It seems impossible that chef Landon Schoenefeld has been on the dining scene for a decade.
He certainly doesn't seem old enough for that notion to be true, and possibly he isn't. Old enough, that is, to own two important restaurants, to be one of the first local chefs to have taken a really close gander at Midwestern food and treat it with the respect, but also the irreverence, that it deserves. To look at, say, a can of baked beans or ants on a log or a tater tot hot dish and say, "You know? This food is good. I love this food. I'm going to put my name on this food and make it into cuisine."
It's his youthful spirit that has him telling me on a recent Thursday dinner shift: "I just got out of the car. I drove to Kansas City to see a Phish show, I ate lunch at Arthur Bryant's, and now I'm here." He's just in time to be dutifully standing at the pass on a crushingly busy dinner service, weary but resolutely doing his job.
That job is never letting a dish stand as "good enough," to always be rethinking, re-tinkering, layering, re-seasoning, and reshaping.
And sometimes I wonder why he hasn't gotten even bigger, for his fearless renditions of, say, a picnic salad, where BBQ pork belly, potato salad, maple butter bean, and dill pickle open up long-closed doors in any Midwestern kid's head. Suddenly you're no longer at Haute Dish in the trendy North Loop. You're in your childhood backyard, in the most idyllic summer setting at an old, peeling picnic table groaning with your grandpa's grilled efforts. Happy. Oh so happy.
Here's another happy thing: Schoenefeld is having even more fun at the newly opened Nighthawks, and perhaps more fun than ever, because he's less tightly bound to pushing things into "haute" territory. Instead he can cling to the classics, yet make them bigger and badder than they've ever been.
While classic diners have been on the decline for a while, diners still exist in our food consciousness as inextricably American, wholesome and good. If you tried to separate from our culinary imaginations a malt arriving with the stainless steel cup on the side, or a towering stack of flapjacks, or a flattop greasy burger, you'd be killing American food altogether.
So at his new south Minneapolis outpost, Schoenefeld takes all that we adore about the diner, even if we've only imagined it, and turns it into an enormously enjoyable culinary leviathan.
Take, for instance, the hot dogs, which arrive cartoonishly large, actual footlong length, and occupy roughly half the space of a typical two-person table. They're garnished with combinations to placate the munchiest of stoner — chili, coleslaw, smoked cheddar, and Fritos, for example.
Now next to this dog, place a short stack of pancakes (or, if you dare, a full stack) in eight flavors like lime coconut pineapple, banana pecan, peanut butter chocolate chip, and bacon kimchi scallion.
Or do as our adjacent table did and order several. There sat a dad and his two young sons, and you got the sense that this was a Thursday-night ritual, where dad's Paleo diet and the kids' sugar restrictions get gleefully heave-ho'd. These moments might be ones that will last those boys a lifetime. And when they bring their own children into some undoubtedly even more reinvented diner of the far-off future, they'll have their own jacked-up, magnified, extra delicious idea of what diner food should taste like.
These boys will remember the Nighthawks pancakes, easily the best I've ever tasted — lacy, floppy, rich, unctuous, and fragrant. (I'm sorry, Nana.)
Or take the French Dip, which is beef to the second power with a swipe of beef fat mayo, an obvious bedfellow to melted Gruyere, and a little foil of shallot jam. But the surprising star is the dollop of potato salad, stealing the show like the Rolling Stones' backup singers. It's so yellow it just about glows, sparkling with mustard flavor, an improvement to all potato salads, everywhere.
You can taste this take-no-prisoners approach in the chicken soup. Rather than making broth the old-fashioned way by simmering bones until they give up all of their flavor, the whole damn carcass instead gets pureed, then pushed through a fine mesh, so you get not just the essence of chicken, but neon-colored flashing lights of "Chicken! Chicken! Chicken!" inside of your mouth. It's rich and golden as melted doubloons.
Not that this aggressive approach works in all instances. Sometimes it tastes like the sheer force of ambition gets unleashed, and things need a little reining in. A steak tartare that arrived ring-molded inside great, dramatic romaine leaves dusted with Caesar dressing and Parmesan should have been a coming together of two things that are righteous and holy in this world. But sadly the whole of it was incredibly salty.
And there was the chopped liver, with a lovely, almost floral flavor that would have been perfect as a simple quenelle served with toast points. Instead it was lost in a bombardment of overly thick rye bread and a strange festoonery of carrots and cabbages and radishes and an overcooked hard-boiled egg.
I just know that the chef had a vision, an idea, a notion, and it got lost somewhere between mind and plate. But so what? Had Picasso not made all those oversexed minotaurs, he couldn't have arrived at the beauty of the cubist women. Had the first humble diner car not been built in 1872, pulled by horses to serve newspaper men at lunchtime, then Nighthawks, more "fine" than "diner," would not have set down roots in south Minneapolis.
And then, those two little boys to my right, with their many short stacks, wouldn't be able to tell their own little boys way, way in the future: "You see? You put the bacon and the kimchee and the scallion in the pancake to make it really classic, like they do in a good, old-fashioned diner."
3753 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
menu items: $5-$25
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