The face floated before me in a froth of whiteness, frozen in an expression of crazed exuberance. His eyebrows were raised so high they nearly merged with his pompadour; eyes so open they were mostly whites; mouth agape in the jubilant shriek of a sweepstakes winner. I picked up the face, licked the cream off the back, and took a sip of the drink. Good golly, Miss Molly! The Little Richard was my new favorite cocktail.
The drink list at Minneapolis’s new Icehouse is a doozy and this may be its capstone: a pink phosphate rum punch topped with vanilla cream and a paper cutout of the famous rocker’s mug. It combines culinary sensibility, booze, and music—much like its host restaurant/bar/venue. At most triple-threat hangouts, one of these aspects always seems to fall short. But Icehouse nails all three, at the price point of a neighborhood standby, or, as co-owner Matt Bickford likes to say, “an adult playground.”
So first, Icehouse as a music venue. Bickford, who also runs the North Loop’s popular Be’Wiched deli, launched the new venture with his music-savvy pal Brian Liebeck this summer and the space is as cool as its namesake, century-old Nicollet Avenue digs that once stored blocks of ice in the days before electric refrigeration. ¶ The former ice warehouse feels urban, with vintage brick walls and metal catwalks that evoke an old apartment building’s alley-facing fire escape. Reclaimed wood boards and C-shaped leather booths add warmth and polish to the raw, gritty—and acoustically impressive—cavern. Minimal covers make Icehouse a nice middle ground between amateur night at the neighborhood coffee shop and a national act at the Dakota.
Upon arrival, you’ll receive Icehouse’s extensive drink menu, which was conceived by Johnny Michaels, whom Bickford once worked with at Michaels’s main post, La Belle Vie. Craft-focused barkeeps have lately adopted the global flavors and high-tech tools favored by cutting-edge chefs, and Michaels has been at the forefront of the local “cooking with liquors” trend. He’s known for introducing fresh flavors—lacing an Icehouse gin-tini with herbal chamomile, or a gin sour with tart balsamic vinegar—while maintaining balance. His grapefruit-rhubarb margarita, for example, (cutely named after Bickford’s mom, a.k.a. the Mothership Rita), avoids any too-sweet or too-tequila pitfalls. A refreshing blueberry Collins offers a subtle hint of cardamom and whole berries in the bottom of the glass, like tapioca pearls in bubble tea.
The beverage menu also includes petite sipping drinks—essentially oversized, gussied-up shots, served on the rocks for $5 a pop—to accommodate smaller budgets or tolerances. There’s a drink for every mood, from sunning on a Brazilian beach (a fruity, cinnamon-orange riff on a caipirinha) to lounging in a dank basement rec room (a smoky, absinthe-kissed sazerac), as well as plenty of inside jokes. The Straight Cash Homie takes its name from former Viking Randy Moss’s ridonculous quote; the Colonel Mustard consists of a squirt of whiskey, delivered from a mustard bottle in the style of chef Landon Schoenefeld’s infamously impulsive act. Order Satan Laughs & Spreads His Wings at the bar, and it’ll arrive on a Christian comic-book coaster.
But the staff doesn’t joke around when it comes to efficiency. The servers tote iPods instead of notepads—they’re not impertinently texting their friends while you order, just sending your request to the kitchen. With so many winners on the menu, I wished they also had a decision-making app.
At Icehouse, Bickford expands well beyond the bounds of Be’Wiched’s gourmet deli fare to show off his fine-dining chops. But don’t fret, the famous smoked, cured meats remain. Icehouse’s pastrami sandwich is excellent, but Bickford’s new cheesesteak is even better: a hearty, house-baked roll is stuffed with tender shredded beef, its smokiness fused seamlessly with earthy blue cheese and sweet/hot pepper relish. Cancel that trip to Philly.
Is it pandering to top a burger with a slab of seared foie gras that’s nearly as large as the beef patty? Do we care? Not if it’s Bickford’s smart, simple formula: house-ground sirloin, chuck, and brisket blended with shallots and thyme butter then tucked into a puffy house-made bun. The burger oozes the juicy richness of beef, foie gras, truffle butter, and duck demi glace, which I gleefully licked from the plate. Even with my wallet $22 lighter, I had a new contender for my Best Burger shortlist.
Bickford’s all-scratch cooking clearly isn’t your average bar food. Take the laborious duck plate: breast medallions, seared foie gras, and duck-confit rillettes. Foie gras is also used to enrich chicken mousseline “sausages” paired with a savory granola salad of puffed fried grains that brilliantly crackle and pop with texture.
Whereas Be’Wiched has a largely meat-focused menu, at Icehouse Bickford incorporates more legumes and seafood. Bill’s Electric Beans are inspired by his father’s crock-pot competitions with co-workers (Dad likes spicy food and works at a power plant). When our server arrived with a cloche-covered bowl and a small metal tin, my friends and I feared we were about to eat cat food. Fortunately, we were presented with a zesty chili-ratatouille hybrid—a cheeky fine-dining take on Dad’s cans-and-jars dish. The lobster fettuccini and crab-ball-topped macaroni-and-cheese are both okay, but I was more impressed by Bickford’s fish specials—an expertly cooked John Dory fillet in a whisper-light tomato broth would not have been out of place at La Belle Vie.
Bickford is currently modifying his menu to add a few more robust, meaty dinner plates. That all sounds fine, so long as diners don’t overindulge, as I did one morning at brunch, when a pair of savory éclairs turned my formerly enthusiastic appetite for fat—whetted on my first visit by the foie-gras burger—into loathing. The feather-light pastry shells are filled with a thick slice of pork belly and a smoked-cheddar variant of pastry cream. It’s a decent idea, in theory, but much like the bacon sundae, it’s a little excessive. With my stomach stuffed, and my head orbiting from an Escape Velocity cocktail’s caffeine-and-booze buzz, I started envisioning the pastry cream as a liposuction harvest and was forced to seek refuge in the complementary fruit cup.
As long as you aren’t planning on following your meal with a visit to the adjacent Vertical Endeavors climbing gym, Icehouse is a versatile, likeable place. Next time I visit, I’ll keep myself more in check.
THE PERFECT DRINK
The Little Richard’s sweet-tart fizz and latte-like foam combine to create a light, refreshing take on the alcoholic milkshake. Michaels keeps the formula secret, but he will disclose his method for getting craft cocktails to the table quickly: batching. The ingredients for each drink—liquor, bitters, tinctures, etc.—are blended into various base formulas in color-coded bottles that the barkeep combines upon order.
Icehouse is Nicollet Avenue’s coolest restaurant, bar, and music venue, with inventive-but-approachable fare.
Ideal Meal: The cheesesteak or the foie-gras burger, plus whatever Bickford is offering as a daily special. Tip: If you want to sit outside, there’s a pleasant patio adjacent to the courtyard alongside the new Vertical Endeavors climbing gym. Hours: Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2 a.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.–1 a.m. Prices: Snacks, sandwiches, and small plates, $4–$19 Address: Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-276-6523, icehousempls.com
Rachel Hutton is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.