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.
He also likes hot dogs, and Bickford has made a hot dog for the ages. It’s a sweet and springy housemade dog, topped with a fierce and crunchy abundance of giardiniera, and every bite is the ultimate in hot dog experience, spicy and comforting and sailing over the stadium walls, a pure home run. The pastrami Reuben is another work of barroom magnificence: Bickford starts with a Red Angus brisket, brines it for seven days, dries it for one, fruitwood smokes it, and pairs it with housemade sauerkraut and their version of Thousand Island dressing made from their own aioli, Dutch mustard, North African harissa, and finely cut pickles—all combining into a complex rainbow of salty bar flavors. There’s no doubt in my mind there will be busloads of tourists coming for this sandwich one day. That is, if they’re not there for the brunch.
The Sunday brunch, with live jazz on stage, is seven kinds of catnip. The bloody mary is garnished with a bacon-bedazzled mini donut and a candied strip of bacon—it’s tangy and deep and a rival to any in town. (There’s a pickled veggie-skewer version for the bacon averse.) The beef hash is a crisp Frisbee of potatoey perfection topped with fried eggs and a spicy little lake of pepper sauce, and the pork belly éclair—oh heavens, the pork belly éclair. It’s actually two éclairs, a pair of housemade maple-glazed éclairs, split and filled with slabs of succulent and salty pork belly cemented into place with a cheddar crème. It tastes awfully good (and is best split between four people), richer than cake, porkier than bacon, so extreme in every way it’s practically a signal flare shot up to summon Guy Fieri and the stunt-food media hordes—which would be a problem, except it’s delicious. House-baked pies available every day, like rhubarb with a crème fraîche sorbet, creamy buttermilk pie, or peanut butter banana cream with charred banana sorbet, are equally irresistible.
I should point out that not all the menu at Icehouse is similarly excellent. As I send this to press, the menu still has a number of pure fine-dining options that don’t make much sense, as with a delicate presentation of salmon served three ways, in the ways of a white-tablecloth restaurant, roasted, smoked, and poached, each preparation with a fresh dill pesto and oil and white anchovies. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the dish; it’s expertly executed, but it just seems sort of passionless and misplaced, like it wanted to get to La Belle Vie but ended up in a bar instead. I could say the same thing about the gnocchi, the lobster fettuccini, and a few other dishes that were technically flawless and still unexciting, but I may not because Bickford told me he’s thinking of swapping them out for other dishes that make sense beside a shot glass of bourbon, such as barbecue chicken, baby-back ribs, perhaps even prime rib.
About those shots of bourbon, and rye, and tequila: They’re not ordinary either. Icehouse has a whole list of “Icehouse Rocks” cocktails, little five-dollar culinary shots designed by Johnny Michaels, longtime La Belle Vie bartender. They’re all fantastic. The Year of the Wolf, a sort of spiced ultra-pure margarita, sings with clarity. The carbonated bourbon Manhattan, called Playing Make Up, Wearing Guitar, is perfect, layers of cherry and cola flavors swooping through the drink like rock and roll stumbling to greatness—fitting, as the drink gets its title from a Replacements lyric. There are a lot of inside-Minnesota jokes on this drink list; the Butterfly Kiss, a stupendously subtle and beautiful creation of chamomile, gin, egg white, olive oil, and a fresh nasturtium blossom, is a tip of the hat to the Marvel Bar’s Pip Hansen, who pioneered the olive-oil cocktail hereabouts. The memorably titled Straight Cash Homie is a reference to Randy Moss’s badass interview about how he was going to pay a $10,000 fine to the NFL—and I’ll let you work your smartphone in the bar to puzzle out the rest of it.
At its best, that’s what Icehouse is: a fine place to puzzle away an evening, where everybody may not know your name, but they do know your unique set of all-American cultural references, from chicken wings to pie to The Replacements and a shot of liquor after a long day, before the band comes on.
Where to Find It
2528 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls
., 612-276-6523, icehousempls.com