Photos by Caitlin Abrams
When I first heard of chef Landon Schoenefeld’s plan to open Birdie I was dead set against it. Birdie, he said, would be a very small, ticket-only, fine dining restaurant located in the prep kitchen area of his new and wildly successful diner, Nighthawks.
Here’s why I was against it: I severely dislike it when people give one section of their restaurant a new name, because they’re typically wrong, what they generally have is not a second restaurant, but a bar. Also, I wasn’t sure why Schoenefeld needed a fine dining restaurant called Birdie, because didn’t he already have a fine dining restaurant called Haute Dish, and what did he hope to do at a second fine dining restaurant that he couldn’t do at the first? This is why I went into one of the first nights of Birdie full to the brim with skepticism, and I can tell you I have never been so wrong. Minneapolis needs Birdie.
It’s much more than a pop-up or a chef’s table. You enter the Birdie space from its own door to find a tiled room set with two long tables set with very fine stemware, a table set with good wines on one wall and a turntable stacked with vinyl on the other. It looks for all the world as if you’re not at a restaurant at all, but at an impromptu dinner party in some fancy urban loft. Separating the kitchen and the dining room is a single table, and there on the other side of it is Landon Schoenefeld and his all-female cooking crew – Savannah Rose, Brittany St. Clair, Jessi Peine, and pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman-Teipel.
At every place setting is a placemat showing the planned courses along with paired wines. Just like a dinner party, guests are poured a drink when they arrive while they wait for everyone else. Currently there is one seating of the night, which accomodates 12 or 14 people, at 7:30. When everyone’s seated, course after course of truly wonderful food appears. (I’ll detail the course by course beauty below.) But because it’s a small group, and because everyone’s eating and drinking the same thing at the same time, and because the chef occasionally breaks away to put on a new record (Vampire Weekend, Otis Redding, Phish) and because of the way the tables are set up allowing them to whisk through the center removing and replacing dishes swiftly, it feels less like a restaurant than the one thing that doesn’t much exist in the world anymore: A really spectacular dinner party.
The food is very different than Schoenefeld’s food at Haute Dish, which tends to be very meaty and playful. The food at Birdie is far lighter, more delicate, more vegetable-centered, more restrained, and designed to not be overly rich or overwhelming—it’s food a grown-up eats with a glass of wine. Those wines are much finer, much rarer, much better paired, and much more worth driving across the state for than the wines at any of Schoenefeld’s other restaurants. At our dinner we had a dry Sparkman Columbia Valley Riesling which offered hints of honeysuckle and petrol, a salty and slate-edged Italian white from Collio, a truly astonishing Spanish Cava that had a finish like gingerbread cookies, a Pinot Meunier with a lovely tobacco and cranberry edge to it, a leathery but vital Oregon Cabernet Sauvignon, a botrytized Riseling which sang a symphony with its blue cheese pairing, and a lovely fizzy Moscato. In short, it was the sort of wine experience you hope to have at the house of a friend who has daring, interesting taste and likes to share.
I’ve never had a dinner like this in a restaurant, it was so intimate, so genuine, so unmediated it felt less like a restaurant and entirely like a total fantasy dinner party, come to life. Will youl like Birdie? It’s not a place for people with food-restrictions, Schoenefeld says they can accommodate vegetarians (our 12 course meal was mostly vegetables, but for one salmon and one pigeon course) but much of the dishes are built with different stocks and sauces, it’s not going to be a place for people with, say, a seafood allergy. It’s not cheap, it is $100 for dinner (including tip and tax) and another $50 for wine pairings—though if you’re a beer drinker or tee-totaller they will put together another option for you. That said, if you have a dream of going to an inventive, intimate dinner party with the most exquisite up to the minute food and wine—that dinner party is now happening, and will be available to anyone who wants a ticket Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
Here's what our dinner looked like on September 22nd.
Furikake Flaxseed Cracker
A little nibble to kick things off, a crunchy cracker which tasted a bit like the Japanese spice mixture furikake and a bit like an everything bagel, held together by a sweet tart swipe of green tomato jam, and held aloft by a bit of scallion cream cheese; run the cracker and jam through the cream cheese and it tastes earthy, springy, and enough like a chips-and-dips in front of the TV to act like an icebreaker with everyone around you.
Butter Poached Spot Prawn
The prawn was dewy and ephemeral, the sweet corn pudding sweet, the fresno chili bright and hot, one of those dishes that makes your knees weak with pleasure and is gone in two bites.
Schoenefeld announced this as “It’s a nightshade party, folks.” What arrived at the table was a carefully placed oval of finely chopped ratatouille placed upon an evergreen-dark channel of charred eggplant, and there in the bowl a few peeled heirloom tomatoes. A slightly spicy tomato soup was poured over the top, obscuring all the cool stuff at the bottom of the bowl, and then every time you stuck your spoon in you came back with some variation of spice, tang, and smoke. A vital and surprising tomato soup.
Smoked Carrot Dumpling
It may not look like much, but this was one of the best things I ate in 2015. It was a smoked carrot dumpling served in a sort of coriander and turnip tea, and all around the bowl were another half dozen iterations of different heirloom carrot varieties, including roast carrot planks, paper thin carrot curls, and poached whole baby carrots; inside the dumpling was a sort of thicker carrot soup, and when you pierced the side of the dumpling the thicker soup tumbled into the lighter soup, and then every bite was a new experience of carrots, and that experience was both transparent and transporting. Just a masterpiece.
Spent Corn and Malted Rye Bread
A warm bread and butter course is always welcome. This crunchy, earthy little bun came with a delicate and slightly sweet herb butter which had half the room reaching for their phones to search for the meaning of Calendula ... It’s a sort of marigold flower used as an herb, and provided another nice topic to exclaim about with tablemates.
This might be my favorite potato dish, in my long life of potato-loving, and I mean it. I’m not sure how to convey how good it was, just layer after layer of potaotes—including baby potatoes, marble potatoes, potato chips, potato gnocchi, a potato-peel-and-milk broth—and then garlic confit and the tiniest baby chives came together in a way that hit all the points potatoes are capable of hitting (creamy, roasty, light, fresh, rich) and added up to a vastly more sensual whole than the sum of those parts.
Fennel, beet, apple, carrot ginger juice: A palate cleanser of juice. A lot of people left this one half-drank. Juice bar afficionados would love it. I might have liked it more if it were smaller, and a granité.
Grilled Salmon Belly
Another triumph. Cooked over super-hot Japanese charcoal in such a way that it was perfectly crisp on the skin-side but dewy and fresh on the other side, this simple Japanese-influenced bowl was just a lovely interlude in simple fresh food.
So good. The creamed sweet corn was absolutely pristine and fresh, the charred peaches added a nicely different note of sweet, but then the pigeon had that vinous, berry-like, sensual depth of flavor that only fall game birds can provide. The chanterelle mushrooms had good flavor, but if anything, mainly seemed to point out that the pigeon had earthier depths than they.
The cheese course featured a sweet-potato cake not much bigger than a quarter, tiny figs carefully quartered, and a few contrasting walnut elements, some cooked in a syrup, some baked in a cracker. The Spanish blue cheese, Valdeon was in beautiful condition and the botrytized Riesling wine pairing just took the whole little composition in passionate directions. I have loved all the easy, happy desserts pastry chef Tlanezi Guzman-Teipel does at Nighthawks but this cheese course shows her more classical side well, the sweet potato cake was a surprising choice, but an inspired one.
A simple and sweet melon sorbet perked up with a bit of French espellette pepper, a pretty little thing.
Flourless Chocolate Torte
When I heard that the ice-cream would be hempseed flavored I immediately did not want it, but I was wrong. It tasted like summer hay smells, just that pure meadow-evoking sweetness, and the combination of frozen shaved spiced squash puree and frozen grapefruit segments was something new under the sun to me. It tasted both brisk and grounded at the same time, which is unsettling and yet pleasing. The flourless chocolate torte was a nice dewy bit of intense chocolate.
And that was the dinner, folks! When all the cooks start cleaning, you may find you have to repress a desire to rush back and help with the dishes, that’s how much of a dinner party it seems like. I’d call Birdie a must-try for any foodie thrill-seekers in the Twin Cities, a new height in Landon Schoenefeld’s career, and more than that something I didn’t know we needed, but I now see we do: A dinner party, thrown by a chef, available to all.