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Now Re-Opened: Birchwood Cafe

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant news Updated: May 20, 2014 - 3:28 PM

Oh, happy day: The Birchwood Cafe is back in business.

The Seward neighborhood restaurant, a magnet for diners across the Twin Cities, has been closed since Feb. 22 while undergoing a facelift and much-needed expansion.

I arrived this morning shortly after the doors opened at 7 a.m.. After I ordered and took a seat, a customer – turns out, he’s been a Birchwood-er almost since the day the place debuted in 1995 – strolled in and took a look around.

General manager Rick Oknick greeted him like a long-lost friend with a gregarious “How are you?” “I’m a whole lot better,” said the customer, “now that I can have breakfast here again.”  

My feelings, exactly. I’ve been an obsessive social media gazer for the past several days, trying to discern when owner Tracy Singleton and her business partner Steve Davidson were going to finally open the doors. As each day passed, my hunger for a savory waffle (more on that in a moment) was beginning to know no bounds.

Other diners began to slowly trickle in, all obvious regulars who seemed relieved to recognize their old friend. “We didn’t want it to be too shiny,” said chef Marshall Paulsen. “We still wanted it to feel like the Birchwood. I think we’ve been successful.”

Indeed. It's lovely to see how the black-and-white photos of Cy and Del Bursch and the Birchwood Dairy delivery truck continue to enjoy their pride of place (the Bursch family was the 88-year-old building’s original tenants, a neighborhood grocery and dairy). And diners are greeted by the same Zen meal prayer, which articulates the restaurant’s locavore mindset: “Enumerable measures bring us this food, we should know how it comes to us.”

A few local outfits were tapped for eye-catching and environmentally friendly materials. Walls and counters are faced with reclaimed wood  from Wood from the Hood, and Rust Brothers used recycled glass to fashion the bright green countertops. Tables, built by a Twin Cities craftsman, boast honey-colored Douglas fir that was salvaged from a California lemon warehouse.

Despite a similar front-of-house footprint between the B’wood’s two iterations, Locus Architecture has somehow managed to make the new dining room feel roomier. It helps that the kitchen – the showiest part of it, anyway – is now open for all to see, and it’s fronted by a communal chef’s table.

Yes, a communal table – one of three, as it turns out -- in the personal space-conscious Gopher State. “If it will work anywhere, it will work in Seward,” said Davidson with a laugh.

A not-insignificant chunk of the building’s addition is dedicated to a much-needed overflow dining space/community room, separated from the main dining area by a sliding barn-style door.

One wall (lined in – what else? -- birch bark), will soon display the names of the nearly 1,000 contributors to the restaurant’s $112,126 Kickstarter campaign. The room also features a projection television and a large screen, "for the Tour de France,” said Singleton, reminding me that the restaurant is a magnet for bicyclists. On a beautiful summer's day, It’s not uncommon to see the sidewalk lined with enough racing bikes to stock a bicycle store's going-out-of-business sale.

The counter-service setup remains the same, although it feels easier to navigate. One restroom has blossomed into two. But the most significant changes won’t be seen by most customers, although they’ll probably sense them, because the Birchwood kitchen just got a whole lot more efficient. Think about trading up from a dorm-room toaster oven to two or three eight-burner, two-oven Viking ranges, and you’ll have a sense of the transformation's scale.

While I waited for my waffle, Singleton snuck me backstage. First stop: the dishwashing room. “It’s probably the same size as the old kitchen,” she said, and she’s not exaggerating. After producing breads and sweets offsite for several years, the bakers are back in the building, and the scent was killing me, in a very good way. A new walk-in cooler appears to be about as large as my living room (its much more diminuitive predecessor is now dedicated to beer storage) and a walk-in freezer will efficiently preserve the harvest from the nearly three-dozen farms that supply the kitchen with much of its inventory.

The renovation has also boosted the restaurant’s sustainability credentials. Outside, a muddy mess behind the restaurant will soon bloom into a rain garden, with space for cultivating herbs and vegetables. Solar panels are headed to the roof, and a grant from Hennepin County will finance the construction of an on-site recycling facility.  

As for my breakfast, it was astonishingly delicious. One of Paulsen’s specialties is his savory waffle, and he’s flexing the reborn restaurant's muscles with a real doozy. Quinoa and garden-fresh spring peas are folded into the batter, and when the beyond-tender results are released from the iron, out come the toppings:crunchy petipas, a tangy lemon compound butter, thick snips of smoky bacon and a finger-on-the-seasonal-pulse dollop of rhubarb marmalade.

A pepper-freckled fried egg, its runny yolk anxiously waiting to break out of its gently cooked white, was the crowning glory, and a small pitcher of fragrant maple syrup added the just-right finishing touch. Price? Twelve dollars. So worth it.

Would that all mornings could start this way. Imagine my happiness when I learned that, for the first time, it's being served all the live-long day, and not just at breakfast.

Hello, savory waffle. It has been far too long.

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