By John Garland
“You guys want to go up to the roof and check out the bees?” Chef T.J. Rawitzer finds a ladder and brings us to the top of Tiny Diner, the new Kim Bartmann restaurant on 38th Street in Powderhorn. From that vantage, we can see a hyper-ambitious project taking shape.
Two weeks from its expected opening, the restaurant is becoming surrounded by gardens. They’re cast in a soft blue light from the accordion folds of a solar paneled roof over the patio, which will generate up to 80% of the restaurant’s energy needs. The diner will receive produce from a separate urban farm one mile away in Longfellow.
And then there are the bees—ten to twenty thousand of them kept in two Langstroth hives. They’ll eventually be surrounded by a field of microgreens, tomatoes, and peppers. The restaurant is the culmination of a farm-direct, sustainable philosophy that Bartmann has routinely strived to build into her other eateries.
But the food will not be the kind of stodgy “farm-to-table” fare that happens when reverence for ingredients overshadows culinary acumen. “You have the point of view where it should just be a carrot on a plate,” says head chef Brian Jones. “Respecting the food is step one. Step two is making something delicious out of it. Instead of a beautiful roasted carrot, it could be a great carrot puree that’s a sauce for something else.”To wit, Jones will serve a McMuffin clone at breakfast, but stuffed with housemade chorizo. He’ll whip up a Philly cheese steak for you at lunch, but with a real cheese sauce, shishito peppers, and red onions. And expect sourdough pancakes birthed from a 120-year-old dough starter Jones transported from NYC. His plan for Tiny Diner’s menu: “We’re giving people the form they want with the flavors we want.”
Jones, a New Jersey native, has left NYC for Minneapolis following his wife’s promotion to a position in town. After sending out feelers for cooking jobs, Kim Bartmann flew out to Queens for an eat-and-greet. “We had an amazing meeting,” Jones recalls. “We talked about food, about how I’d do this, and we just collided. It was a little explosion. We shook hands over lunch and here I am.”
His latest post was at the ultra-trendy M. Wells Dinette in Queens. Jones has also been seasoned under Masaharu Morimoto in Chelsea and the red-sauce powerhouse duo, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone. “Hugue [Dufour of M. Wells] is one of the most creative people I’ve ever dealt with,” he says, “I know how to weld because he decided we wanted to build an oyster cart. He always said, just follow. If you’re thinking raspberries will go with a smoked turkey liver mousse, then do it.”
Oh, and it does work. The silky puree is piped on caraway toasts and studded with large flecks of salt (below). The quick-pickled raspberries add a jolt of acid to the combo that tastes like haute-Thanksgiving. “Who uses turkey livers, anyway?” he laughs. “Larry Schultz was like we have them, please take them away. And the first time we used them, we were blown away.”
Tiny Diner seems a logical extension of his past work. “At the original diner, we were a small crew, four or five employees for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he explains. “An old silver-bullet diner, you could literally push the wall back and see daylight, it was so beat up. But we got two stars in the New York Times. Then we opened the Dinette, and it was the same thing—tiny crew, one dishwasher. We were proud of the food, but weren’t too proud to wash dishes or bus tables.”
“The idea of diner food is the center spoke on the wheel,” he says, “and we want to go to the outside of those spokes each time. A red flannel hash is a certain thing. We’re going to push the technique and do it a little different.”
Take the “tater tots,” for example (above), made from salt cod, fried to shoestring crispiness, and presented with an herb-filled, emulsified tartar sauce. We’re calling it Brainerd brandade. “This seems to be a town of tater tots,” Jones proclaims. “To get the cod to right texture, it’s baked a little longer to flake the right way.”
In the coming months, the gardens will fill out and the bees will begin to pollinate, and Tiny Diner is hoping to become proof-of-concept in a restaurant world full of green-washed claims. “We want to be pretty much self-sustainable,” says Jones. “From here and the other farm, we’re focused on whatever [Tiny Diner farm manager] Koby [Jeschkeit-Hagen] can get us. We have lots of great vendors, but if we can support our farm first, that’s our primary concern. We want to get that vegetable in and show people this does work. We want this to be its own island.”
Tiny Diner, 1024 E. 38th St. Minneapolis. Hours are 7am to 11pm, with a tentative opening date of Wednesday, June 11th.
Correction: An original version of this post stated that Tiny Diner is “on 38th Avenue in Powderhorn.” In fact, Tiny Diner is on 38th Street.