Copper Hen reflects changing face of Eat Street

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2014 - 4:16 PM

REVIEW: The Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen shouts comfort at the table, whatever meal it may be.  |  ★★½ out of 4 stars

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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.

Good morning

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.

★★½ out of 4 stars
  • copper hen Cakery & Kitchen ⋆⋆1/2

    www.copperhenkitchen.com 612-872-2221

    Location

    2515 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.

    Hours

    7 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.

    service

    Weekday daytime counter service switches to table service at night and on weekends. A convenient parking lot (located across Nicollet Avenue) is a rare Eat Street asset.

    Price ranges

    At lunch and dinner, a handful of entrees $14-$17, most everything else under $12. All breakfast items (with the exception of two weekend brunch dishes) under $6. Most pastries in the $2-$4.50 range.

    Recommended dishes

    Breakfast hand pies, breakfast sandwiches, chicken pot pie, BLT, burger, turkey sandwich, soups, bread basket, rabbit pâté, chocolate chip cookie, cupcakes.

    beverages

    Short, smart list of tap beers. Brief wine selection impresses for its affordability.

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