Photos by Caitlin Abrams
One of the stranger phenomena of local restaurant life is many of our most beloved chefs are so beloved that their favorite cooks never leave their side. Consider Lucia Watson, Alex Roberts, and Isaac Becker—they all have cooks who’ve been with them practically since they opened. Tim McKee too, although he also finds top-of-the-kitchen jobs for his protégés: Jim Christiansen got to run the ill-fated Il Gatto, which eventually led to his own Heyday, and both Jamie Malone and Erik Andersen got to run Sea Change, which led to their upcoming Brut. One joke around town is that Isaac Becker only endures the hassle of new restaurants to spare himself and his best people the pain of parting.
This logic is largely what underlies the impending expansion of Restaurant Alma to include Café Alma, and was behind Lucia’s bump out into the Lucia’s To Go space. And yet: What does it mean to a city’s restaurant culture when so many of our best cooks never fledge from their nests? It means stability and consistency for local diners, which is nice for us—but it also makes for an interesting lens to consider two new spots, where star students of Steven Brown and Alex Roberts leapt from their nests, and started flapping their young wings as fast as they could.
THE THIRD BIRD
Lucas Almendinger met Steven Brown when he decided to make a career change into food and started befriending people on social media. Seeing his request, Brown replied: “Did I go to high school with your dad?” And so the local South Dakota cooking mafia (which prior to this included two chefs, Brown and Landon Schoenefeld from HauteDish) expanded to now include a third.
Almendinger would rise through the ranks to become Brown’s sous chef at Tilia, and later the chef of well-reviewed Union Fish Market. Later, after Almendinger had stepped away from the ill-fated Union, he received a call and an offer from Brown, who was helping owner Kim Bartmann assemble the team at The Third Bird.
The food at Third Bird is very Tilia-esque, which is to say guest-first, unflashy, and profoundly well made. The whole roast chicken, for instance, is easily one of my top dishes of the year. This dish feels like one of the most rock-bottom basics of American food culture and hospitality; someone puts a big platter of chicken, stuffing, and gravy in front of you, the scents of roasting and gravy go right into your brain, releasing good feelings of Thanksgiving, mom, Norman Rockwell, and all that jazz. But the flavors are more pure and more elevated.
The chicken is spectacularly moist, the skin tantalizingly crisp, the black truffle gravy something to inspire trembling knees. The brioche stuffing, prepared as a sort of white-tails-and-tie layered bread pudding, makes you want to send your pots and pans to the deserving poor and call this dining room home. To create this astonishing bird, Almendinger invests three days in various stages of brining, drying, blanching, slow roasting, fat rendering, bread baking, terrine layering, and so on, and it tastes like it. “That’s what I learned from Steven Brown,” says Almendinger. “To get to where you want to go sometimes takes a hundred steps and sometimes two, knowing the difference is harder than it looks.”
That is true in chicken, and many other things. A few bar dishes are nothing short of craveable, such as a lush, high-piled bison burger (best in the state) and a mountain of double-fried “buffalo fries” dusted with hot sauce powder, heaped with blue cheese, marinated celery, blue cheese dressing, and probably nine other things.
Another joy is tableside carved ribeye, $69, serving two to four people, and a real challenge to the splurge steaks of Manny’s. For this, Almendinger cooks a grass-fed local ribeye with a technique he and Brown developed of buttering, searing, and resting the meat repeatedly. This produces a steak with a deep berryish and winey flavor, but a nearly fork-tender texture.
If you’re a wine lover, give yourself an extra half-hour to really read the densely typed, intensely constructed list—vintage Cornas for $105? It’s on there. Farmer Champagne? It’s there. Trendy and exotic orange wines from an Italian vineyard producing since the time of Columbus? It’s on this list. I’ll confess the first time I considered Bill Summerville’s list, his first since leaving La Belle Vie, I found it too hard to read, like plunging into a copy of Ulysses. Over time I realized that really anything ordered off the glass list brought something truly delicious and often downright fascinating. After some time, I came to realize the wine list is the absolute example of why you want a sommelier at all: They do the heavy lifting, so you can relax.
1612 Harmon Place, Mpls., 612-767-9495, thethirdbirdmpls.com
Ben Rients worked for Alex Roberts, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Restaurant Alma and Brasa, for six years—five and a half at Alma. “I would consider him much more than a mentor. A friend who has opened his business to me, who’s there every time I call him—about payroll, about anything. I’m a product of his system, I do things innately the way he taught me to do them,” says Rients. “He’s a great chef, a great teacher, he works so hard, he never stops. But in the kitchen, there was nowhere for me to go. I wanted a new challenge.” And boy oh boy, did Rients get that challenge when he signed on with a partner who owned real estate near 65th and Lyndale in Richfield.
When Rients flung open the doors in that underserved part of town, customers literally flooded in. He found himself with more customers than he’d anticipated, so many more that in the first weeks of opening he would run out of food. “I saw online someone wrote: ‘Middle-schoolers could literally run a better restaurant,’” says Rients. “And I was like: ‘Wrong! How could a middle-schooler get a liquor license? Check and checkmate!’ It’s humbling.”
I visited early, during the tsunami of enthusiasm, and can report they offered some perplexing and unappealing experiences—why a crab gravy benedict that tastes floury? Why a chilled carrot coconut soup, chunky and too sweet? But a lot of Lyn 65’s food was appealing, well made, honest, and striving toward a better simplicity—in fact, a lot like Restaurant Alma’s, but in a bar setting.
Leading exhibit? The graceful fried chicken, featuring a lacy crust and tender meat made by a complex process involving a two-day cure, a gluten-free batter, and double-frying. The chicken is served as a whole or half bird, in a big silvery bucket with grits that are so buttery fights will erupt over who deserves them most. The Roman-inspired gas-oven pizzas feature a lightly tangy, three-day fermented crust with pleasantly intense toppings. An arugula salad was buoyant with wee snowdrifts of burrata, rich with roast corn, and lightly sewn together by fresh lemon juice and mint.
The cocktails, by Travis Serbus, are extraordinary: Don’t miss the Tijuana Brass Smash, which is green with fresh cilantro, cucumber, lime, basil, avocado of all things, and a tincture of beer hops, but somehow tastes like fireworks of peppy light magic. The Six Five Rye is like a cello concerto in dark flavors, combining two sorts of rye, a port wine reduction, and chocolate bitters into something I never quite understood, yet wanted more of.
Will Lyn 65 find its real groove of a corner bar offering food made in the deceptively simple and always consistent style of Alma? I think yes. And when it happens, the restaurant scene in the Twin Cities will be better than it would have been if all the students stayed safe and quiet in their assigned seats.
6439 Lyndale Ave. S., Richfield, 612-353-5501, lyn65.com