The arrival of cocktail rooms in the Twin Cities a few years ago triggered headlines like, “Are cocktail rooms the next taprooms?” due to the similarities and legislative ties of the two business types. In both, drinkers consume the finished product where it was made, bringing them closer to the producers and the process. Taprooms and cocktail rooms still face a bit of legal red tape as well as the question of how to balance a service-business model with a production model, and what to do about food.
Since 2011, when the so-called “Surly Bill” was signed into law — making taprooms possible and distillery licensing much more affordable — many breweries have relied on food trucks and nearby restaurants offering take-out to feed their customers. (The brewpub Urban Growler, with a restaurant model and a full kitchen, is one exception). Cocktail rooms have seldom had much food available. The occasional food truck is probably not well-supported at a distillery (which is smaller than most taprooms), and the pairing of most food truck fare with high-end cocktails doesn’t always hold up.
Recently, Norseman Distillery in Northeast Minneapolis debuted a kitchen and a true (if limited) food menu.
Pastry chef Jaclyn Von, formerly of Saint Genevieve and Esker Grove, has taken a step away from these notable kitchens to carve out a new niche — creative, from-scratch cooking in a cocktail-forward setting. “There isn’t just a pastry chef job anymore. You have to be able to work multiple roles,” she explains. “I found myself gravitating more towards the cooking side. Norseman needed a food program, and I thought, ‘why not?’”
The food shows no particular evidence that her training was pastry-focused. The menu is skewed toward the Scandinavian — root vegetables, fish, and fermented fare — within a bar-snack scheme.
The bold color of the beet-stained Deviled Eggs ($4 for three halves) made them stand out. A garnish of whiskey-washed capers and dill created nostalgia-inducing flavor. Each bite was both briny and floral.
For something brighter, opt for the red snapper Ceviche ($8), served with crispy lavash. About 4 ounces of the topping goes a long way for one diner, and the price is less than most of the drinks. Acid and heat surrounded the meaty white fish without overpowering it, and avocado granted additional depth.
The regulations for food in a cocktail room limit how much cooking can be done on-site, meaning that even though Von is a seasoned pastry chef, she is forced to outsource her bread. The Smorbrod ($7), therefore, is served on two slices of Rustica toast. It features classic Nordic flavors: hearty beets and fleshy pickled herring. Beets are served two ways: in the form of a golden-beet spread, and in sizeable chunks of the traditional red. The two varieties of the vegetable are entirely different and deliver a striking contrast between earthy comfort and bright salinity. House-pickled herring doesn’t stray from classic church basement, though it is almost creamy.
The cheese assortment at Norseman was so well-curated that we were still talking about it days later. The Cheese Plate ($12) might be the best deal on the entire menu but should be reserved for the adventurous. The assortment changes frequently, but our visit showcased a brunost. Brunost is a Scandinavian cheese made by caramelizing whey, and the caramel element is so developed that when the cheese is eaten with the apple-and-celery-root slaw, it tastes like salty caramel. Two other notable cheeses were Alemar Cheese Company’s well-known Good Thunder, which is washed in Surly Bender; and a potent, juniper-berry blue. Other accoutrements included prosciutto, jam, and pickled mushrooms.
The biggest hit among the beverages was the ROYK, made with maple, harvest whiskey, and vetiver. The smoked glass and strong woody character are not subtle. The vetiver is botanical and fragrant, not unlike frankincense. It is made more intense by the whiskey’s alcoholic heat. Pair this with the earthy Smorbrod.
The Ceviche works well with the spicy Lucky Dragon. Pineapple-and-chipotle-infused gin plays off of the acidity in the Ceviche, while the delicate hibiscus in the cocktail somehow sings through.
Norseman is well-known for seasonality. They announce a beverage-menu change, complete with intricate chalk drawing, at least four times per year. Beverage after beverage, each element seems perfectly timed. If this trend carries through into the food, this could be an unexpected source for a perfect bar nosh. And though the current menu doesn’t quite offer a meal (pizza comes the closest), the tapaslike model won’t leave guests hungry.
Norseman Distillery, 451 Taft St. NE, Suite 19, Minneapolis, MN; 612.643.1933