of a few orange biscotti, and set before you to dazzle with an aw-shucks sophistication.

The wine and beer lists pull off the same feat, offering a lot of fascinating stuff for cheap. A lively, lemony Gruner Veltliner from Austria's Domaine Wachau, for instance, can be had for the bargain price of $5.95 a glass or $20 a bottle. Andrew Rich Tabula Rasa Red from Oregon's Columbia Valley, a plummy, cedar-edged Rhone blend, made a luxurious meal out of the flank steak and seemed quite a bargain at $27 a bottle or $8.95 a glass.

The tap beer selection on most of my visits was a $4 pint of Rush River Brewing's Bubblejack IPA, a local beer from River Falls, Wisconsin, and while I'd never had the beer before I think I'm a new lifelong fan. The stuff had such a wild, heady, never-ending bouquet of hops, lemon, lime, and spice that it was like sitting in the mists above a wonderful beer waterfall. The bottle list of a dozen beers includes four beers from Japanese brewer Kiuchi's Hitachino line, including a distinctive cedar-wood-scented one, and another made with ginger root. Pair one of these with, say, the spring rolls and the banh mi, and you've got a fascinating meal that you couldn't have anywhere else on earth. And if your toddler is across the table happily putting away a chicken-finger meal while your spouse has a steak and a glass of red, you'll see the magic that happens when it's the customers who are running the show.


815 W. 50th Street, Minneapolis