Nestled in a historic home in the Wells Street Corridor, Bird and Cleaver Public House gave off a sense of welcoming familiarity.
The house has a huge front porch that begs for a swing or a few tables when the weather turns nice, and its interior, though modernized, has a simplistic style – an old church pew and vintage bar stools at a counter along the wall were highlights – that creates the perfect atmosphere for dining and conversation.
The food at Bird and Cleaver followed the same path, challenging my palate while still being familiar.
Born from a catering service and food blog by owners John and Lindsay Cheesebrew, Bird and Cleaver is very vegan-friendly, very local and very modern in its approach. But it will not make you feel out of your element.
The first dish I tried showed this the best.
The Hillbilly Fondue seemed right up my alley based on its name, but this cheesy dip served with raw vegetables and toast points had no cheese in it at all. It was vegan with no soy or dairy. It looked just like the bright orange, canned dips found in the grocery chip aisle and had the same gelatinous consistency, which may not sound like a good thing, but it was.
I prodded to find out how this “secret” dip was made. A dining companion with a nut allergy found out it was nut-free, but did have sesame. During another visit, I was told it was made with roasted potatoes and carrots. John would not give me any hints to the recipe but said customers would probably be surprised at how basic the ingredients are and how easy it is to make.
Regardless, the warm fondue was smooth and creamy, had a nice salty flavor and did a fine job of posing as a nacho cheese dip. It was OK with the veggies and toast, but after getting a sandwich, I discovered what was best with it, and that is what I ordered with it the next time and will do so from now on.
Bird and Cleaver offers Faux-ritos as a side – crispy fried corn tortilla chips dusted with a salty, zesty, spice blend that perfectly mimics Doritos without turning your fingers orange. They were delicious as is, but even better dunked in the cheese dip.
The Solenya appetizer did not need any cheese dip to be the perfect starter or just a nice nibbling plate with a few drinks – there are draft and bottled beers and wines offered. The array of in-house pickled vegetables included young carrots, turnips, daikon radishes and pickling cucumbers.
I loved the diversity as the deep red, beet juice-dyed daikons – my favorites – had a real vinegar punch. The soft texture of the turnips made them stand out as did their slight sweetness, and the carrots packed some heat. The cucumbers were super sweet and reminded me of bread and butter pickles. They were my least favorite because they had been pickled so well they were quite flimsy.
Though notable for its commitment to vegan dishes, it was the straightforward carnivore-approved courses I liked the best. It wasn't that I was biased, it was just that they were wonderful.
The Night Moves meatloaf sandwich would give my dear mother a run for her money. The thick, moist, beefy slab of loaf sat between a beautifully grilled sesame seed bun with oozing melted cheddar, some crispy chunks of iceberg lettuce and the restaurant's “secret sauce.” The sauce is what brought my mother to mind as it had a distinct sweetness – brown sugar at play, perhaps – and was a little tangy like barbecue sauce.
I enjoyed the Thick as Thighs chicken sandwich, but it could have been better. A not-too-sweet honey bun tried its best to hold the tender, delicious, cubed pieces of chicken thigh, but some fell out with pretty much every bite. It also had wilted collard greens that were kind of lost texturally in the sandwich. The house hot sauce did its job and potato chips on top added some crunch, but I think some raw greens or at least crisper greens would have been a nice addition.
A chicken appetizer – the Sticky Chicky – also ruffled my feathers a bit because of higher expectations. The crispy little drums were nicely garnished with orange zest and green onions. They were fine, but there was nothing outstanding about the sticky, salty-sweet sauce. They were on par with about every other Asian wing I've had.
The only sandwich that left me wanting more was the Safe Zone, which was so safe it was boring. This cheese toastie was made on a thick, wonderful pullman loaf from Zinnia's Bakehouse, which makes nearly all of Bird and Cleaver's breads and buns, that was lightly toasted just to add a little texture while still being mostly soft and having that fresh bread goodness. It had quesadilla cheese and cheddar, but not enough of it to make it stand out.
When it came to sides with the sandwiches, the yummy tortilla crisps were hard to pass on, but the same cheese I loved dunking them in worked well in a macaroni and cheese that was dotted with green chili peppers to give it a little zip. I also loved the featured Kale-Brussels Sprouts Caesar Salad, which had pickled red onions, shaved Parmesan and yummy house-made croûtons.
I paired my Field Trip bowl with a soup, which led to some regret, but the bowl was as enjoyable as the sandwiches. It had a perfectly cooked quinoa, cucumbers, one pretty little watermelon radish slice, assorted greens, green onions, cilantro, black sesame seeds and the restaurant's “bird seed,” which includes pumpkin and sunflower seeds among others.
I had mine with chicken though tofu is also offered. Hoisin sauce gave it a very Asian flavor profile, and it all worked quite well together.
But I had no use for the House Red Curry soup. It was bland – the last thing I expect from a curry soup – and seemed like a watered-down version of a much better soup. It also had pieces of slimy, gritty puffed tapioca that were not mentioned in the menu and were not good additions.
The featured Kale and White Bean soup I had during another visit was way better. It had a light tomato broth, included macaroni along with the legumes, was topped with cheese and was nicely seasoned. I enjoyed every drop of it.
I also enjoyed every morsel of the desserts.
The vegan Plain Ol' Chocolate Cake could fool anyone as it was rich, moist, chocolaty and delicious as any egg-laden cake. The Buttermilk Panna Cotta was spot-on in terms of its consistency and its simplistic approach with just a drizzle of honey and crunchy bee pollen on top made it a wonderfully light meal-ender.
Restaurant: Bird and Cleaver
Address: 1603 N. Wells St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes, ramp in rear.
Alcohol: Beer, wine
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Fondue ($8), Sticky Chicky ($6 or $10), Solenya ($8), Safe Zone ($6), Thick as Thighs ($10), Night Moves ($11), Field Trip ($12), Caesar salad ($4), soup ($4 cup; $6 bowl), dessert ($5)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. Past reviews at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow DuVall on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Bird and Cleaver
Out of a possible five