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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
2516 Hennepin Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55405
OWNERS / CHEF: Stewart and Heidi Woodman / Jes Werkmeister [updated 08.23.12]
ENTREE RANGE: $12-22
VEGAN / VEGETARIAN: Yes / Yes