Change is afoot, in big and little cities alike. It’s too early to tell if it’s a trend or a long-term transformation in dining, but the movement away from staid formality and big entrees to fun informality and small plates is indisputable. The new, cosmopolitan eateries populating the Twin Cities feel more like swanky bars or classy clubs than fine-dining establishments — there are no white tablecloths (or tablecloths of any color, for that matter), dress codes, or even courses. Although self-consciously casual, these places pride themselves on quality service and high-end food and drink, which — ideally — justify high tabs (those small plates add up quickly).
Nightingale in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis exemplifies this change. Committed to “social dining,” owners Carrie McCabe-Johnston and Jasha Johnston seek to create a comfortable, convivial atmosphere where people can unwind and enjoy gourmet vittles with friends. And, since the kitchen is open until 1am, the party can continue late into the evening.
The brainchild of designer Rachel Kate, Nightingale’s decor admirably reflects and helps realize the owners’ vision of social dining. It all starts with the windowless, wooden door. With a handsome brass handle, it’s sleek and classy. Walking through the heavy door into a stark vestibule encourages you to leave the world behind. As you enter the restaurant, there’s a funky host station made up of what appear to be salvaged card catalog boxes (remember those?). The inviting bar stool seats — off-white leather with brass rivets — and oversized, almost lunar light fixtures are equally stylish and attention grabbing.
Three other design features deserve special attention. First are the spacious, deep blue booths that make you feel like a VIP in an old-time movie (it’s hard not to feel bad for folks resigned to the plain regular tables). Second is the stunning half-moon iron grate that separates the bar from the dining room — an expert combination of style and functionality. And third is the porthole: One of several nautical touches, the little window gives diners a peek into the back of the house and adds a hint of whimsy to a sophisticated, hip space.
If judged on decor alone, Nightingale would rate among the best restaurants in the region. But, when it comes to the food, inconsistency keeps it out of the top tier. To begin, there are major disparities between sections of the menu. Overall, the starters are superb. The oysters ($2.75 each, $15 for a half dozen) are exceptionally fresh and, served with a standard mignonette, pleasantly simple. Featuring speck, salami, and hot capocolla, the meat plate ($12, above right; pickle plate above left) is also straightforward and delicious, albeit a bit pricey for the rather small portion. Crunchy pickled green beans, punchy mustard, and crisp, house-made crackers are great complements to the charcuterie.
If Chef McCabe-Johnston isn’t already renowned for her bruschetta, she will be soon. Here again, simplicity shines. Fresh ricotta and a combination of herbs, seeds, and nuts reminiscent of za’atar ($7, above) blend beautifully. Layered on rustic bread (conveniently sliced for sharing), the topping is bright, balanced, and interesting. The other two vegetarian bruschetta — smoky eggplant and garlic with pickled red onions ($6), and perfectly roasted mushrooms topped with a delicately fried quail egg ($7.50) — are also outstanding. Our least favorite of the bunch features sauteed leeks, crab, and chunks of chorizo ($7). While the overall flavor is good, the crab gets lost in the mix, and the soft, almost mushy texture and drab color are less than appetizing.
Whereas the starters are consistently high quality, the “plates” are uneven. Three outshine the others. A trio of skillfully seared scallops ($13, above) pairs well with almond “gazpacho” (i.e., puree), green grapes, and chive oil. It’s a clean and pleasantly subtle dish. Smoked pulled pork and roasted red pepper over buttery grit cakes ($10) is assertive and soulful. A thin yet zesty red pepper sauce cuts the richness of the pork and grits. And the roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon chunks and sweet stewed shallots ($7, bottom) are so good we had them on both visits.
A few other dishes miss the mark. The meatballs with tomato-marjoram sauce ($11) are boring and a tad dry. You can get better (and much cheaper) meatballs and marinara at most Italian-American joints. A combination of duck, beets, pumpernickel croutons, and arugula ($10) would’ve been tasty if the duck hadn’t been so salty. (The kitchen was altogether too salt-happy on our second visit; consequently, a couple of plates veered toward inedible.) Finally, the grilled romaine salad ($7) is little more than wilted and tragically unseasoned greens; not even marinated anchovies could save the dish.
Nightingale’s dessert offerings ($6.50 each) continue the hit-or-miss trend. The dulcet vanilla panna cotta with citrusy Satsuma gelee (above, right) is a mouthwatering hit that deserves a permanent place on the menu. While the chocolate pot de crème (above, left) is well executed and fudgy, it’s not any more special than the numerous others served around town. The cornmeal cake seems like an afterthought, something put on the menu because two dessert choices weren’t enough. The “cake” is basically a sweet, dense cornbread, and the port-poached pear and rosemary anglaise are nice accompaniments, but there’s not enough of either.
Based on our two visits, the service is as inconsistent as the food. Our first meal was smooth: the host was amiable and the server attentive and knowledgeable. Although it didn’t wow us, the service didn’t detract from the experience. The same couldn’t be said for the second night. While having a drink at the bar before our meal, we inquired about the almond gazpacho in the scallop dish. As if we’d asked a stupid question, a bartender dismissively said, “It’s a puree.” Though she didn’t say, “Duh,” her intonation had the same effect. Our server that evening was much more friendly than the bartender, but routinely neglected to describe dishes or remove empty glasses. Unfortunately, informality slipped into flightiness.
After four months in business, Nightingale hasn’t fully achieved its owners’ vision of “social dining” — the food and service just aren’t there yet. But it has created a fun, comfortable atmosphere where friends can enjoy a few small plates, craft beer, wine, or imaginative, well executed, and fairly priced cocktails ($8). The Sazerac and Manhattan were particular crowd pleasers. (Upon request, the bartenders offer non-alcoholic mixed drinks, but the two we tried were unbalanced and terribly sweet.) We’re hopeful that with time, Nightingale will develop from an urbane, fashionable bar into a superb restaurant that will contribute to the movement toward inclusive, innovative, and accessible fine dining.
Small plates in Whittier, Minneapolis
2551 Lyndale Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55405
CHEF AND OWNER: Carrie McCabe-Johnston and Jasha Johnston
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $5-13