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Burger Friday: Nighthawks explores 'adventures in griddling' with cheesy wonder

The burger: It should come as no surprise that the Nighthawks cheeseburger is the menu’s top-selling item. “What’s funny is that the second-best selling item is the raw vegetable salad,” said chef/owner Landon Schoenefeld. “I guess people want burgers, and they want salad.”

At Nighthawks, a neo-diner that’s ruled by the catch phrase “Adventures in Griddling,” the burger follows a different format than the thick-pattied, bar-style burger at HauteDish, Schoenefeld’s North Loop restaurant. And that’s by design.

“We wanted Nighthawks to be different, and that’s why we jumped on this smashed burger bandwagon,” he said. “When we were concepting the diner, the whole thin-patty cheeseburger wasn’t really a thing, except for Parlour. Along came Saint Dinette, and Revival, and us. We’re all doing something along the lines of the same thing, but there are subtle differences.”

Starting with the approach to beef. Schoenefeld and his crew spent a considerable amount of time working out the formula’s kinks, finally settling on a blend of sirloin, brisket and chuck. And butter. For every 50 pounds of beef, there’s roughly eight pounds of butter.

“It’s not as buttery as the burger at Saint Dinette, or Parlour,” said Schoenefeld. “But there is some butter in it. That butter is the key to the smashed burgers. When it renders out to the grill, it gives the patty that wonderful crusty crust.”

Yes, it does, one of the many reasons why the word mouthwatering applies to this burger. Why this particular sirloin-rich mix?

“At first we were using rib eye,” said Schoenefeld. “But it was just so expensive. And honestly, I don’t know if you could tell if there was any rib eye in it. So we started messing around, and we finally landed on this trio.”

The patties start as quarter-pound meatballs. My favorite seats at Nighthawks are at the kitchen counter, which provide an up-close-and-personal view of cooking crew as they go through their considerable paces.

During my recent visit, I found myself particularly captivated by the grill chef’s burger-making routine. He was constantly lining up four, or six, or eight meatballs, uniformly spacing them on an unseen grid. Then he’d take a spatula in his left hand and a spatula in his right hand, stack the blades on top of one another, place them over a meatball and, really inserting a heaping helping of elbow grease, press the meatball until it was transformed into a flat, irregularly shaped patty.

After all the patties had achieved a roughly quarter-inch thickness, he’d retire the spatulas, grab a generous pinch of coarse salt and sprinkle it over each patty. After the beef had achieved a sizzling browned sear, he’d carefully nudge a spatula’s blade under each patty and quickly, expertly flip it.

The final process involved adding the cheese. Schoenefeld prefers straight-up, nothing-fancy American, pre-sliced and stacked in long, plastic-wrapped commodity-style bricks. One slice per patty, melted into brazen gooeyness.

The museum-quality Nighthawks bun is truly a thing of rare beauty. Pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman makes them. Instant milk powder and potato flakes are her recipe’s secret weapon, yielding a bun that’s pleasantly squishy but not vacuous, and one that holds up to the beef’s juicy fattiness. (It’s the same dough — just a different shape — for the kitchen’s hot dog buns, which also get a poppyseed topper).

The buns are toasted in the salamander -- a broiler - not on the grill, as is the usual diner routine.

“That’s something that I observed from the trips I made to Au Cheval in Chicago,” said Schoenefeld. “They used their salamander out of necessity, because their flattop grill was always full of hamburger patties. We do the same thing, for the same logistical reasons, because we’re constantly using all of the grill for burgers, and pancakes and hash browns.”

Unlike so many other diner-style burgers, the buns at Nighthawks don’t get buttered before they’re toasted.

“Some of the butter in the beef comes off the grill with the patties, and that lubes up the buns a little bit,” said Schoenefeld.

Garnishes fall well within the classic fast-food burger arena: caramelized onions and crunchy, vinegar-ey pickles — they’re placed on the bottom bun, under the patty — along with an ingenious house-made “special sauce.”

“We basically take everything that would go on a burger — ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, even some American cheese and a bit of a bun — and we purée it,” said Schoenefeld. “Then we add that into mayo. It tastes like a Big Mac, all on its own.”

Right now, Schoenefeld steers toward the single version of his spectacular burger.

“That half-pound-er is a little bit much for me these days,” he said with a laugh.

Agreed. It’s a lot of burger. But it helps that it’s a whole lot of totally fabulous burger.

Price: $10 for a single patty, $15 for a double.

Fries: Extra ($6 to $10), and compulsively eatable. The burger is served with a first-rate potato salad or coleslaw.

Manning the deep fryers: Schoenefeld was schooled in the cooking arts at Scotty’s Drive-Inn in Aberdeen, S.D.

“We served a classic fast-food burger there,” he said. “I wanted to do a burger like that.”

Schoenefeld spent three years in the kitchen (“Pretty much all through high school,” he said), at Scotty’s, an “Iconic, old-school kind of place,” he said. “My station was three deep fryers. We deep-fried everything.”

A favorite memory? “I’d take two or three things out of the freezer and drop them in the deep fryer,” he said. “Little did I know that I was making the Italian classic fritto misto. It would be really funny to go back and run into the servers that I was working with. I’m sure they wouldn’t believe that I’ve made a career of being a chef. Back then, I was an angry kid, frying stuff.”

Where he burgers: “I really like the Parlour burger,” he said. “And I like the Saint Dinette burger, although I don’t get to St. Paul too often. Oh, and oddly enough, I really like the burgers at Dusty’s Bar in northeast Minneapolis. Everyone goes for the dagos there, but they have these really great, tiny little burgers.”

More about Nighthawks: Find my three-star review here. And learn more about Birdie, Schoenefeld's restaurant-within-a-restaurant inside the Nighthawks kitchen in the 2016 edition of the Taste 50.

Address book: 3753 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-248-8111. Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday, brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

Tough week for Mpls. eateries gets tougher as Cafe Levain closes

It has been a tough week for neighborhood restaurants in south Minneapolis.

On Monday, Trattoria Tosca, the Italian restaurant affiliated with the Linden Hills outlet of the Turtle Bread Co., closed its doors.

Today, Turtle Bread owner Harvey McLain pulled the plug on his other full service operation, Cafe Levain (pictured, above, in a 2007 Star Tribune file photo), part of the Turtle's 48th-and-Chicago outlet. 

"Regrettably, we have closed Cafe Levain after 14 good years in the Nokomis neighborhood," reads the message on the restaurant's website. "We do not anticipate that it will reopen. Thank you for you patronage. Sorry for any inconvenience. If you have gift certificates, they can be redeemed for food, merchandise or cash at any of the three Turtle Breads."

Levain holds a special place in the city's recent culinary history. When it opened in 2003, under the direction of chef Stewart Woodman, the restaurant received four stars from the Star Tribune (that's the restaurant, above, during the Woodman era, in a 2003 Star Tribune file photo).

A year later, chef Steven Brown replaced Woodman, and the restaurant received an unprecedented second four-star Star Tribune review (that's Brown, above, in a 2004 Star Tribune file photo).

Brown's era ended three years later, when McLain decided to reboot, steering the restaurant from a fine-dining destination to a neighborhood bistro."I'm thinking of calling it, `Peasant Food Only,' " he told the Star Tribune at the time. 

Instead, he called it Cafe Levain and installed 22-year-old chef Adam Vickerman (above, far right, in a 2009 Star Tribune file photo) in the kitchen. Vickerman earned a loyal following, and ran the restaurant until last year, leaving to join the Seward Co-op.

Since bad news frequently reveals itself in threes, here's the third: Pilgrimage Cafe chef/owner Craig Ball is calling it quits, and soon.

"Pilgrimage will be permanently closing by the end of this weekend," reads the message on the restaurant's Facebook page. "We would like to thank everyone for supporting us over the last two years, we've truly enjoyed it. But before that happens, we have some food and wine to clear out. Come help us!"