Sweet melody

RICK NELSON | Updated 12/13/2012

Nightingale's husband-wife team adds another gem to Lyndale.

While the email wasn't marked "urgent," it certainly read that way.

"I met someone and we're going out on Saturday," wrote my friend. "I need to suggest a place where we can hear each other talk. It should have good food and it can't be boring or expensive."

My immediate response: Nightingale.

It's not just for date-nighters, either. Chef/co-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnston wants to prepare the kind of casual, creative food she loves but seldom encounters when dining out.

That mentality kicks off with the kinds of nibbles that naturally pair up with the bar's libations: addictive olives, well-appointed cheese and charcuterie plates, a few fresh oysters and creamy, dill-flecked deviled eggs garnished with a luxurious caviar finish. Then the real fun starts.

First up: A handful of liberally topped bruschettas, all made on bias-cut slices of toasted country-style white bread. They're headlined by a generous swipe of ultra-fresh ricotta sprinkled with dukkah, an aromatic Egyptian spice blend that marries hazelnuts with fennel, paprika and coriander and hints of just-picked mint. The results are a delicate balance of heat against cool, crunchy against soft.

There are other splendors. The bulk of the menu is devoted to an eclectic and imaginative array of nearly 20 small-ish plates that range, portion-wise, between appetizer and quasi-entree.

Scallops, pearly inside, seared to nut-brown on the outside, are garnished with cool green grapes and a sauce inspired by McCabe-Johnston's summertime homemade obsession, almond gazpacho.

Tiny, tender calamari skip the breading-and-frying routine with a quick sear on the grill; completing the picture is a vibrant parsley pesto and roasted cherry tomatoes. Single-serving lamb chops are dressed in Parmigiano-Reggiano and bread crumbs and fried until the cheesy crunch of the coating yields a ridiculously full-bodied texture and flavor.

But her most admirable effort is shredded pork shoulder over grits. The meat's smokiness -- derived from pecan and apple woods -- announces itself through the nose yet doesn't hammer the taste buds, a skillful trick. It's insanely, mouth-meltingly juicy, and it would be superb on its own, but McCabe-Johnston spoons it over shallow cakes fashioned from creamy white grits, then adds a chile-kissed, sweet-and-sour red pepper gastrique. To not order it seems inconceivable.

Reinvigorating the ubiquitous is a McCabe-Johnston subspecialty. Chicken wings, so big they could have been pulled off a Thanksgiving turkey and sparingly glazed in soy, ginger and garlic, are almost brazenly meaty and flavorful, the result of a simple salt brine. Not at all sticky or greasy.

The spectacular meatballs could be the centerpiece of a first-rate red sauce joint, that's how good they are, an almost pillowy blend of chuck roast and pork shoulder, milk and Parmesan, served in a lively, marjoram-packed tomato sauce.

Thick-cut fries and tempura-quality onion rings do not disappoint. There's also a burger, a hedonistic chuck-brisket grind dressed with a sharp four-year-old Cheddar and a mellow, herb-packed aioli. Its full-throated richness is darned-near operatic.

And while there are slip-ups, they tend to be less conceptual and more technical in nature -- carelessly gritty scallops, a too-aggressive wrist on the salt shaker, vegetables taken just past the wrong side of tender -- all issues that could dissipate as Team Nightingale hits its stride.

Jasha Johnston, McCabe-Johnston's spouse and business partner, is the creative force behind the bar, presiding over a roster of well-crafted gimlets, sidecars, Manhattans and other classic cocktails. All are a down-to-earth $8 a pop. The judiciously selected wines and beers are priced similarly.

Minneapolis interior designer Rachel Kate Hunt vanquished all vestiges of the previous semi-seedy superette, leaving most of the visual heavy lifting to rough-hewn yellow brick walls, a rustic red oak floor, overstuffed booths and an L-shaped bar.

Hunt's old-new touches include funky walnut orb chandeliers that look vintage but aren't. It's the nighttime room that it should be, reflecting both the restaurant's name and after-hours schedule.

NIGHTINGALE

★★★ Where: 2551 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., www.face book.com/ nightingale mpls, 612-354-7060 Prices: Snack plates $5-$15, bruschettas $7-$7.50, main plates $5-$13, desserts $6.