Icehouse arrived at 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis last month as a triple threat: a foodie destination, a cocktail den and Eat Street's first bona fide music club. The owners are calling it a "live music restaurant." I would place Icehouse halfway between the more intimate Aster Cafe and the more affluent Dakota Jazz Club.
The two guys running the show are Matt Bickford and Brian Liebeck. Bickford is the owner of the downtown sandwich emporium, Be'Wiched. Liebeck is a known in the music scene as an expert lighting designer. They've assembled a team of bar scene all-stars, chief among them bartender demigod Johnny Michaels and former Turf Club ringleader Dave Wiegardt.
The venue is virtually unrecognizable from its last incarnation (Sindbad's Middle-Eastern deli). The interior was gutted back to its ice-factory origins, complete with rusty patina, cracked brick walls and soaring ceilings. Bickford and Liebeck loved the rawness. "We just didn't want to screw it up," Bickford said.
Liebeck has entrusted the sound and the feel of this neighborhood "listening room" to a handful of Twin Cities tastemakers. Wiegardt helped lure drummer JT Bates to re-create his beloved jazz residency that ran for 13 years in the Turf Club's Clown Lounge. Pink Mink's Christy Hunt will run Tuesdays as a DJ-centric vintage R&B night called Lady Heat Hot Soul Party. James Buckley is helping with the weekend jazz combos, and members of the Pines are working on Sunday night.
Before the dinner rush last week, I found Johnny Michaels in the kitchen, stuffing 10 pounds of ginger into a blender. The prep work (for a boatload of ginger syrup) was part of a little experiment he's conducting at Icehouse: high-speed craft cocktails. One big knock on the mixology movement is the laborious amount of time it takes to get a drink. "Speed is the Holy Grail of craft cocktails," he said.
Michaels is still working at La Belle Vie, where he pioneered the Twin Cities cocktail boom. But he'll be at Icehouse on some nights, where he's designed an entire menu around quick-draw drinks.
One thing Michaels didn't change was his sense of humor. A frothy punch cocktail comes with a photo of Little Richard floating on top. Another drink is served with a homemade popsicle. Most of these cocktails are priced at $9-$10.
My favorite part of the drink menu is the dozen sipping shots, priced at $5 apiece. These 2-ounce pours (on the rocks) are basically twists on classic bourbon and rye drinks. The spicy "Satan Laughs & Spreads His Wings" is accompanied by a Christian comic book.
You know you're doing something right when the chef at the hottest restaurant in town geeks out after seeing your setup. During a preview night last week, I caught Jack Riebel, the man behind Butcher & the Boar, practically licking his chops over Bickford's brand-new kitchen.
It was a given that Bickford's sandwiches would be on point, including the stuffed cheesesteak ($10.50) and classic pastrami ($9.50). The majority of the menu, however, is Bickford's twist on comfort-food small plates. The gnocchi ($12.50) comes with sweetbreads and escargot. The crab cakes ($10.50) are actually three golf-ball-sized bites resting on a bed of mac and cheese. Most everything is in the $7 to $15 range, except for the "not-so classic" burger, topped with a slab of foie gras ($21.50). That's the chef throwing down the gauntlet when it comes to the Twin Cities' best burger.
In some ways Icehouse is a kindred spirit to a place like Butcher & the Boar. Both restaurants have an appreciation for masculine environments, both enjoy a little bourbon and whole lot of meat. Riebel seemed to agree.
"This place is going to be huge," he told me.