Nighthawks Puts Its Own Spin on Jewish Deli Classics

Chopped liver? Check. Pastrami sandwich? Check. Matzo ball soup? Check. After perusing Nighthawk’s menu, I started to wonder, “Is Landon Schoenfeld Jewish or does he just have a lot of chutzpah putting these classic deli dishes on the menu of his newest restaurant in South Minneapolis?” So I thought I would ask him about his Jewish roots (none) and find out more about why the chef behind Haute Dish thinks he has what it takes to remake bubbe’s best before descending on Nighthawks to nosh and decide for myself.

I noticed you have some Jewish deli classics on the menu. How did you get interested in this type of food?

Growing up in South Dakota, I knew one Jewish kid and nothing about Judaism. I wasn’t exposed to deli food at all. It wasn’t until six or seven years ago when I made a food-centered trips to New York City and went to Katz’s deli that I realized how delicious it was. I was wowed by the big pastrami sandwiches. It was like nothing I’d ever had. It was in the back of my mind to bring this food to the Twin Cities because there is definitely a big Jewish population, but no authentic Jewish deli food.

The delis that have tried and failed in the Twin Cities were trying to do too much, like having a menu with chicken strips and wraps alongside the reubens. There was no focus. Also, I think you’ve got be wary of doing deli food because your food is going to be under the microscope of every Jew in town. So, I didn’t want the deli to be the focus of Nighthawks, but to sneak those things in as an homage to those great dishes.

Matzo balls: Fluffy or firm?

Not your traditional matzo ball.

Not your traditional matzo ball.

I would call them firm. To be honest, for a purist, these are probably unlike classic matzo balls. There was a lot of trial and error. I prefer fluffy myself, but I didn’t know how to get a consistent product in the restaurant. These matzo balls are more like Parisian gnocchi. Instead of flour, I use matzo meal and real schmaltz. I roll it in tubes and cut it into disks.

How are people reacting to the chopped liver?

To be honest, it sells better than I would’ve expected. It’s my sous chef’s grandmother’s recipe and it couldn’t be more simple. It’s literally chicken livers, schmaltz, thyme and that’s it. I’m searing the liver with a little onion. I spread it on rye toast that we make in-house. It’s a really caraway-heavy rye. I amp it up by adding raw vegetables—carrots and radishes and artichokes—melded with Italian bagna cauda (anchovy butter).

You’re offering several gourmet hot dogs, including a happy hour special. What kind of sausages are you using?

They are all-beef hot dogs in a natural casing from Kramarczuk‘s in Northeast. I must’ve tried 50 different dogs and these were the best. The veggie option is a carrot peeled to look like a hot dog. We roll it in hot dog spice and steam it in a bag before roasting it in butter so it has the texture and flavor of a hot dog.

I love that you have wine on tap. Will that rotate?

Yes, we have three taps for red, white and sparkling wine. Plus, we have a cold press tap and several beer taps.

What’s your goal for the restaurant?

I hope it turns into a Minneapolis institution. It’s off to a good start. The holy grail is consistency. I hope in five years, people can look at this restaurant as part of the fabric of the city.

Why should people try Nighthawks?

It’s a convivial restaurant. It’s good for kids. The definition of a diner is a place where all walks of life can come together and not feel out of place to eat a meal.

Jewish “Deli-ish”: My Noshin’ Notes

The 7-oz "Minnesota-style" pastrami sandwich with a side of slaw.

The 7-oz “Minnesota-style” pastrami sandwich with a side of slaw.[photo Kat Silverstein]

So, I had to try the food for myself. And Schoenfeld was right about the matzo balls; These aren’t really your Passover-style matzo balls, but more sort-of dough dumplings. The chicken broth, carrot chunks and fresh herbs in the soup still makes for a delicious dish, though if you’re expecting a classic ball you might be disappointed.

The chopped liver is really a standout — unctuous liver spread on fresh bread and topped with gorgeous chunks of earthy artichokes, slivers of radish and carrot, and hard-boiled egg. Please, do not order the chopped liver and attempt to eat a pastrami sandwich afterwards. If I can impart anything from my dining experience, it should be that (unless you are prepared to be rolled home).

The pastrami sandwich itself was filled with smoky and tender meat with just a hint of spicy mustard and a side of creamy slaw. Textbook. However, I ordered the Minnesota-style sandwich with 7 oz of pastrami. There’s also an option for a 14-oz, New-York style sandwich. You can make your own grave or prepare to go home with a generous doggy bag. The choice is up to you.

Pickled herring and salmon roe with dill mayo on an all-beef dog. Photo courtesy of Nighthawks.

Pickled herring and salmon roe with dill mayo on an all-beef dog. Photo courtesy of Nighthawks.

I know you’re wondering about those specialty hot dogs on happy hour special paired with a beer for $10. My dinner companion got the Nighthawks dog and it was like a boat of food in shape and size: a foot-long dog piled with dill mayo, spicy cheese, giardiniera and crunchy little shoestring potatoes, a meal in and of itself. His comment was, “Mmmph. Good…spicy,” and that was pretty much all I heard from him for another ten minutes.

I tried the carrot dog because someone had to vet this beast. The waiter promised me, “It’s as close to a hot dog you can get without it actually being a hot dog.” And he was describing a literal carrot in an egg bun? This, I gotta try. And…damn if it wasn’t really hot-dog tasting (with a hint of carrot). You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I thought it was really delicious with a smoky flavor and nice, toothy texture. I ordered mine “Minnesoter”-style loaded with potato salad, pickled herring, fermented cucumber and salmon roe. It was almost a fork and knife hot dog with enough toppings to count as a full meal. Washing that down with a pint of local beer, I felt pretty good about spending those ten bucks.

From what I tasted of the non-deli items—a raw, Vietnamese-style vegetable salad and a summery strawberry-rhubarb prosecco cocktail—I’ll be tempted to order from the non-deli selections next time. Especially if I plan to do anything after my meal besides lie like a beached whale and digest pastrami.

All in all, I’m going to give Schoenfeld an “honorable menschion” for his work to promote the deli classics and making sure the Jews of the Twin Cities have a place to nosh on a little potato salad, pickled herring and chopped liver.

Nighthawks is open Monday-Saturday, 4 pm-12 am for dinner and Saturday and Sunday for brunch from 10 am-2 pm. No reservations. Kids menus available.