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While the e-mail wasn't marked "urgent," it certainly read that way.
"I met someone and we're going out on Saturday," wrote my friend. "I need to suggest a place where we can hear each other talk. It should have good food and it can't be boring or expensive."
Please, that's one query I could have answered from a semi-conscious state. My immediate response: Nightingale.
It's not just for date-nighters, either. Chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston wants to prepare the kind of casual, creative food she loves but seldom encounters when dining out. That's an understandable impulse, one she has taken to a place where words like "exciting" and "appealing" easily attach themselves.
That mentality kicks off with the kinds of nibbles that naturally pair up with the bar's libations: addictive olives, well-appointed cheese and charcuterie plates, a few fresh oysters and creamy, dill-flecked deviled eggs garnished with a luxurious caviar finish. They're all fine; terrific, even. But then the real fun starts.
First up: A handful of liberally topped bruschettas, all made on bias-cut slices of toasted country-style white bread. They're headlined by a generous swipe of ultra-fresh ricotta sprinkled with dukkah, an aromatic Egyptian spice blend that marries hazelnuts with fennel, paprika and coriander and hints of just-picked mint. The results are a delicate balance of heat against cool, crunchy against soft. Hardly your standard-issue open-faced sandwich.
Also admirable was a posh assortment of roasted mushrooms capped with a perky fried quail egg, and a well-balanced blend of leeks and crab. Still, my favorite showcased white beans, prepared two ways: Whole, marinated in olive oil, lemon and thyme until they were just the right barely toothy texture; and puréed, to form an aioli-like dressing.
The combination was both unassuming and spectacular. It was also, inexplicably, not a big seller, which explains its recent demise, and my subsequent tailspin into despair. OK, that last part might be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Pork shoulder magic
Fortunately, there are other splendors. Plenty of them. The bulk of the menu is devoted to an eclectic and imaginative array of nearly 20 small-ish plates that range, portion-wise, between appetizer and quasi-entree.
Scallops, pearly inside, seared to nut-brown on the outside, are garnished with cool green grapes and a sauce inspired by McCabe-Johnston's summertime make-at-home obsession, almond gazpacho. An autumnal twist on the classic Italian panzanella salad tosses arugula, brown butter-brushed beets, pumpernickel croutons and succulent shreds of duck leg confit, a can't-stop-eating-this combination.
Tiny, tender calamari skip the breading-and-frying routine with a quick sear on the grill; completing the picture is a vibrant parsley pesto and roasted cherry tomatoes, their acidity mellowed by the oven. Single-serving lamb chops are dressed in Parmigiano-Reggiano and bread crumbs and fried until the cheesy crunch of the coating yields the ridiculously full-bodied texture and flavor that so often blossoms from carefully raised animals.
That lamb's fat cap is cured into lardo, which is rendered into a glaze for a gorgeous plate of baby turnips and stubby Thumbelina carrots, with the green of fried rosemary popping against the root vegetable's orange and amber color palette. It's the summit of McCabe-Johnston's clear affinity with vegetables, and I'm totally stealing the idea for my next dinner party.
But her most admirable effort is shredded pork shoulder over grits. The meat's smokiness -- derived from pecan and apple woods -- announces itself through the nose yet doesn't hammer the taste buds, a skillful trick. It's insanely, mouth-meltingly juicy, and it would be superb on its own, but McCabe-Johnston spoons it over shallow cakes fashioned from creamy white grits, then adds a chile-kissed, sweet-and-sour red pepper gastrique. To visit the restaurant and not order it seems inconceivable.
Reinvigorating the ubiquitous is a McCabe-Johnston subspecialty. Chicken wings, so big they could have been pulled off a Thanksgiving turkey and sparingly glazed in soy, ginger and garlic, are notable for what they are, which is almost brazenly meaty and flavorful, the result of a simple salt brine. But also for what they're not, which is sticky and heavily greasy.
The spectacular meatballs could be the centerpiece of a first-rate red sauce joint, that's how good they are, an almost pillowy blend of chuck roast and pork shoulder, milk and Parmesan, served in a lively, marjoram-packed tomato sauce.
The thick-cut fries and tempura-quality onion rings do not disappoint. There's also a burger, a hedonistic chuck-brisket grind dressed with a sharp four-year-old Cheddar and a mellow, herb-packed aioli. Its full-throated richness is darned-near operatic.
Because McCabe-Johnston rarely repeats herself, it's difficult to grow restless, although the reasonable prices will encourage repeat visits. And while there are slip-ups, they tend to be less conceptual and more technical in nature -- carelessly gritty scallops, a too-aggressive wrist on the salt shaker, vegetables taken just past the wrong side of tender, jumbo head-on prawns that slump when they should snap -- all issues that could dissipate as Team Nightingale hits its stride.
A toast to good looks
Jasha Johnston, McCabe-Johnston's spouse and business partner, is the creative force behind the bar, presiding over a roster of well-crafted gimlets, sidecars, Manhattans and other classic cocktails. All are $8 a pop, a refreshingly down-to-earth price in today's platinum-card bar culture. The judiciously selected wines and beers also adhere to a similar reality-based pricing model.
The place is a looker. Minneapolis interior designer Rachel Kate Hunt successfully vanquished all vestiges of the semi-seedy superette that preceded the enterprising Johnstons, leaving most of the visual heavy lifting to rough-hewn yellow brick walls (a happy post-demolition discovery), a rustic red oak floor, overstuffed booths and an L-shaped bar that epitomizes the hospitality trade's pull-up-a-chair credo.
Still, Hunt manages to toss in a few memorable old-new touches, including funky walnut orb chandeliers, which look vintage but aren't. It's the nighttime room that it should be, and a thoughtful reflection of both the restaurant's name and after-hours schedule.
As for my buddy, I haven't heard if his evening was a head-over-heels experience. But here's hoping his date followed in Nightingale's footsteps and made a highly favorable first impression.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib