The burger: The classic California cheeseburger lives a very good life at Nightingale, ramped up by the cooking smarts of chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston. Let’s break it down, shall we? The patty – which weights in just over the 1/4-lb. – could not be more tantalizing. It’s a half-and-half mix of chuck roast and fatty brisket, and comes with a primo pedigree: family-owned Peterson Limousin Beef near Osceola, Wis. The meat is ground in-house, and it’s so good that the only seasoning that McCabe-Johnston adds is salt, in two stages: permeating the meat while it’s being ground, and sprinkled on the surface of the patty just before it hits the stove. They're fried on a flattop, with the patties caramelizing in their own juices. “That was a decision I made early on,” said McCabe-Johnston. “I wanted something greasy and delicious. Diner-style, you know? That’s what I love.” Same here. Talk about a big, bold, beefy bite, and the brisket’s creamy fat makes for an outrageously juicy burger experience.
Next up, attention must be paid to the bun. The kitchen had been relying upon a nicely made brioche-style bun from a major Minneapolis bakery. “But Adam Murphy, one of my sous chefs said to me, ‘I think I can make this brioche better, and at a lower cost,’” said McCabe-Johnston. They’re baked fresh, daily, and while I can’t speak to the economics of the situation, Murphy was right about one thing: this is a spectacular hamburger bun. Although sturdier than your average supermarket hamburger bun -- and that's a compliment -- the interior boasts that super-rich brioche bite, further enhanced by a Coppertone-worthy tan on the bun’s outer shell. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that each half of the bun is liberally buttered before they’re toasted. “If you’re having a burger, then let’s go all the way and really have a burger,” said McCabe-Johnston with a laugh.
Garnish-wise, McCabe-Johnston starts with a four-year Cheddar from another Wisconsin treasure, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars. Not only does it melt like a dream, coating the patty and running down its sides, but it also adds another layer of salty goodness. There’s a tomato slice, which, miracle of miracles, actually tastes like a tomato. While drive-ins everywhere rely upon shredded iceberg, McCabe-Johnston turns to romaine, a huge improvement. Oh, and an herb-packed aioli adds a luxury-minded finishing touch.
When people ask me where I dine on my own dime, Nightingale is one of my stock responses, and this awe-inspiring burger is one of the main reasons why.
Price: $12, and worth every penny.
Fries: Included, and first-rate. Again, McCabe-Johnston’s approach proves that simplicity often wins the race. When the supply chain permits, she uses Minnesota-grown spuds, although right now she’s importing them Idaho. They’re cut by hand, blanched in oil and then refried at a slightly higher temperature, to order. Liberally salted, they’re long and sort-of crisp outside, with insides that recall baked potatoes. Perfect, right? Instead of ketchup, the kitchen serves them with a tangy vinegar-laced aioli.
After hours: Nightingale keeps the kind of late-night schedule that more restaurants should emulate, serving food to 1 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday (the bar stays open an hour longer). “Our late-night business is huge,” said McCabe-Johnston. “It makes me think that I was right that Minneapolis needs more quality late-night dining.” If owner-speak isn’t convincing, here’s a reliable seal of approval: “We get a lot of restaurant workers, coming in after finishing their shift,” she said. Bingo.
Added attraction: The restaurant’s small-plates menu is a feast of snackable wonders. Two burger-friendly favorites: the bruschetta topped with a cool pea puree and a top-shelf mozzarella, and McCabe-Johnston’s sort-of Caesar (pictured, above), which blends grilled romaine (which takes on a lovely smokiness, an appealing foil against splashes of tarragon-kissed vinaigrette) with tangy boquerones and smooth avocado.
Oh, and Jasha Johnston, McCabe-Johnston’s spouse and business partner, does remarkable things behind the bar; with its strict $8 pricing model, is there another Twin Cities cocktail destination with Nightingale’s particular brand of craft and value? (Pictured: Johnston's ultra-refreshing tequila-based El Dorado).
Address book: 2551 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-354-7060
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