Over the past two decades, restaurateur Kim Bartmann has immeasurably enriched the local dining scene by launching one quirky, innovative property after another. Picture a world without Barbette, Bryant-Lake Bowl and Red Stag Supperclub. That’s a bleak image.
At the dawn of 2014, Bartmann had six easygoing, standard-setting restaurants in her portfolio, and little did we know, she was just getting started. What a watershed year! She had a hand in the creation of Kyatchi in March and debuted Tiny Diner in June. By August, she was unveiling what just might be her masterpiece, the Third Bird.
One reason the restaurant has become a favorite of mine is because it’s a platform for the talents of Lucas Almendinger. When I was last singing the praises of this up-and-coming chef, it was late 2013, and he was making a name for himself at the helm of the short-lived Union Fish Market.
It was a huge relief (for this diner anyway) to learn that — at the suggestion of Tilia’s Steven Brown, one of Almendinger’s mentors — Bartmann had recruited him to run the Third Bird.
Brown and Almendinger brainstormed back and forth to craft the restaurant’s initial — and impressive — menu. In the ensuing months, Almendinger has only improved an already good thing, quietly but firmly emphasizing the glories of the Midwestern larder, often through frequent nods to his family heritage or admiring salutes to other chefs’ work.
There’s no more appealing way to kick off a Third Bird meal than with the Braunschweiger. Riffing off his grandfather’s appetite for liverwurst (and sneaking in a hat tip to a famous oyster-caviar dish by über chef Thomas Keller), Almendinger wisely starts with the dreamily smoky version from Wisconsin-based Nueske’s, fortifying it with cream cheese, slathering it across rectangles of gently grilled challah and then adding salty, coral-colored trout roe and tangy, turmeric-scented pickled shallots. It’s a dainty-looking hors d’oeuvre that packs a tremendous flavor wallop.
Elevating old standbys
Don’t stop reading when you see the dreaded words Caesar salad, because like so many Third Bird dishes, this habit-forming version (inspired by a brunch standard from Almendinger’s Tilia tenure, crossed with a favorite 112 Eatery snack) will erase the memory of every artless iteration consumed before it.
Almendinger, a boundary-pusher who rarely goes overboard, gets it just right. Imagine this: long, crunchy spears of romaine, arranged in a manner that would make Frank Gehry blush with pride, and brushed with both a garlicky bagna cauda-style sauce and a Parmesan-infused vinaigrette. That plate of pale greenery is then dotted with bites of chilled roasted cauliflower, juice-popping roasted cherry tomatoes and toasty, just-off-the-grill croutons. Lovely.
That reminds me: Almendinger has an oak-burning grill at his disposal, and he takes to it with an enviable discernment. No more so than when it comes to root vegetables, applying the fire’s glowing intensity to burnish hints of smoke and char into buttermilk-marinated salsify, coffee-glazed carrots or vanilla-dabbled beets.
A superb (and justifiably expensive) rib-eye stands at the peak of the kitchen’s grilling powers. The Wisconsin-sourced beef is carefully aged to accentuate its deep mineral qualities. That gentle funkiness is further enhanced by the liberal application of an anchovy- and garlic-packed butter. The cooking process is a well-practiced series of high-heat bursts, yielding a delectable outer crust that gives way to pure voluptuousness.
On the subject of spectacular dishes, there’s the mouth-melting pork brisket with winter-spiced apples, a magical, can’t-miss combination that’s made even better by silky, slightly sour dumplings, their exteriors crisped in a hot pan in brown butter before being finished in the pork’s braising stock. It’s a formula that originated with Almendinger’s German great-grandmother and passed down through the generations before the chef in the family modified it to reflect his modern aesthetic. Wildly delicious as it is, Almendinger debated about whether to include it on his menu.
“I was really concerned about taking something that had been such a monumental part of my childhood and manipulating it into a restaurant dish,” he said. “It’s hard to be objective about a food memory like that.”
Other affirmations of his prowess are a painstakingly prepared roast chicken paired with a buttery, chicken liver-laced sage stuffing (“It’s our version of Stove Top,” he said, but I would add it is exponentially better), lovingly built-from-the-ground-up soups and pastas steeped in imagination.
Last fall the pasta was all about skinny (and egg yolk-packed) ropes twisted with rabbit sugo-poached chicken livers, an idea ripe for revival. Currently, it’s tender tortellini filled with puréed parsnips, their nuanced sweetness balanced by the contrasting tones of smoky mushrooms and acidic pink grapefruit.
Bison, front and center
The South Dakota native happily places bison in the spotlight, starting with a category-killing burger. He feels a responsibility to his home state to do right by the buffalo’s proud heritage.
“You can find bison burgers at every truck stop on I-90 between here and Wyoming,” he said. “And they all suck. Here is this animal that is indigenous to the Midwest, the lifeblood of the Great Plains, and to see it relegated to crappy truck stop burgers was more than a little sad. I’ve always wanted to give the bison burger its proper due.”
Mission accomplished. The thick, well-seasoned patty is fried in butter — a neat trick for nudging fat into the lean meat — and dressed with a Sriracha-laced aioli, crunchy iceberg lettuce and sweet, slow-cooked onions splashed with mustard oil. The topper is a milky, house-baked bun, culminating in what should be required eating for everyone in Culver’s management.
There’s more bison — a beyond-tender petite steak, served with ultra-creamy scrambled eggs — at brunch, and that’s just one reason why Almendinger has made weekend days in the sun-dappled Third Bird dining room a must.
The bacon (sourced from the same producer as that brisket) is first-rate, the biscuits and gravy delight to no end and the kitchen turns out a wicked-good French toast, inspired by the decadent almond Bostok at Rustica and finished with strawberries that have gone through the grill’s wood-fired treatment.
Who needs pancakes, right? “Well, I have been known to dabble in the pancake arts,” Almendinger said with a laugh, going off on a sourdough-wild rice tangent that I can only hope will soon materialize on his menu. Please?
As for complaints, not many. The region’s freshwater fish is oddly missing in action, and I can’t endorse the conceptual, trying-too-hard desserts.
Bartmann is the address’ third leaseholder in three years, and the conversation-friendly space seems to have finally found its groove, although it’s as drafty as ever.
Asking diners to enter from the (admittedly, charming) alley rather than though the front door feels like an inconvenient affectation. But trust me, Almendinger’s spirited cooking is more than worth the effort.
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