Photo by Katherine Harris
Afine-dining eating experience can be a marvel of technique, the plate in front of you showcasing pork that somehow looks and tastes like ice cream or popcorn. Of course, that is more the gastro-rocker side of fine dining; more often the marvel comes from something like octopus and beets artfully cooked and arranged in a way that is breathtaking. Yet while these plates are fun and delicious, satisfying our need for culinary adventure, it can be hard to find a soulful satisfaction in them; they leave one wowed and scintillated but maybe not connected. And perhaps that’s what’s so interesting about Birdhouse: It feels driven by soul.
First and foremost, Birdhouse is not a fine-dining restaurant, but it is owned and operated by Stewart and Heidi Woodman, the chef-owners of the much-lauded fine-dining Heidi’s. So yes, expectations are high, because even if an opera singer is belting out a Katy Perry tune, you know she’s not going to be off-key. But I think it’s no surprise that Birdhouse came to exist in an actual house on Hennepin, the one that was formerly Duplex. This second effort from two of our cream-of-the-crop chefs feels more homey, more casual, more like something to be connected to rather than to be experienced.
The duo brought on chef Ben Mauk to run the kitchen, and the menu is focused on healthy, good-for-you food. The bonus for those of us constantly trying to maintain the balance between eating right and indulging is that you never feel preached at, and you can walk out feeling like you’ve done more than snack on grass clippings. Starting a day with their take on eggs Benedict is a pants-kicker: Two poached eggs on a thick and toothy slice of multigrain pain perdu are made complete with the additions of garlic-spinach and fresh goat cheese. I can’t imagine anyone who might think it needed a blanket of hollandaise to mask the elemental flavors that come with a runny yolk, grainy bread, plush spinach, and creamy cheese. The daily quiche has been perfectly custardy, and the wild rice pancakes with maple butter are a solid homage to a Minnesota morning at the cabin.
As expected, dinner is a more hearty affair—if you so choose. Meat definitely plays a role on the menu, but it doesn’t overtake the offerings. For all the vegetarians who want to scream at the mere hint of the words “squash ravioli,” you are among friends. The sweet pea pâté, which is so simply blended with goat cheese and mint, is one of those shockingly good bites that makes you wonder where it’s been all summer. The “keen” waffle, made of quinoa and spelt, is all crispy edged and nutty softness inside. It is undetectable as something good for you, especially when it’s dipped into a warm cup of creamed chicken, which puts it into the slippers-and-couch eating category. The meat star has to be the braised buffalo short ribs, which are rich and fall-apart tender on top of sturdy polenta and baconized mustard greens.
It’s nice to see the drink program follow suit, the wines perfectly chilled within a kegged tap system that provides less waste and more quality control. The cocktails are herbaceous and packed with flavor; The Starling consists of organic rum with blueberries, cava, and a wallop of cardamom. The bar is situated on the top floor of the house, and even though the rooms can be compartmentalized, there’s a good-time vibe and even a few dartboards in the back. The last time I was there, Heidi remarked how she and some friends were playing darts one night when she looked up to realize the house was packed. “Who are all these people coming to my house?” she giggled.
In no small part, Birdhouse happened as it did because chef Stewart began a journey toward better health, one he has often talked about openly on his Shefzilla blog. This place feels personal because it is. While we all want to share in the glamorous world of chefs and the masterful edible art they can create, those are wonderful but fleeting moments. I suspect the Woodmans are about to earn a whole new, and perhaps even more loyal, following by connecting to people through their everyday eating lives.
Where to Find It
2516 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-377-2213, birdhousempls.com