Awhile back, a friend who was trying to eat more healthfully told me he wanted to expand his produce consumption. His usual rotation consisted mostly of bananas, broccoli, and baby carrots.
“How about kale?” I suggested.
“What would I do with it? Cook it?”
“Sautée it with some garlic, add a little lemon juice and cayenne pepper,” I replied.
“But doesn’t it need, like, a sauce?” he asked, genuinely bewildered.
“What would you want to put on it?”
Get this guy to Birdhouse, stat.
This latest restaurant from Stewart and Heidi Woodman, owners of the much-lauded Heidi’s, is a boon to seasoned vegetarians as well as the vegetable-challenged. A few years ago, Stewart Woodman says he experienced a “wake-up call” when a severe asthma attack led to an emergency hospital visit. Since then, Woodman has been blogging about the nation’s obesity epidemic, along with his personal weight loss and exercise routines, and the new restaurant incorporates this health-focused mentality. “Join us for free yoga this Friday at 10:45, upstairs at Birdhouse. All you need is your mat!” one of the restaurant’s Facebook posts announced. “Stick around afterwards for a complimentary house-made juice spritzer.”
The Woodmans installed former Heidi’s sous chef Jes Werkmeister as head of Birdhouse’s kitchen, following the departure of opening chef Ben Mauk. There’s still plenty of meat on the menu—don’t panic, carnivores!—but the most interesting dishes are those that star whole grains and vegetables.
I’d consider the sweet-pea pâté the restaurant’s signature dish. It’s a cheeky riff on the charcuterie trend: a velvety, bright-green purée of peas, goat cheese, and mint substitutes for spreadable meat. The fresh, vibrant purée is frosted with a tangy crème fraîche that makes a perfect contrast to the rustic crunch of sunflower seed-studded toasts.
At Birdhouse, other traditionally pork-based products, such as terrines and rillettes, are instead fashioned from fungi or fish. The result, in the case of the salmon rillettes, is a spread that’s rich yet light, complemented with greens and toasts. The mushroom terrine is tasty and ample—not the “bird food” you feared—and elegantly garnished with crispy enoki strands.
Too often, healthy choices feel like they’re made out of obligation rather than desire—if they can be made at all. (How many times have vegetarians’ “options” been limited to French fries and iceberg-lettuce salads?) But at Birdhouse, whole-grain dishes are some of the best items on the menu. Seared croquettes have a creamy interior, almost like risotto made with quinoa and wild rice. The farro salad is a great introduction to the newly trendy grain, as the chewy, nutty nubs are laced together with a delicate sheep’s milk skyr (a cultured, yogurt-like dairy product native to Iceland), studded with peas and spiked with lemon juice. It skimps neither on bulk nor flavor. Sliced leg of lamb may be added to the dish, but it’s not the main attraction. If you’re in the mood for lamb, the ultra-juicy burger is more appealing, robustly seasoned to match the meat’s wild flavor. Among the menu’s few animal-based entrées, the wild-boar ribs, which take advantage of a lesser-used cut, felt most like the plates at Heidi’s. But so often in American cuisine—and especially the Midwest—animal proteins are the leading men and vegetables the supporting actors. When dining at Birdhouse, why not seize the chance to shift the balance?
Fans of Heidi’s should approach the new restaurant as an entirely different experience—one for everyday use, not destination dining. Heidi’s current space was completely redesigned with several cool features, including the one-way glass window into the kitchen and the artwork that makes the dining room feel like a stage set. Meanwhile, Birdhouse inhabits onetime residential digs on 25th and Hennepin that don’t feel so different from when they were occupied by Duplex, though the red walls have been painted creamy white. The outdoor seating is lovely, both the patio out front and the perch on the second-floor porch. Birdhouse’s interior at times feels homey, other times awkward—the interior lighting, for example, seemed unpleasantly harsh until the third evening I visited, when it seemed the dimmer switch had finally been located. Where some see character in sagging boards and weathered balustrades, others see an HGTV episode waiting to happen.
Birdhouse’s staff often seemed stretched a little thin, particularly when compared to the crack service I’ve received at Heidi’s. Several times I felt all too aware of a need—for an empty water glass to be filled, for cleaned plates to be cleared, for the arrival of the check—long before it was met. Certainly, the space’s multi-level logistical challenges can’t make the staff’s job any easier.
That said, many of the restaurant’s other supporting elements are well thought out. There’s a nice alcoholic beverage list (Trish Gavin, the head barkeep at Heidi’s, developed the cocktails), and, more notably, a collection of house-made spritzers. My favorites were the refreshing carrot-orange and cucumber-honey, but the beet-kale one isn’t bad—earthy without being overly so. Birdhouse can be a pleasant spot for brunch, as well. I’d order the eggs Benedict–like “Adam and Eve on a Raft” with a side of homemade sausage in a heartbeat (but skip the wild-rice-flour pancakes; when I tried them, they had the texture of fine, wet sand). Among the homey desserts, I highly recommend the lemon curd: voluptuous in texture, with a sharp acid bite, complemented by plump fresh berries and shortbread cookies. It’s a dessert you can feel like you earned.
In rare cases at Birdhouse, healthy feels like a chore—I liked the bitter-greens salad but I suspect it will prove too aggressively bitter for mainstream tastes. But in most instances, going with good-for-the-body isn’t a concession, it’s a delight. Take the heap of micro-kale, tossed with a garlicky tofu purée that mimics the kick of Caesar dressing without its heaviness. The deft, snappy blend makes a plate of greens go down a lot easier—no chocolate necessary.
The Thirty-Second Scoop
Vegetables and whole grains get star billing at the Woodmans’ modern diner.
Ideal Meal: sweet-pea pâté, quinoa-and-wild-rice croquettes, and lemon curd.
Tip: During happy hour (3–6 p.m. and 10 p.m.–1 a.m.), the croquettes are $1 a pop. On Wednesdays, the late shift is “industry night,” when restaurant workers and food enthusiasts gather to hear educational speakers and share information.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily Prices: appetizers $6-$11; entrées $8-$22 Address: 2516 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., 612-377-2213, birdhousempls.com