When Danielle Bjorling was 14 years old, a cake-decorating class changed her life forever.
“I immediately knew that it was my calling,” she said.
Within two years, she was working at her teenager’s idea of a dream job — assistant to the pastry chef at Lunds in Plymouth — and by her early 20s, she was moonlighting from her work as a nanny to bake for her friends and family, all the while deliberating with her CPA husband, Chris, about owning a dessert-focused wine bar.
That hope became a reality in May when the couple opened the Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen. It’s a story that never reaches an expiration date: Young entrepreneurs — Danielle is 25; Chris is 27 — follow their passion and throw everything they have into the demanding but rewarding restaurant business (with a 2014 addendum, of course: The Bjorlings supplemented their investment with the help of 199 loyal Kickstarter supporters).
After scouting locations in south Minneapolis, the couple peeked inside a long-abandoned Vietnamese restaurant and fell for the place, hard. The space offered more square footage than their original plans dictated, an opportunity that led to a full-fledged restaurant, one that embraces everyday, apple-cheeked fare.
“Our vision is, if you’re working on a farm all day, what would you eat when you came in for lunch?” said Chris. “We like giving an upscale twist to pure, wholesome ingredients.”
Their breakfast-through-dinner operation represents yet another shift in the nature of Eat Street, that food-centric stretch of Nicollet Avenue that runs 17 blocks south of downtown Minneapolis. The thoroughfare’s polyglot nature has not diminished — several dozen establishments continue to circumnavigate the culinary globe, taking diners from Tibet to Thailand, Malaysia to Trinidad, and points in between — but increasingly, diners can select from more Americanized options — including the Bjorlings’ farmhouse-inspired cooking and baking.
Basics handled with care
Along with finding myriad ways to transform flour, the kitchen devotes itself to hunting down top-quality meats and channeling them into uncomplicated, highly appealing uses.
Starting with marinating, slow-roasting and hand-carving slabs of bacon made from the happy pigs at Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn., then inserting its unabashed deliciousness up and down the menu, most notably in a well-built BLT that more than earns its $11 price tag, the bacon cut as thick as a serving of Easter ham.
Some of that pork fat enriches the lean ground beef (from Grass Run Farms, a regional network of family-owned cattle producers) that is the centerpiece of a blue-ribbon-worthy burger. An impressive level of care and feeding goes into each iteration, most notably what the kitchen labels its own version of Cheez Whiz, a sharp Cheddar that relies upon a dose of American cheese (and a shot of locally brewed pale ale) to capture the dairy-product-in-a-jar consistency. Like the half-dozen breads that come out of the kitchen’s ovens, the luscious house-baked brioche bun is no slouch, either.
Just typing the words “turkey sandwich” has me stifling a yawn. But the Bjorlings work wonders, toasting slices of their gently nutty, naturally leavened wheat bread, stacking it high with juicy turkey (raised at the conscientious Wild Acres Game Farm in Pequot Lakes, Minn.) and then finishing it with a complementary host of add-ons, including a supple Brie sauce and tart apples that play against sweetly caramelized onions. It might be my new fallback lunch.
Moving beyond sandwiches, the kitchen tackles a handful of dough-related entrees. A chicken pot pie, with its dreamy, butter-drenched crust, firmly puts the comfort in comfort food. Two pasta dishes dulled in comparison — a four-varietal mac-and-cheese and goulash-style braised lamb tossed in pipe-like pasta, called paccheri.
The restaurant shines in the a.m., and not just because the soothing setting is the antithesis of the cramped, boisterous coffeehouse culture. The slim menu hits all the right chords.
For a pair of breakfast sandwiches, baker John Greuel cranks out English muffins that outshine supermarket freezer case counterparts. They’re split, toasted and filled with basic but well-chosen finishing touches (fluffy scrambled eggs crisscrossed with crisp bacon, spinach with a juicy grilled tomato slice), their cratered interiors ideal for capturing as much rich, smooth aioli as possible. Both are roughly a dollar more than their rote brethren on the Starbucks-Caribou-Dunn Bros. circuit, and worth every penny.
Even better are the hand pies. The savory, single-serving wake-up calls begin with golden, impossibly tender crusts that radiate buttery goodness (“We use a lot of butter at the Copper Hen,” said Danielle Bjorling with a laugh) and are shaped into free-form, open-faced rounds. The fillings change frequently — and usually reflect the seasons — but there are always two options, meat and vegetarian. They’re a steal at $4.25.
Although it’s treated as an afterthought at most quick-service breakfast spots, the Copper Hen regards the fruit-yogurt parfait with the utmost respect, layering a wide bowl with all sorts of like-minded goodies: Berries are so plump and juicy that they exude the impression that someone just made a farmers market run; floral honey and refreshing snips of mint subtly counter the creamy yogurt’s tangy bite, and a crunchy granola is so tasty that it’s a shame it’s not available by the bag.
The bakery counter doesn’t disappoint. Scones are perfectly pleasant; the spiral-shaped cinnamon rolls avoid the ponderousness that frequently plagues the genre, and the dense, cinnamon- and sugar-crusted muffins manage to embrace all the right doughnut traits, minus the deep-fried guilt.
The talker of the bunch is based on a cherished recipe from Danielle’s grandmother, a crumbly, muffin-like blueberry cupcake that sneaks in snips of crisp bacon and finishes with maple syrup and cream cheese icing flourishes. On paper, the combination pretty much embodies all that is involved in the phrase going overboard (it has “State Fair” written all over it, right?), but in reality the results are surprisingly restrained, and also prove the theory that bacon really does improve everything it touches.
One issue is consistency. Pizzas, with their just-bordering-on-sourdough crust, were marvelously crisp-chewy on one visit, drearily drab the next. (You know what would improve the pizza topped with figs and chèvre? Yeah: bacon.)
Before making the nighttime switch to table service — a definite improvement, by the way — the counter staff wasn’t always clued in to the niceties of restaurant operations. Case in point: Artfully arranged snack boards arrived at the table without explanation, prompting a few exasperating rounds of Guess That Cheese and Mystery Meat.
Diners with short attention spans might find the menu too abbreviated for their needs. Prices are occasional head-scratchers.
For instance: a color-saturated bowl of the daily soup (frequently vegan, skillfully crafted) and a sampler basket filled with a half-dozen or so slices of Greuel’s stellar breads (including, thank goodness, samples from the fluffy, ultra-homey milk-and-honey loaf). The former clocks in at $7, the latter at $6; both feel a dollar or two too much.
At the same time, bargains abound. The superb rabbit liver pâté would probably rate far more than its $10 asking price in a more formal setting. Then there’s the sublime chocolate chip cookie, its classic flavor boosted by browned butter and near-scandalous amounts of top-quality semisweet chocolate. It’s gooey on the inside, delicately crispy outside and wholly addictive, with a totally-worth-it $2.50 price tag.
Still, they’re overshadowed, looks-wise, by the cupcakes, some adorably presented in tiny Mason jars.
Unlike many cupcake bakers, who seem genetically unable to resist leaving well enough alone, Danielle’s work combines obvious technical acumen with a mature sense of discernment. No confetti cakes garnished with Golden Grahams, gummy bears and Peanut Butter M&M’s in this shop.
Instead, she delivers a chocolate gluten-free version that manages to circumvent the considerable potholes of that particular baking discipline, and the half-dozen other standards are definitely aimed at not-so-sweet adult tastes.
Like all good restaurateurs, the all-smiles Bjorlings make their work appear effortless, even though it’s anything but. It helps that the couple reside in an apartment above their appealing dining room, which whispers rather than shouts its country-in-the-city intentions.
“I have a 10-step commute,” said Danielle with a laugh. “That makes it easy when you have a 20-hour day and have to get up and do it all over again.”
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