Birdhouse on Hennepin in Uptown, Minneapolis

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Anyone who knows Chef Stewart Woodman — or has followed his blog, or has shared his ZIP code or adjoining ZIP codes, or even neighboring states and probably his home turf of Canada — knows that he’s a chef with a strong point of view. He’s an unapologetic defender of polished technique and sophisticated flavor, and a champion of old-school dining.

This is an interesting context, therefore, for a Stewart and Heidi Woodman restaurant that is meant to serve as a yin to the yang of Heidi’s — something healthy, and accessible, every-night-of-the-weekable. Thus, Birdhouse on Hennepin has its work cut out for it: It needs to bring a sophisticated sense of modern cuisine at a price point that rewards frequent visits and at a portion size / calorie level that upholds its mandate of “provid[ing] healthy every day, and all day options for [the] entire family.”

Its physical space fits the mission like a glove: The former Duplex location on Hennepin is quirky, elegant, and comfortable. It’s sleek without being cold and small without being cramped. The two porches (one on the second story) and the cozy little second story bar are both charming touches for a restaurant that feels like a collection of semi-private nooks and niches. And its staff — welcoming and breezily comfortable enough to let the host stand go unmonitored for indeterminate stretches — also fit the vibe, for better and worse.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Rolling the dice on a big dish, we ordered the Lake Superior whitefish ($16, above left) encrusted with sunflower seeds and served on an earthy base of beluga lentils and Swiss chard. The dice came up “7″ — the dish was a lovely balance of soulful and elegant, and everything was cooked to textural perfection. It’s arguable that the sunflower seeds on such a mellow cut of fish were gilding the lily, but only arguable; half our table would just as soon have scraped them off, and half thought that they provided an enjoyable textural and flavor accent.

A half chicken (expensive at $17 until you see the size of the chicken; they’re not joking around with this one) was soft spoken to the point of being shy. The dish is tender and simple and soothing but quietly asking for a little something (an apple cider reduction, perhaps?) that the perfectly pleasant thyme gravy isn’t supplying. The mashed potatoes are a perfect complement — smooth and gentle and little muted.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Mushroom pate (reasonable at $12 until you see the two Lilliputian squares that arrive on your plate) had precisely the opposite problem: It was in scarce supply, but big and bold in flavor, with gunpowder-like enoki mushrooms setting off the meaty, funky, onion-y pate beneath them. Two little strips of tomato on the side point out the dish that could’ve been — a substantial tomato and feta chutney, a sesame slaw, a kale or spinach salad with additional heft in the form of pecans or tofu.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

I’m the first guy to complain about people who use wheat or multigrain breads when white bread would taste better.  That said, the Birdhouse grilled cheese sandwich on multigrain bread with Wisconsin white cheddar ($5) was perfectly toasted and presented with a nice bread-to-cheese ratio that made it comforting, compelling eating. Restaurant grilled cheeses so often fall into the trap of tacking on whistles and bells, not realizing that a grilled cheese is brilliant because it’s just a grilled cheese; this grilled cheese has the humility to be great.

Pro tip: If you order the grilled cheese, also make sure you order the goat cheese, mint, and sweet pea pate ($8) which makes a sublimely cool and creamy dipping sauce for the sandwich. Of course the smooth, rich, but measured pate is just fine on its own, spooned onto the sunflower-rye toasts that accompany it. This pate is available for $5 during the restaurant’s happy hours (and for $8 during lunch and dinner). Make a date with it.

The restaurant’s cocktail program feels like a work in progress (unsurprising considering the newness of the establishment) but good things are developing. The cilantro-infused tequila and watermelon juice-based Vulture ($9) could’ve done without the cilantro and added a dose of citrus, but the Raven ($9, lavender- and white peppercorn-infused Death’s Door vodka topped with house-made ginger beer and lemon bitters) was delicious as served, properly balanced, and thirst-quenching. When sweet and spice get together harmoniously like this, it makes for a brilliant way to kill a summer evening.

If you’re a cocktail maven with a thirst for new things, the Starling (organic rum infused with blueberries, cardamom, falernum, and Cava, $9, pictured at bottom) is your killer app. Clean and gentle up front, it has a mysterious, tantalizing, downright sexy aftertaste, and sip chases sip chases sip as you try to nail it down.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Dessert had to be strong to follow in the footsteps of such a well-balanced meal, and it was. An apricot crisp ($9, including ice cream) was beautifully composed, neither aggressively sweet nor obnoxiously tart, meaning that it played well with its accompanying ice cream. When dessert is done correctly, it makes its way into the taster’s mouth like a soldier on a forced march, and this stuff moved double time.

And who just eats lemon curd straight up? The option’s there for you at Birdhouse, and if you’re wise, you’ll take them up on it. The cup of lemon curd ($6) comes with blueberries, raspberries, amazingly bright little wild blackberries, and mint, and it crackles with flavor and boasts a silken texture that’s irresistible. This is good stuff.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Breakfast, unfortunately, was a poorly cooked horse of a different color. An order of wild rice pancakes ($7) came out generally burnt and partially blackened, and even the properly cooked bits tasted like dried-out falafel.

Adam & Eve on a Raft ($6) was billed on the menu as Birdhouse’s take on Eggs Benedict, but if you want the dark green vegetable part of the equation, you need to pay $3 extra for the (perfectly tasty) garlic spinach that arrives tucked between the two poached eggs and the French toast upon which they ride. Beyond that, the lack of Hollandaise or even the general-purpose brightness of citrus means that a lot is riding on the poached eggs and pain perdu. During our visit, these were, respectively, criminally undercooked (raw albumen kills the appetite in a hurry) and essentially flavorless. It may be that salt flies in the face of Birdhouse’s “eat this, it’s good for you” philosophy, but even some pepper and some Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Salt would have gone a long, long way on this anemic chihuahua of a savory breakfast.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Even the coffee (from the generally excellent Dogwood) was amiss, tasting tangily of tomato. This says more about the state of third-wave coffee culture right now (lightly roast those beans, no matter what funky flavors come through!) than Birdhouse, per se, but it was an unpleasant anti-cherry on an already unpalatable sundae.

With the exception of breakfast — which urgently needs both a conceptual overhaul and quality assurance program, particularly if it’s meant to be a daily part of the restaurant — Birdhouse is a treasure in the making, a welcome antidote to the vast portion sizes and indifferent execution of many of its Uptown brethren.

BEST BET: The pea pate is a flawless touchstone for Birdhouse’s light-but-sophisticated approach to anytime-you’re-up-for-it dining.

Birdhouse on Hennepin
New American in Uptown, Minneapolis
★★½☆ (Good)

2516 Hennepin Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55405
612.377.2213
HOURS:
Mon-Sun: 7am-1am
OWNERS / CHEF: Stewart and Heidi Woodman / Jes Werkmeister [updated 08.23.12]
BAR: Full
ENTREE RANGE: $12-22
VEGAN / VEGETARIAN: Yes / Yes

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

 

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

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16 Comments

  1. It’s awfully early for wild blackberries–I think I see black cap raspberries peeking out of that bowl. They’re small, and hollow in the center like regular raspberries. With blackberries the core stays in when you pick ‘em.

    Brett

  2. Tricia Cornell07/05/2012Reply

    Good eye, Forager-in-Chief!

  3. I do what I can, Tricia! Cheers~ Brett

  4. Can’t wait to try this place! Thanks for the review. It’s nice to see a place with lots of vegetarian and vegan options.

  5. An entertaining and educational read again James! If I’m in the neighborhood I’ll check out the pea pate or the lemon curd… Cocktails sound interesting too… Thanks for sharing!

  6. MorchellaMpls07/17/2012Reply

    Had a fun meal here with a large group that shared 7 different items and desert. Pea pate is worth the trip itself and one of the cooks indulged me with the recipe and process to make it. The veltliner paired well with everything I tried. Staff was awesome. Not mind blowing but definitely worth a trip.

  7. Josh Cook07/18/2012Reply

    Thanks for this review. It seemed very unbiased and well written. One comment on the coffee, though. I have worked in specialty coffee for five + years now. If the coffee tasted “tangily of tomato,” then that means that the roaster did his/her job. When you buy 90 point and above green coffee, you want to—much like a chef—let the ingredient speak for itself. When you get bitter, ashy, and roast flavors, that means you’ve gone too dark. Yes, coffee is acidic. It can be tangy. It can be herbaceous and earthy and sometimes funky (try any well-roasted El Salvador and you get the definition of “funk”). But what about Brie? What about Lamb? What about Kohlrabi? These products are inherently strange. But tomato? That’s just the terroir.

  8. Author

    Josh,

    Fair point, and thanks for the information and context. I appreciate that there can be a lot of perspectives on this point, but for what it’s worth, speaking personally as a coffee drinker: I don’t like drinking tomatoes in the morning. I’m not adverse to challenging flavor profiles (I’ll happily do 5-month Limburger and raw onions on rye), but there’s nothing about drinking tomato coffee at breakfast that I like. Again: Personal preference. But I don’t doubt that there a lot of other folks out there with the same bias, and I don’t think that it’s a black mark against my knowledge as a coffee drinker that I argue that other profiles are more desirable when served as a breakfast-accompaniment default choice.

    James

  9. Josh Cook08/24/2012Reply

    James,

    You make a great point. That’s what becomes so difficult about talking about food from a pseudo-objective standpoint. In the end, it’s all the reviewer’s/critic’s filter of experience and taste and preference. And heck, I can get behind someone who just wants a nice nutty cup of Costa Rica. Thanks for the comment. Cheers!

    Josh

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