If you charted the increasing pace at which Kim Bartmann has been opening restaurants in Minneapolis, you could probably predict the date that she will finally achieve total control of the city’s restaurant scene. In late August, less than three months after opening Tiny Diner in Powderhorn, the tireless Bartmann opened her first downtown offering: The Third Bird.
Housed in the cavernous Loring Park space previously occupied by Cafe Maude and Nick and Eddie, The Third Bird is the third restaurant at 1612 Harmon Place in as many years. Bartmann’s concept is at once enigmatic and whimsical. On the whimsical side, the man-as-animal illustrations by Steven Noble that adorn the walls and menus are something Maurice Sendak would invent: fun, almost scary, and hinting at a deeper meaning.
Leaning towards the enigmatic side, The Third Bird invites you to use the entrance in the brick alley behind the building. Yet two weeks after opening, there was no sign, awning, or logo at the easy-to-miss alley door. It was a strange first impression and foreshadowed other sporadic service flubs throughout the night.
It’s a small quibble, but the menu does only a nominally adequate job at describing the food. Each dish is featured on a single line, with the central ingredient usually (but not always) in large bold text. Most (but not all) of the ingredients are listed, but the preparation is unclear. Our enthusiastic server’s attempts to describe further were of limited help. On one hand, this speaks to the inventive nature of the food. On the other hand, it indicates a lack of training in the front of the house.
To the degree that we found the front of the house undertrained and overwhelmed, we found Lucas Almendinger’s kitchen doubly prepared. The menu is diverse, and the food itself is at turns subtle and bold, traditional and inventive.
The sunchoke veloute soup ($8) was ethereal and light as a cloud. A sphere of smoked whitefish chopped with nutty rye berries was suspended in the middle of the bowl and ringed by a halo of pureed lovage and olive oil. It hinted at creamy whitefish salad, with the proportions delightfully inverted.
The charred salmon carpaccio ($11) arrived as a stripe of thinly sliced, gently folded salmon across the middle of an oversized plate. The fish was topped with fennel, bits of black olive, and fried walnuts chopped almost to the size of single walnut molecules. The charred edge of the salmon imparted a slight taste of smoke, but the nearly raw fish remained soft and mild. The black olives were briny and contrasted beautifully with the sweetness of the walnuts. The fennel added flavors of anise and celery and a vegetal crunch. Each bite revealed subtle and unexpected flavor combinations.
With the smoked burrata ($8), we expected a riff on caprese, but what arrived was a green salad. Spread out in a crescent shape on another oversized plate, the greens were mixed with pulled chunks of burrata, pickled peaches, and strawberries, and then tossed in a roasted tomato dressing. Though the greens were not mentioned on the menu, it was a vibrant dish. The creamy burrata was a foil for the sweet, pickled fruit, and the roasted tomatoes shined through. Despite our attempts at deliberate tasting and our love of all things smoked, we could not find a trace of smoke in the otherwise delicious burrata.
Had we know that the burrata was a green salad, we would have skipped the “Caesar salad” ($11; their quotes, not ours). Drawn in by the allure of brown butter bagna cauda and roasted cauliflower, we found it to be the only bland spot on the menu as well as the only dish that felt somewhat overpriced.
The grilled asparagus ($8) delivered bold flavor. The perfectly charred yet still crunchy stalks were tossed in a creamy dressing made of chevre, onion, and sherry vinegar and stacked Jenga-style on the plate. The chevre imparted a caprine tang to the dish, but not so much as to deter those fearful of goat cheese, and rye crumbles (think Gardettos) added a bready crunch. Roasted Fresno peppers, not listed on the menu, added sweetness and mild heat that should have earned them billing on the menu.
Our entrees were excellent. We were sold as soon as our server explained that on top of the polenta ($12) was an egg poached in beet juice, and on top of the egg was shaved truffles, all served over pistou, pistachios, and ham hock. The egg, which seemed more medium-boiled than poached, was speckled with red and had a definite ferrous taste of beets. We’d have preferred a creamier yolk, but mineral taste mixed well with the truffles’ earthiness and the richly textured, sweet polenta. The ham hock seemed like a curious addition to what would otherwise have been the only vegetarian entree, but chopped small, it added texture and umami flavor, and assisted the heartiness of the egg.
If you are of the mind that the humble chicken should be avoided on restaurant menus, The Third Bird’s roasted chicken ($18 half, $32 whole) is the bird to prove you wrong. Expertly cooked with perfectly crisped skin and tender, juicy meat, even the half chicken arrived looking like enough to feed the whole table. The stuffing was prepared like pain perdu or bread pudding, and the rich, salty truffle gravy was served on the side to ration as you wish over the chicken and the stuffing.
The Third Bird’s wine list is assembled by Bill Summerville, formerly of La Belle Vie, who is widely regarded as one of the Metro’s finest minds in wine and a whip-smart front of house manager. The list is thorough without being exhaustive, and includes sections that challenge diners to reconsider their wine biases. It promises to reclaim chardonnay and merlot as grapes worth revering, and his selections deliver on the promise. He has also made a point of promoting aperitif wines, which seems in keeping with the decorous mood of the parkside cafe. Whether or not Third Bird diners will adopt a more genteel imbibing attitude remains to be seen, but it’s nice to have the option so prominently displayed.
Big wine lists are notoriously lacking in good value, and the by-the-glass prices won’t appeal to bargain hunters. Seasoned wine drinkers will certainly appreciate some of the more esoteric selections. The purposely-oxidative Coenobium stands out from its section as one you won’t find on many lists.
The breadth of the list is impressive. For serious wine drinkers looking to impress out-of-town guests with some fine bottles, but who don’t want to slog through a $200 tasting menu to do so, it’s one of the more compelling options downtown.
The Third Bird’s kitchen and bar are clearly ready for prime time. The food is innovative yet familiar; the portions are generous and the prices more than reasonable. But with the expertise of Bartmann, Summerville, and Tilia’s Steven Brown on hand, it was unexpected to find the front of the house dragging anchor on the night of our visit. On a followup visit, a small wordless piece of paper with The Third Bird logo had been taped to the alley door. Enigmatic, to be sure. It was early in the night, but the servers seemed more collected. We hope this indicates a turnaround for the service as a whole.
Bartmann has a knack for capturing the characteristics of a neighborhood in her restaurant concepts. A theater and bowling alley in Lyn/Lake with Bryant Lake Bowl, a bohemian Uptown cafe with Barbette, a Northeast supper club with Red Stag, a neighborhood garden/diner in Powderhorn with Tiny Diner. With her first downtown restaurant, Bartmann has captured the fanciful park-in-the-city surroundings. Even the cube lamp pendants seem to be a nod to the Sculpture Garden across the street. If the front of the house can catch up to the kitchen, we expect that The Third Bird will be a Loring Park fixture for years to come.
John Garland contributed to this review.
The Third Bird
Upscale cafe in Loring Park
1612 Harmon Place
Minneapolis, MN 55403
OWNER / CHEF: Kim Bartmann / Lucas Almendinger
Lunch Mon-Fri 11am-5pm
Brunch Sat-Sun 9am-2pm
Dinner Sun-Thu 5pm-10pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-11pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $12-$32
PARKING: Street parking, valet