Gastropub meets Texas comfort food at this trendy spot on Sundance Square Plaza in Fort Worth.
The Bird Café, a newish hot spot gastropub on Sundance Square Plaza in Fort Worth, features a bounty of beers and menu items like caramelized-onion mac ’n’ cheese, heirloom beet salad, Comanche bison ribs, and smoked pecan bread pudding. Credit for the inventive food goes to chef David McMillan and kudos for the concept go to legendary Dallas-Fort Worth restaurateur Shannon Wynne, whose Dallas favorite The Meddlesome Moth (named The Best Beer Place in the World by Stephen Beaumont, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer) also tapped McMillan. It’s well-known that Wynne has a winning way with food and entertainment venues; less-known is that he’s also an art connoisseur. The evidence isn’t just in his private art collection — it’s also in the Audubon-esque avian art lining the restaurant walls at Bird Cafe.
But you’re probably not here for the art (although the limited edition bird prints by Stuart and Scott Gentling are enthralling). You’re here for drinking and small-plate sharing with friends inside or out on the super social and super scenic (people and cityscape) patio.
McMillan is right at home amid both an art-driven décor and a chef-driven gastropub. He studied fine art and sculpture during his college days in Boston, after which a trip to Europe put him on course to soak up the great cuisines of the Continent. “I spent lots of time in Europe — particularly Germany. I love the country food there,” McMillan says as he launches excitedly into a description of one of the German-inspired dishes he’ll be rolling out for fall: “Red cabbage reduced and intensified almost like a chutney, served with sweet potato cornbread pudding and a seasonal bird ... .” Maybe Texas quail, which is another perennial favorite courtesy his kitchen.
Almost like Thanksgiving — but definitely not your Mom’s.
McMillan describes his Bird Café menu as “gastropub meets Texas comfort food” and puts his own distinctive twist on the “nose-to-tail” movement. “We like to be able to do head-to-tail — use as much of the animal as much as possible. We use lots of bellies, goat necks. We might do a smoked and curried goat neck, for instance; we love how they eat. As a restaurateur and chef you want people happy and comfortable, but you have to have some adventure for yourself. Once you earn people’s trust, you can get them to be more adventuresome.”
By the time the food gets plated, plenty of adventure has already gone into it. McMillan works with local producers as much as he can: He gets his honey locally from Father’s Bees Honey, which is made by the Romanian Orthodox Church in Colleyville, Texas, where they keep hives and an honor box for people to take honey home. A favored cheesemaker is Brazos Valley Cheese, in Waco, Texas, where he particularly loves the Van Sormon, an original variety that grew out of a mistake. “They brought the milk up too high on a Gouda, and out of that, they started rubbing it with vanilla, sorghum, and cinnamon on the outside and came up with a really nice cheese,” McMillan says.
He gets lavosh and pita bread from local Middle Eastern bakeries, and organic non-GMO tomatoes from Amelia’s Farm in Bells, Texas. He’s working with Arrowhead Specialty Meats, which does heritage meats, on Bird Café’s marrowbones (“an institution”). And for the malt syrup he uses in his duck wings (another fan favorite), he’ll head around the corner from where he lives to Foreman’s General Store, where they have a home-brewing section that carries the sweet stuff.
McMillan likes to keep his menus close to home and close to the heart. The porridge he serves for Sunday brunch is his own recipe and his wife’s favorite. “My dad eats oatmeal every day and just nukes it — it’s so disgusting. [My porridge] is flaked rye and flaked barley — up to seven different oats – quinoa, risotto, rye or barley, or both. I start with oats, cook them with water, and finish it with milk. I put vanilla paste into it. On top, as a baseline, there will be toasted pecans and dried cranberries and a little maple or raw sugar. That’s what my wife has every time — extremely hot. On Sunday mornings that’s how I know she’s in the restaurant because the order comes in.”
Bird Café Duck Wings
“This is a menu item that will stay forever,” McMillan says. “I’m the only person who does them. Normally they are waste in the duck process, but I buy them and we confit them in a kind of French country way.”
Fresno Red Hot Sauce
2 pounds Fresno chiles
2 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons white vinegar (add more vinegar as needed)
Stem and core the chiles. Deep fry until tender. Blend salt and vinegar together until salt dissolves. Mix with chiles in an airtight jar and cure for minimum of 1 week.
Fire Cider Vinegar
Yields 1 quart
1 tablespoon ginger
1 tablespoon fresh horseradish
½ large yellow onion
1 clove garlic
2 Thai chiles
1 quart apple cider vinegar
Peel and rough chop ginger, horseradish, onion, garlic, chiles, and orange. Place all ingredients into a sterilized mason jar. Pour vinegar over ingredients, leaving ½ – 1 inch below the mouth of the jar. Add a layer of parchment paper between the jar and the lid and seal the jar. Allow to steep for 2 – 4 weeks (the longer the better). Strain off the liquid and bottle.
2 pounds duck wings (first joint)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning
2 quarts duck fat or lard, melted
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper, enough to coat wings
⅔ cup Fresno Red Hot Sauce
2 tablespoons sorghum
1 tablespoon Fire Cider Vinegar
½ cup celery leaves
½ cup blue cheese crumbles
Carrot and celery sticks
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Rub duck wings with salt, pepper, and creole seasoning and place in large 4-inch deep baking dish. Pour melted duck fat or lard over the duck wings until they are covered. Cook in oven until very tender. Gently remove the wings from the fat and place on a baking sheet and chill for 1 hour. Toss wings in seasoned flour and fry till crispy. Toss wings with the mix of Fresno sauce, sorghum, and Fire cider. Garnish with blue cheese crumbles and celery leaves. Serve with carrot and celery sticks and blue cheese dressing or favorite dipping sauce.
Comanche Bison Ribs With Home Fries
1 quart sugar
1¼ cups kosher salt
¼ cup black pepper
2 tablespoons ground cumin
⅓ cup chili powder
1 cup paprika
⅓ cup onion powder
6 pounds bison side rib blocks
3 cups barbecue sauce
Mix all dry ingredients. Work the rub into each rib, top and bottom. Place on foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 200 degrees for 6 hours. Hold at room temperature till final cooking. Smoke on low, live fire grill for two hours until smoky and tender. Paint with barbecue sauce of choice and turn every couple of minutes. Do it a couple of times until they look like candy.
2 pounds baking potatoes
1 cup duck fat or lard
1 large onion, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil potatoes until just barely tender. Dump them into a colander. Let drain and cool in sink. Do not refrigerate! When room temperature, either cut into thick coins or large dice, your choice. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat fat. Add onions and cook till soft and brown. Remove onion from fat with slotted spoon and drain. Now add potatoes to the fat and cook till brown as you can wait for. Stir onion back in and season with salt and cracked pepper. Carve the ribs and serve in a pile with a platter of home fries on the side.
Ryes ’N’ Shine
Buffalo Trace is a high rye bourbon, meaning that it’s at least 51 percent corn in the mashbill, with the remainder of the mashbill containing a predominance of rye in the blend. Combine that rye aspect with moonshine ... see what I did there? The rest of the flavors are designed around a balanced breakfast: grapefruit, orange, lemon, yogurt, egg — that’s it. Complex drink, simple story.
1¾ ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon
1 ounce Firefly Grapefruit Moonshine
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce honey simple syrup
½ ounce Bols Yoghurt Liqueur
2 dashes Bittermen's Orange Cream Citrate
1 egg white
Barrel-aged Peychaud's Bitters, for garnish
Add all ingredients to the cocktail shaker without ice. Top with silver tin and “dry shake” vigorously until mixture becomes thick and creamy. Open tin and add ice. Shake again to chill. Double-strain into coupe. Hold a template against the surface and spray the Peychaud’s over to create a design or logo in the negative space.
The Bird Mule
The Moscow Mule originated in the late 1950s as a vehicle for getting Americans to drink vodka. At the time, vodka was very unpopular due to its Eastern European/Russian roots and the ongoing arms races and growth of Communism. A crafty bartender used many components that he readily had available to him and the “buck” or “mule” cocktail base (one made with ginger beer and lime). The Moscow name is an easy homage to the nature of the vodka.
The story of the copper cup is shrouded in a little mystery, but for the most part it goes like this: The guy who invented the drink wanted to have a way to keep it cold and look refreshing. His girlfriend at the time worked for a copper smelter and in their inventory was a huge assortment of cups. They put the two together as a means of helping each other, and it’s been that way ever since. Any stories of the supposed reaction that is said to take place between copper and the mystical components in the glass are farcical and have been chemically proven so.
Our version takes its name from our location but also is boosted with the addition of hum(mingbird) botanical spirit, a blend of hibiscus, ginger, kaffir lime, cardamom, and sugar cane.
1½ ounce Pinnacle Vodka
½ ounce hum botanical spirit
½ ounce lime juice
¼ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces house ginger beer
Lime zest, for garnish
Combine the vodka, hum botanical, lime juice, and simple syrup in a Boston shaker and shake vigorously to chill. Using a Hawthorn strainer, transfer the cocktail to a copper cup packed with ice. Top with ginger beer. Grate lime zest over top.
Food recipes courtesy Chef David McMillan, Bird Café. Beverage recipes courtesy Bird Cafe Beverage Director Ryan Fussell. See the October 2015 issue for a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant's art collection.