With Birdhouse, Stewart and Heidi Woodman focus on health-conscious cooking.
Here's the skinny on a relentlessly habit-forming appetizer at Birdhouse.
It's labeled a "pâté" on the menu, one that's made using a somewhat unconventional snacking ingredient. Rather than animal fat, its key building block is cool, light puréed sweet peas, fortified with goat cheese and mint. After being spooned into a ramekin, it's capped with tangy crème fraîche and the twinkle of pink sea salt, a green-and-white swirl that spreads like a dream across toasted, bias-cut rye baguette pocked with sunflower seeds.
Its easy-to-admire characteristics pretty much embody this next chapter of the Stewart and Heidi Woodman story. It has been nearly 10 years since the Woodmans relocated to Heidi's hometown, a move that has clearly, even thrillingly, enriched the Twin Cities' culinary scene.
Birdhouse isn't the page-turner that their acclaimed Heidi's is, but a health-conscious spin on the neighborhood diner is an intriguing idea, and a frequently exciting one. Let's face it, not every casual, moderately priced restaurant boasts the culinary chops that the Woodmans bring to the kitchen table.
The couple's discerning yet idiosyncratic approach to cooking is all over the menu, although they're acting more as restaurateurs than practitioners. The restaurant's day-to-day operations had been overseen by Ben Mauk, but he has since moved on. While that's a shame -- the guy is talented -- the Woodmans have handed Heidi's sous chef Jes Werkmeister the opportunity to run her first kitchen.
And she's obviously grabbing it with both hands. The dishes she has recently added to the menu show tremendous promise; witness a pan-roasted trout, the delicate flesh scented with traces of lemon and thyme and topped with a lively charmoula sauce and pickled fennel.
Dawn to dusk
The menu is built on a breakfast-all-day format, noteworthy for intricately stuffed omelets, as well as pancakes and waffles that showcase offbeat (for breakfast, anyway) grains: wild rice for the former, quinoa and spelt for the latter. Thick bacon and zingy house-made sausage, both carefully nurtured on the stove, are reason enough to stop by.
From there, the kitchen adds a few dishes to round out the day. At noon, there's the kind of chicken sandwich that should be the staple of lunch counters everywhere, along with a cleverly repackaged Caesar salad.
At dinner, the entrees become more ambitious. "Now this is how chicken should taste," my friend said as we competed to get the last bites of a glorious roast chicken, paired with creamy mashed Yukon gold potatoes and a richly savory gravy. Similarly impressive are the fall-off-the-bone wild boar short ribs, braised overnight and finished in a wowser of a pan reduction sauce.
A few dishes are more good for you than good -- a trap in the land of spa cooking -- particularly the earnest fruit crisps and an enormous plate of toothy farro, deadly dull despite touches of gently sour skyr. But the occasional disappointments are more than countered by bright spots, whether it's a flagrantly tart lemon curd or a juicy, well-seasoned lamb burger. Still, the too-brief menu can feel as if it lacks critical mass.
Other admirable traits include a daily schedule that stretches from early morning to 1 a.m., diner-like hours that sync with the needs of the night-owl neighborhood. The bar taps a swell selection of craft beers and concocts an appealing roster of refreshing fruit- and vegetable-based beverages. Happy hour includes a few inexpensive noshes. Another cool touch is the occasional (and free) yoga classes.
Still, while the staff routinely puts its friendliest face forward, service is wildly inconsistent, a puzzling blend of flighty, careless and attentive. Oh, and am I the only one to occasionally confuse Birdhouse with Blackbird?
The latter is the Woodmans' former neighbor, until a devastating fire forced both restaurants to relocate. Turns out the Birdhouse moniker is a double reference: Heidi Woodman's Hebrew name is Sephora, which translates into "small bird," and the restaurant is housed in yes, a former house.
Which leads to Birdhouse's weakest link: its setting. Despite being handed what must have been a fairly modest budget, Smart Associates, the Minneapolis design firm, has done a valiant job repositioning a multi-story residence -- and the former Duplex -- into a more pragmatic and appealing dining environment.
Where possible, the floor plan was reordered, most notably with the addition of a pleasant second-floor bar. A soothing new color palette is punched up by an ever-growing collection of quirky junk shop collectibles that wryly imply a Dust Bowl-era farmhouse.
But in the end, like so many houses-turned-restaurants, it's still the equivalent of being seated in someone's old bedroom. Fine if yours is the only occupied table, although isn't half the fun of going out rooted in the enchantment of people-watching across a crowded room?
Besides, sharing tight quarters with a few others can be reminiscent of bunking in a cramped, post-college Uptown apartment with roommates whose company isn't entirely compelling.
After one particularly vexing evening, when the boisterous party sharing our "room" had effectively ended any hope of conversation at our table, I couldn't help but wonder how Birdhouse's frequently inspired food would taste at a different address.
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