It feels like deja vu all over again at the Third Bird in Loring Park.
For starters, it was almost exactly two years ago that we came to this same address to check out the then newly opened second outpost of Cafe Maude. But like Nick and Eddie before it, the restaurant, cocktail lounge, and sometime music venue just couldn't manage to survive, and Maude went dark after its New Year's Eve service last December. Then there's the fact that this is the third restaurant Kim Bartmann has had some hand in opening this year, which is borderline insane even for her. Or maybe it has something to do with the familiar face running things behind the line at the Third Bird. Lucas Almendinger, formerly of W.A. Frost and Union Fish Market, brings his keen perspective to the kitchen as Third Bird's executive chef. With an interesting aperitif-heavy cocktail list, wines selected by Bill Summerville, a wood-fire oven to play around with, and easygoing service, this venture appears promising. But will it be distinctive enough to stick around for the long haul?
In terms of interior, they haven't changed up a whole lot. But the simple act of forcing diners to come through the back entrance re-contextualizes the space and gives it a fresh feeling. It also provides an opportunity to take a stroll down the alleyway behind the storefronts on Harmon, which is secretly one of the most charming little corners of Minneapolis. Seriously, it looks like a set from the movie Amélie. What the Third Bird did do to make its mark on this space is adorn its walls with anthropomorphic artwork, courtesy of illustrator Steven Noble, that recalls the quirky and grotesque creatures of Where The Wild Things Are. The old makeshift stage is now a comfortable, classy reception area complete with turntables, though we never ended up waiting for a table on any of our visits.
Many chalked up Cafe Maude's failure to a combination of hard sells and high prices, so in that sense Bartmann and her team were wise to keep almost all dishes here more moderately priced. Almost nothing rings in over $18, save for a Flintstones-worthy carved ribeye steak, slicked with compound butter and served with chimichurri for $69, and the whole-bird version of the restaurant's signature roast chicken dinner. We opted for the more modest half chicken, which was succulent and flavorful as promised, though it lacked crispness to the skin. Never mind, because the truffle gravy it's served with is so delicious, you'll want to douse the whole plate — including an individual terrine of spongy herb stuffing and pickled pearl onion salad — in it.
Other than those two entrees, portions are on the small side — a couple were downright diminutive — and with the way the menu is laid out, it can be hard to figure out how much to order. Certain ingredients are highlighted in writing as though they'll have top billing, but when the dish actually arrives they appear to play more of a supporting role. The rhubarb component of the charred salmon carpaccio was but a few drips of sauce. Same goes for the small pool of corn pudding that had initially convinced us to order the (two) seared scallops with a row of tender manila clams, cooked in a spicy tomato and chorizo broth. It was less Southern spoon bread and more rustic bisque. Still, Almendinger's flavors are on point and every dish pays careful attention to texture. He has a particular affinity for putting nuts in unexpected places. [Pause for knee-jerk adolescent snicker.] There are sweet pistachios on soft polenta with ham hock, softly cooked hen egg, and green, garlicky pistou. Peanuts go surprisingly well with charred pork belly, a tart chokecherry sauce, and little sprigs of cilantro, one of our favorite combinations on the dinner menu. Coffee-glazed carrots with dollops of semi-soft cheese made from buttermilk are matched with buttery hazelnuts, which would make an even stronger statement with even stronger coffee flavor. Where there aren't nuts, a lovely, crispy breadcrumb or crunchy grain stands in. Bits of rye are crumbled over chopped grilled asparagus and tossed in a bright sherry and chevre cream. Toasted sunflower seeds and puffed up, nutty wild rice make the ever-changing "from the field" crudite-as-salad plate feel more substantial.
For a restaurant themed around all things avian, the Bird serves a surprising number of buffalo dishes. There's a nicely cooked, lean and mean bison burger on a fluffy house-made milk bun that was oddly sweet, likely just because of the Thousand Island dressing. A blushing bison tenderloin fared much better, complemented with a buttery soubise sauce and woody mushrooms. At brunch, the bison with soft scrambled eggs and sweet potato hash did high-end justice to classic diner steak and eggs, though the indulgent winner at that meal was a toss up between the doughnut-like almond French toast and the over-the-top cheddar biscuits with spicy sausage gravy. And — okay, we're fudging it a little here — but rounding out this bison-themed group are the tasty, never soggy, beautifully presented buffalo fries: Dusted with hot sauce powder, drizzled with a blue cheese sauce, and decorated with shaved celery and micro cilantro.
The desserts are complicated but not obnoxiously so. The best of the bunch was the gluten-free caramel brownie, placed atop a few spoonfuls of banana pudding, toasted marshmallow cream, and slivered almonds. The fruit galettes are a bit of a letdown. Their "deconstructed" composition translates to a scoop of cooked peaches with rhubarb sauce, a bit of crème fraîche, and a dismembered ring of pastry arced over the top. It's a smart way to ensure the pastry stays crisp, but it's awkward to eat and seems like kind of a copout.
Among Bartmann's ventures, Third Bird might have the most ambitious and interesting menu — much closer to Barbette's than say, Tiny Diner's. Almendinger is leading confidently and the staff seems to be accommodating and well-informed. Is it different enough from Cafe Maude to sustain itself in Loring Park? They'll need to add some happy hour specials, but service is an improvement, drinks are unique from other offerings in the area, and the food, while sometimes leaning toward the miniature, is certainly its strong suit. We're definitely keeping our binoculars on this bird.