Second Look: Freehouse, Nightingale, Bar La Grassa
There’s no “right” time to review a restaurant. We firmly believe that if a place is open and charges full price for their food, it’s fair game for critique. But the demands of the daily news cycle usually force that critique into the first month or two after a place opens. Ask anyone who works in the industry to describe that portion of a restaurant’s life cycle and they’ll conjure a maelstrom of service snafus, menu confusion, and the type of general chaos that makes you wonder how any restaurant survives a full year.
The reverse is also true: places can start strong, receive great initial feedback, and coast into mediocrity. A restaurant is only as good as the meal served to the most recent customer to have walked out the door. And the food they serve six months, a year, or further down the road often has little-to-nothing to do with what came before.
With that in mind, we’re making a concerted effort this year to revisit restaurants and update our initial assessments. We’ll note the changes and revisit the context, adding or dropping a few stars along the way. Every review deserves a followup, so here are three restaurants we found deserving of a second look:
The Freehouse in the North Loop, by John Garland
Our first visits to The Freehouse rank high on the list of the most memorable disasters in Heavy Table’s history. We witnessed a sparkling staff trying admirably to soldier on despite an unfocused kitchen churning out dry burgers, cloying mussels, and torched-black meringue.
But in the year since, we’ve heard that Freehouse has been making strides in the kitchen. We notice large crowds spilling out of the bar every time we walk down Washington Avenue. In the beginning, we theorized that the restaurant would get better to the extent that it bore down on a simpler identity.
Indeed, they’ve chosen a mantle in the last year, one they should have been confident to wear the whole time: a neighborhood restaurant in the Blue Plate Group.
The Freehouse has largely abandoned the “re-envisioned” dishes that sank them early on. It has eschewed the pressures of their chef-driven zip code and doubled down on the elements known to work well at its sister eateries. One of those elements is breakfast. We’ve had fine brunches at Freehouse in the past year — not the kind that will earn them foodie plaudits, but they’ve at least adopted the crowd-pleasing, Blue Plate acumen for eggs and hashbrowns that is the exact culinary anchor they needed.
On a recent Sunday, we were perfectly content with a Pork Belly Benny ($13), in which an admirable slab of belly is covered by a heap of sweet collard greens (that no longer taste like “vinegar and sadness,” as first reported) and eggs neatly poached under a feather-light hollandaise. A Spanish Frittata ($12) was straightforward and tasty, if unremarkable.
Revisiting Freehouse beer, the key word is “approachable.” The No. 1 Kolsch is so light it’s almost invisible; the No. 2 IPA is svelte with a mild, resinous character; and the No. 3 Brown is soft and nutty. A “middy” pour of their Double IPA ($7.50) felt like a gouge. We hear the staff call them “homebrews” and that’s exactly how they taste — light and fresh, in a lazily carbonated, poorly attenuated way. They are decent to sip, but nothing to drive out of your way for. Thus it’s distressing to see a full lineup of Freehouse beer at The Lowry taking up six lines that could otherwise have hosted Odell or Deschutes.
We happened to be at the Freehouse during happy hour recently, so we decided to throw down the gauntlet to our two least favorite dishes from our first review. We snagged a happy hour order of the Jack’d Up Mussels ($5) and found them eminently improved. (Pictured above: the old edition of this dish.) The pumpkin flavor was relegated to the background, while the spicy broth nicely complemented large chunks of sausage and crunchy bits of fennel. A dozen-and-a-half well-steamed mussels made it a steal to boot.
And then came the successor to perhaps the worst (non-State-Fair) dish we’ve ever reviewed. At the beginning of 2014, the Lobster Mac N Cheez ($24, above) was a contrived, ill-textured, pasty monstrosity. In its place, the Seafood Mac & Cheese ($18) is certainly better, though still underwhelming. They’ve swapped out the fried shell pasta for cavatappi, unquestionably the world’s finest mac-and-cheese noodle, but squandered its sauce-holding properties with cheese that was closer to bisque than sauce. The lobster was nice, but the little shrimps were on the tough side, and the salmon was totally unnecessary. Especially with the decadent lobster mac just a few blocks down at Smack Shack, this is still a head-shaker of an entree.
Our new verdict: Freehouse is much better a year into the game. Go for breakfast; munch at happy hour; or get strategic with your entree order (the rotisserie chicken looks really nice, as do the shrimp tacos). They also serve the Steak & Pierogies that are favorites at Longfellow Grill. Blue Plate knows how to run restaurants, after all.
Restaurant and brewpub in the Warehouse District, Minneapolis
701 N Washington Ave, Suite 101
Minneapolis, MN 55401
OWNER: Blue Plate Restaurant Company
6:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Call-Ahead List / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$23
PARKING: Lot and meters on Washington Ave
Nightingale, by Joshua Page
It’s been a little over two years since we last reviewed Nightingale. While we loved the restaurant’s decor and casual, hip vibe, we were less enthusiastic about its service and food. Inconsistent execution left us torn between one-and-a-half stars (“notable”) and two stars (“good”). We settled on two because of a few excellent dishes, quality cocktails, and the awesome design.
In recent months, we heard that Nightingale had upped its food game. So we returned with high expectations. After all, two years is more than enough time to fix the inconsistency issues that marred our earlier visits. Among four diners, we sampled 13 dishes and four cocktails. Our verdict: Nightingale is still borderline good. The service was solid, and the drinks were top notch. The dark blue booths and wooden light fixtures were still amazing. But the food remained as inconsistent as in the restaurant’s first months.
We went wild for the octopus with black garlic, pickled shishito peppers, and pineapple ($13). The tender meat and accompaniments blended exquisitely. Moules Frites ($16) — mussels with beer and smoked tomatoes, with a side of fries — was similarly inspired and well executed. Additionally, the selection of bruschetta ($7.50 each) remains a high point of the menu — the toast topped with roasted mushrooms and quail egg is superb. Although less exciting than the octopus or mussels, a small plate of salt cod fritters ($9) was satisfying.
Unfortunately, a series of dishes seriously killed our buzz. The burger ($13), cooked to a perfect medium rare, was juicy but woefully underseasoned. Golden beets ($9), which tasted like they’d been infused with salt (not just “salt roasted” as the menu described), were inedible (weirdly, the red beets in the same dish were properly seasoned). Hickory smoked ravioli ($16) — an interesting vegetarian option — suffered from undercooked pasta and over-salted broth. Butter roasted cauliflower ($9) was flavorful but unappetizingly mushy.
And both desserts we tried missed the mark. Toffee pudding cake ($7) was dry and served atop a puzzling mound of peanuts (they only amplified the dryness), and the mascarpone custard ($7) was overly dense and tasted a tad soapy. Although we appreciated the complimentary house-made mints served at the end of the meal, to our surprise, they transformed on the tongue into a toothpaste-like substance, literally leaving us with a terrible taste in our mouths.
It appears that Nightingale has changed little in the years since our last review. It’s still a fun place for getting a drink and a dish or two, and it has a cosmopolitan vibe that invites conviviality. While we anticipate returning for a cocktail and moules frites or octopus, we don’t foresee returning for a full meal. The food is expensive and just too inconsistent. For a similar price ($220 for four, including tip), we can get reliably delicious, interesting fare at nearby spots including Heyday or Corner Table.
Small plates and entrees in Whittier, Minneapolis
2551 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55405
Mon-Fri 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-2 a.m.
CHEF AND OWNER: Carrie McCabe-Johnston and Jasha Johnston
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $13-25
Bar La Grassa, by Ted Held
When Bar La Grassa opened in 2009 it was received with universal praise, including in these pages. With Isaac Becker in the kitchen, Josh Thoma in the front of house, a stylish North Loop location, and a menu that beckoned fine diners and casual customers alike, it was the hottest ticket in town.
But lately we’ve heard rumors that the mighty had fallen, or at least become afflicted by a chronic slouch. Even in the early days, we had meals tainted by overly salted food or dismissive service. But the gnocchi with cauliflower was never less than amazing, and the bruschetta with soft eggs and lobster was always a kingly way to start a meal. We went back to confirm or deny this supposed downfall.
While one visit does not a trend make, we are pleased to report that a mid-week (though still packed) Bar La Grassa was reminiscent of those early halcyon days. The atmosphere was lively, and the service was helpful and friendly. Most importantly, the food was to form: always good, and at times excellent.
It’s never been easy to choose just one bruschetta, so we ordered two: ricotta with roasted tomatoes ($8) and the white anchovy with avocado ($11) that we once found destroyed by salt. The bread was well toasted and soaked with olive oil. The generous heaps of ricotta were sweet, with hints of lemon, and beautifully complemented by the tangy, garlicky roasted tomato. The avocado was fully ripe, and handsomely fanned out beneath the white anchovy filets.
A salad of raw artichoke and fennel came with olives, orange, mint, Pecorino, watercress and a yogurt dressing ($12). The raw artichoke was mild and nutty. Briny olives and sweet oranges work surprisingly well together.
Choosing one pasta each from the fresh and the dry columns, we ordered the Penne Rigate with shrimp and vin santo ($12 half) and Fettucine Alfredo ($7 half). Both pastas were cooked al dente, as they damn well better be at Bar La Grassa. The penne, with shrimp cooked as perfectly as the pasta, was delectable with wine and cream. The fettucine was zesty and buttery, and clearly made with a fine cheese. Neither pasta was revelatory, but both were solid dishes.
We completed our meal with Grilled Sausage ($16). Because the dish was set down with no explanation from the runner, we learned only later that we’d eaten three different sausages: white wine and garlic, sweet basil and tomato, and spicy Italian. The spicy Italian delivered a moderate kick, setting it apart from the other two milder, similarly tasting links.
Did Bar La Grassa slip? More likely it was never perfect, just like every restaurant of BLG’s size and scope. There will always be slips. Someone is occasionally going to oversalt the pasta. Odds are, on any given night, one of the servers is having a bad day and doesn’t adequately explain the sausage plate for the nth time. Or maybe the restaurant had been waning, but they pulled it together. On a night when there are no slips, it’s still a wonderful place to have dinner. The rumors of its demise are highly exaggerated.
Bar La Grassa
Italian restaurant and bar in the Warehouse District
800 Washington Ave N
Minneapolis, MN 55401
CHEF-OWNER / EXECUTIVE CHEF: Isaac Becker / Aaron Slavicek
Mon-Thu 5 p.m.-midnight
Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Sun 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Full kitchen service until closing
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$50