Excess, that cherished American birthright, is alive and well at Nighthawks.
Sure, at this next-generation diner, chef/owner Landon Schoenefeld is gleefully extolling a heaping-helping attitude regarding portion size. As in, try finding a dish that couldn’t easily feed two. If not three. Seriously.
But the plenitude goes beyond the oft-repeated words “doggie bag” as it enthusiastically embraces a wider, more exuberant sense of abundance.
It’s all in the pancakes. Anyone who serves pancakes for dinner is A-OK in my book, especially when the flapjacks are as tempting as the ones that Schoenefeld flips off his spatula (served in monster stacks of three and six; see Linebacker Portions, above). Buttermilk gives them a hint of tang, and the kitchen crew — so obviously skilled in the griddle arts — lets them rise to tender, tantalizingly golden perfection.
Then there’s the foot-long hot dogs. They’re one of the few items that the scratch cooking-obsessed Nighthawks kitchen doesn’t produce. Schoenefeld dutifully taste-tested his way through several dozen iterations (he didn’t work at the Wienery for nothing) before landing on the snappy all-beef versions at Kramarczuk’s. He then asked the northeast Minneapolis culinary landmark for a customized jolt of extra garlic and paprika.
Ka-pow! They’re fantastic, and, true to the restaurant’s more-is-more ethos, that’s only the beginning. Pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman-Teipel makes a poppyseed-flecked bun for the ages (her secret ingredients: milk powder and instant potatoes), and then Schoenefeld gets busy, viewing them as vehicles for delivering all kinds of delicious overkill in the form of plethora of toppings, heaped skyward.
There are four options, and while it’s hard to pick a favorite, I’d have to go with the gasp-inducing variation that pulls together a classic potato salad, tangy pickled herring and, in a splash of luxury, coral-tinted salmon roe. Truly, a meal in a bun.
The birds — raised with care at Wild Acres in Pequot Lakes, Minn. — get the royal treatment, starting with a meticulous five-day flavor- and texture-enhancing brine. Not exactly greasy spoon cooking, yet the spectacular results land entirely within the diner wheelhouse: a pile of succulent dark and white meat swimming in turkey stock and butter, piled high on ultra-creamy mashed potatoes and drizzled in a savory giblet gravy. Hello, premium comfort food, at a surprisingly affordable ($14) price tag.
Schoenefeld is already responsible for one of the city’s great burgers, at HauteDish, his five-year-old North Loop eatery. But that’s not stopping him from crafting another whopper for Nighthawks.
Outwardly, it’s the essence of burger simplicity, just thin, pressed-on-the-griddle patties that are draped in prodigious amounts of American cheese and finished with hints of softly sweet caramelized onion and crunchy pickles. Naturally, there’s more than meets the eye. The beef is a fat-enriched grind of rib-eye, brisket and chuck, and the bun is a variation on that exceptional hot dog bun. The results — particularly the double version — are indecently delicious.
The daily blue plate specials arrive as advertised, and then some. “I make them how I would make them at home,” said Schoenefeld. “Nothing fancy, just a really good plate of food.” No kidding.
Even better is Thursday, when Schoenefeld breaks out the meatloaf. On paper it hardly comes across as warm-weather fare, but I suspect that if it were to take so much as a week’s hiatus, Nicollet and 38th would be besieged by a torches-and-pitchforks-wielding crowd.
HauteDish sous chef Sam Newman was tapped to craft a house-made bacon, and he did not disappoint. Those hungering for slim and crispy should look elsewhere.
These are thick, hefty and supremely fatty slices of slow-cured Duroc pork belly perfumed with cherry and apple wood smoke. Like the pastrami — Newman follows a similarly painstaking preparation — it improves everything it touches, including a BLT that’s on the “secret” (as in, unprinted) menu, which is also home to a sublime Reuben built with kimchi and Gruyère.
Schoenefeld’s happy preoccupation with liver manifests itself in all kinds of delicious ways, including a one-of-kind approached to humble chopped liver. Weekend brunch is a pleasure (don’t overlook the massive — naturally — caramel rolls), enough to inspire wishes of a weekday iteration.
A pie renaissance
Nighthawks is Minneapolis interior designer Dawn Chapman’s first restaurant project, and here’s hoping it won’t be her last. She has cleverly transformed a former chicken wings joint into a pair of side-by-side counters. One is the province of bartenders, the other is home to cooks.
A portion of the restaurant’s showcase of a prep kitchen will soon be set aside for Birdie, an intimate (12-seat) tasting menu-only operation that’s scheduled to open Sept. 15 and run three nights each week.
Guzman-Teipel is a real find. Along with her breadmaking skills, she’s revealing herself to be something of a pie savant. There are usually four appealing options, and the output challenges the outer edges of pie-making orthodoxy. Her crowning achievement is an over-the-top sum of its considerable parts: luscious mousse made with top-shelf chocolate, hazelnuts, spiky meringue and a pretzel-enriched crust.
Her hit-making talents extend to frozen fruit push-ups with offbeat flavor pairings — strawberry-hibiscus, blackberry-guava — that refresh without injecting an overpowering sugar jolt. A perfectly pleasant soft-serve ice cream is hawked in several Dairy Queen-esque permutations, including a Blizzard-like blur of chocolate, banana, peanut butter and shards of that dreamy bacon.
Sure, not everything works. While some everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dishes are a success (the trashy/fabulous Frito pie, with its not-shy spicy chili), others flounder (a doesn’t-quite-add-up pile of fries doused in shredded pork). Soups would benefit from a disciplined approach, and salads — with the exception of a glorious Caesar/beef-tartare mash-up — could use a little more oomph.
But when in doubt, go pancakes. Or pastrami. Or pie. And by all means, anything that comes in close contact with that bacon.
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