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Let me get this straight. Before cheap refrigeration was invented, companies would hire men to "harvest" ice off Minnesota lakes to keep food and beer cold? That is crazy, I say!
I bring this random fact to your attention only because I was forced to do a little bit of homework after visiting the brand-new Icehouse last week. The bar's name, you see, is an allusion to its building's original purpose more than a century ago. Icehouse is located in a portion of what used to be Cedar Lake Ice & Fuel Co. (Cedar Lake being the ice harvesting locale, I presume).
OK, history lesson over.
Icehouse is a part of a mini-resurgence happening at 26th and Nicollet. It joins Eat Street Social, Vertical Endeavors, a new Dunn Bros. and the soon-to-open Azia Kitchen. The whole corner has that new-car smell.
Icehouse arrived last week 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," a rare breed in the Twin Cities. I would place Icehouse somewhere 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 North Loop sandwich emporium Be'Wiched (his partner there, Mike Ryan, is also an owner at Icehouse). Liebeck is 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 to reveal 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.
Shelter Architecture and Blue Construction simply added to the rustic splendor with a mezzanine made of I-beams and walls of reclaimed Douglas fir (two tons of which came from a Wyoming snow fence).
There's no single booker. 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 Icehouse 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.
Last Thursday's grand opening was capped off by Adam Levy's soul-rock outfit, Hookers & Blow. The band threw the crowd into a dance-party frenzy, which probably wasn't indicative of the bar's listening-room vision, but it sure was fun.
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 an experiment he's conducting at Icehouse: high-speed craft cocktails. One of the big knocks on the labor-intensive mixology movement is how long it takes to get a drink at such places as Bradstreet and Marvel Bar.
"Speed is the Holy Grail of craft cocktails," Michaels said.
Michaels is still working at La Belle Vie, the high-end restaurant where he pioneered the Twin Cities cocktail boom. But some nights he'll be at Icehouse, where he's designed an entire menu around quick-draw drinks.
He achieved this by premixing the nonperishable ingredients. So a drink with 10 ingredients might take only two or three steps to make. Will purists call this sacrilegious?
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 to $10.
My favorite part of the drink menu is the dozen sipping shots 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 of Butcher & the Boar practically licking his chops over Bickford's brand-new kitchen. And trust me, Riebel's toys at his sausage-and-bourbon palace are nothing to scoff at.
Bickford's team is playing with all sorts of gadgetry here: A big Southern Pride smoker, an expensive Rational Combi oven, a funky tilt skillet.
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 the chef'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 items are 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 I see Icehouse being a kindred spirit to a place like Butcher & the Boar. Both restaurants have an appreciation for masculine environments, both enjoy a little bourbon and lot of meat. Walking through the crowd at Icehouse last week, Riebel seemed to agree.
"This place is going to be huge," he said.
Follow Horgen on Twitter: @tomhorgen