By James Norton, The Heavy Table
Photos by Jamie Schumacher
The name “Nightingale” is something of a fluke, says co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston—she’s a bit embarrassed to say that she doesn’t quite know how she and her husband, Jasha Johnston, came up with it. But it’s apparent why it suits the concept and the space: It effortlessly conveys the unstuffy elegance of the restaurant’s food and drink menus and it alludes to its 4pm-2am operating hours. This Nightingale is as nocturnal as its namesake.
This Uptown small plates eatery is a labor of love for the couple, who fuel their enterprise with culinary careers that include stints at the renowned haute cuisine / sophisticated famille fare duo of Alma and Brasa (Carrie) and 14 years of bartending at Mortimer’s (Jasha). And when it came to putting together the restaurant’s beer menu, they found another love story at the heart of a beer brand that they’ve turned into the Nightingale hallmark: Boom Island Brewing Company, the Belgian-style beer made and sold by Qiuxia and Kevin Welch. “They came out here and we did a tasting with them, and it was husband and wife, doing their thing, and husband and wife, doing our thing,” recalls McCabe-Johnston. “It was great seeing people living their dream as a couple. It mirrored what we’re doing here.”
The Johnstons considered opening a cafe or simple neighborhood bar, but a lesson learned in the Big Easy became the inspiration for Nightingale’s small plates approach. “We travel to New Orleans every year and we find that we can go to places that have menus that are formatted where you can eat a little bit, have a cocktail, eat a little bit more, have another drink … and just kind of keep going in that very relaxed attitude,” says McCabe-Johnston. “That’s my favorite way to eat out, and we realized that there isn’t really anything here that caters to that kind of scene, especially outside of downtown [Minneapolis]. And so we thought that concept would be perfect for this location.”
In January of 2012, the couple signed the lease for their Lyndale and 26th Street location, and construction began soon after that. And while they were shooting for a July opening, the usual delays that beset restaurant openings took their toll, meaning that it was October before the doors were flung open to the neighborhood. Since then, however, business has been brisk, and critical reception kind. Part of the spot’s charm is its poise and balance. “Our whole concept behind it was for the food to be as important as the drink offerings, as the space, as the level of hospitality that you’re getting here,” says McCabe-Johnston. “All four of those are of equal importance. We wanted to be a place that was very comfortable and people would keep coming back to.”
The idea of comfort is all-encompassing when it comes to Nightingale’s approach—the dishes are simple with a twist, like a hamburger topped with four-year-old cheddar from Wisconsin master cheesemaker Joe Widmer. “It’s food that I love,” says McCabe-Johnston, who has brought in chefs with experience at leading culinary lights including Alma, Piccolo, jP American Bistro, and Masu. “There are certain dishes that are culturally driven like pork shoulder with grits, very Southern… or steak tartare, very French brasserie style, but as a whole unit there isn’t anything cohesive.”
To accompany that food is a full complement of cocktails and wine—plus a mid-sized but carefully considered collection of beer. “We knew that we wanted it to be Minnesota-heavy,” says McCabe-Johnston of her beer list. “We considered the size of our space and we thought that 16 taps was a good place to start. The first sourcing that we did was local stuff, and with all the new breweries popping up we wanted to be a home for them.”
Local craft brewers including Lift Bridge, Badger Hill, Fulton, and Brau Brothers anchor the list (supporting the leading presence of Boom Island) and a small array of macro-brews and major label imports mean that no beer palate is likely to go unsatisfied at Nightingale.
“We wanted to offer a comprehensive array of every sort of beer people could want,” says McCabe-Johnston. “So we’ve got the hop ales, the tripel, the darker styles, the lighter styles … there’s something on this list for everybody, and some of the big bottles from Boom Island for people who want to share or just have four glasses of beer for themselves. We just wanted to share as much of their product as possible. And the Goose Island Matilda, because that’s such a good food beer. Same with the [Boulevard] Tank 7 [Farmhouse Ale]—it’s a great pairing across the board with our menu. As is the [Boom Island Brimstone] Tripel, which is the beer in our mussels.”
Nightingale has only been open for a couple of months, but it seems as though its simple, balanced approach to late-night small plates dining has struck a chord: “People are understanding our vision,” says McCabe-Johnston. “They describe it as ‘a little bit more sophisticated without the pretension,’ and that’s the compliment I’ve heard a few times and that I appreciate the most.”
FOOD + BEER PAIRING #1:
“The easiest pairing is the mussels with the Boom Island [Brimstone] Tripel. The tripel’s in the dish, and the butter, and smoked tomatoes, and mussels turn it into a different flavor profile altogether. So eating it with the actual beer on its own really highlights where the beer is in the dish. [The beer] has an orange, herbal note to it and a buttery quality that to me is just great. It’s not hoppy, it’s not overly intense with bitterness – but super flavorful.”
FOOD + BEER PAIRING #2:
“Another one from Boom Island – we’ve got their Hoodoo [Dubbel], in the bottle. It’s rich and chocolatey and dark and is FANTASTIC with our chocolate pot du creme for dessert. It’s a great choice for people who want to try beer with dessert. It’s not just wine that you’re pairing with desserts these days—if you’re a beer-drinker, that’s a possibility as well.”
FOOD + BEER PAIRING #3:
“I think the Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale is always pretty approachable—I’m not a hoppy beer drinker, which is maybe why I pick these less hoppy beers—but it cuts through foods that are really rich or have a sense of spice to them. So our roasted cauliflower with harissa… harissa is a spice paste with chilis and other vegetables, so it has some heat to it… and certainly a good amount of richness to it, so I think the Farmhouse Ale goes really well with it. And also our chicken wings, which are fried and tossed in a ginger-tamari-sesame light glaze. It helps cut through the richness of the fried chicken wing.”
James Norton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW.com. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).