The Copper Hen on Nicollet Avenue opened in the spring of 2014 as a bakery with a few savory dishes among the cupcakes and French bread. The next year, the owners, Danielle and Chris Bjorling, won a funding competition on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup reality show, and they were able to add a full bar and table service in the redesigned space in November 2015.
In contrast to Eat Street’s array of ethnic foods, Copper Hen’s kitchen, with executive chef Josh Hedberg at the reins, focuses on Midwestern favorites like mac and cheese. Danielle Bjorling provides the desserts.
The cocktail menu features a well-developed seasonality, and it is balanced by a good selection of wine, craft beer, and spirits.
Unusual ingredients add intrigue to some cocktails, but do not dominate the menu. Acorn, Spice & Everything Nice ($11) features Sparkle Donkey Reposado tequila, Fernet-Branca amaro, allspice liqueur, dukkah, acorn squash syrup, and lime. The acorn squash flavor isn’t detectable, but overall the mix is sweet and spicy, with complexity and nuttiness from the dukkah. It is aromatic and potent in the nose with heavy Fernet, but it’s not hot on sipping.
Less successful is the Bacon Old Fashioned ($11), with bacon-washed Cody Road bourbon, house chipotle bitters, and maple. Overwhelming smoke from the combination of bacon and chipotle is unpleasant, yet neither the meat nor the pepper itself comes through. The smoke is far too intense, to the point of being chemical. At the same time, the drink is sweeter than the average classic Old Fashioned, creating a one-dimensional miss.
On the other hand, the Lumberjack’s Breakfast ($10) is a deceptively simple duo of gin and spiced cider, which can be served hot or cold. The gin is Vikre’s Boreal Cedar, a botanical and intense variety that adds depth to what would otherwise be mundane. We recommended the warm version as it showcases the gin’s cedar and herbal notes, while the cider tempers the aromatics.
The Marshmallow Campfire Manhattan ($10) was surprisingly appealing, though the name sounds like a coffee-shop sugar nightmare. It is made with Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky, Cody Road bourbon, Fitzgerald gin, Carpano Antica vermouth, and toasted marshmallow syrup in a smoke-rinsed glass. The smoke tastes far more natural than that in the Bacon Old Fashioned. There is an unexpected citrus aroma that cuts the sugar. Despite the marshmallow garnish, the mix of spirits makes this feel more balanced than the gimmick that it could have been.
The restaurant bills itself as a “farm-to-table cakery and kitchen,” and Chef Josh Hedberg is passionate about focusing on the near and familiar, rather than mimicking coastal trends.
“I see people who want to be the next David Chang [of Momufuku],” he says, shaking his head. “But I’d rather use what I know.” He refers to his use of familiar ingredients and techniques. There is a strong avoidance of re-creation, with little emphasis on the traditions or the trends of the coasts.
A smoked trout cake, for example, was a favorite. Its similarity to a crab cake was unmistakable, yet the flavor of the smoked fish was decidedly different. It was served with a slaw of crisp Mountain Rose apples and was a big win in the texture department.
Other notable dishes, like the Brussels Caesar, also took a spin on the classics. The Caesar used a vegetarian vinaigrette made from capers and roasted almonds to deliver a perfect briny note to contrast with the sweet, raw sprouts. A well-perfected Farmhouse BLT with heirloom tomato jam is a sandwich that seemed destined to be made by a bakery.
Service varied widely, with some visits bringing excellent bar expertise. One server freely offered us a taste of Lambrusco when neither she nor our team was familiar with the brand. Other visits were dismal, with a lack of knowledge or major delays.
The Copper Hen doesn’t feel as though it is done with its reinvention, and though that makes for an unsettled feeling at times (should I have a Manhattan at lunch? Must I order beer if I’m at the bar, or is coffee OK?), the urge to be more and better is a good one. The next year will leave some space for an identity to take hold.