One of the enduring mysteries of American cuisine has been: Why aren’t our chicken wings better? I mean, chicken wings are a default baseline of American street food, and whole bar-and-wing chain empires have been built around versions of chicken wings that find a halfway point between insipid and repellent. The problem with chicken wings is not that the ingredients are cheap—the Spanish bar food of tomato-rubbed bread, the Indonesian street food of satay skewers, and the Mexican street food of tamales are not made with truffles and foie gras—so what’s the problem? Is it because no one knows how to cook? Is it because the laziest possible version, pre-made and baked to order off the food-service truck, is accepted by most Americans as good enough? Is it basic culinary illiteracy?
I bring this up because the first time you try the chicken wings at Icehouse, you will suddenly realize how awful every other version is. The Icehouse wings are just spectacular. Inside they’re spoon-tender, even plastic-baby-spoon-tender, while outside they’re crackling with texture, their crisp skin given a bit of abrasive prickle with adhering spice. Each bite comes together in a rich, tender, and deeply spiced crescendo, a crescendo cooled, focused, and intensified by good crumbles of blue cheese, finally given a grand swoop of a full stop by sour-pickled celery. These are game-changing wings.
Which brings up the question: Are we playing a game? After a few visits to Icehouse, I concluded we were, and here’s the game: What happens when you apply the techniques of a fine-dining kitchen to a bar? And not a gastropub, mind you. Not a quasi-European, tweedy jackets and pints of bitter with your rabbit pie sort of gastropub, but a full-on American bar, a chicken-wings-and-a-shot-of-bourbon, meeting-your-friends-after-work-and-seeing-a-band-you-never-heard-of bar. Can chefs and bands and shots of bourbon really coexist? It’s happening.
First, let’s consider the chefs. Icehouse is really Matt Bickford’s baby. Technically Bickford co-owns it with two people, Mike Ryan, his business partner at downtown Minneapolis elevated-cooking sandwich spot Be’Wiched, and Brian Liebeck, who is handling the music. But this is chef Bickford’s baby, conceived of during his 20s when he’d go see bands after work. “I’d go to places like the Clown Lounge [at the Turf Club], and musically, my jaw would just be on the floor with what the musicians were doing. I think improvisational jazz is something to marvel at, and I’m just a big appreciator of what musicians do. At the same time, I’d be thinking, this room is horrible, you can’t see, you can’t hear . . .” and of course you can’t eat.
The jobs that Bickford was leaving to go see bands were some of the best cooking gigs the Twin Cities has to offer: Bickford first came to public prominence when he was running the kitchen at dear departed Zander Café in St. Paul, which was followed by a six-year stint in the Tim McKee empire, at Solera and La Belle Vie—yes, this is a chef who knows his way around micro-arugula, sous vide, and the various tricks and techniques that make the finest of fine dining possible. So the media greeted with some surprise the news, five years ago, that Bickford and fellow McKee protégé Mike Ryan were off to open a sandwich shop. However, it was then explained, they really liked sandwiches. Liking sandwiches actually has a certain chefly tradition to it; for instance, there’s Tom Colicchio’s ’wichcraft. Liking chicken wings and hot dogs doesn’t have the same intellectual heft.
The chicken wings, you’ll be happy to know, are first confited, then slow-roasted with steam, then flash-fried, then tossed with lemon juice and the Icehouse version of buffalo spice, made from ground dried peppers, then hit with the Icehouse version of buffalo sauce, made with dried peppers and Fresno chilis stewed with vegetables and vinegar, then puréed. That’s a lot of work for chicken wings. I asked Bickford why he was going to so much trouble for chicken wings. “I like chicken wings,” he explained.