On a recent weeknight at Little Bird, smack-dab in the heart of Monroe Center, I had the place virtually to myself.
Having already solidified its reputation as a breakfast/brunch powerhouse with imaginative entrees like the kimchi hash and other flavorful dishes inspired by the world over, the little diner’s ambitious dinner program is still in its infancy, and so I sat at the gorgeous rosewood bar alone as the rest of the city emptied the streets for home.
It’s not a bad way to take in dinner, like this. The decor at Little Bird is sparse but not minimalist, sort of a 21st-century edition of a bistro with its banquette seating and mostly natural lighting. In that sense, my dinner was really only a massage away from qualifying for some sort of spa treatment, curated with a pointed wine list.
Which seems to be the thing at Little Bird. Everything is just so. All three menus — breakfast, lunch and dinner — hit pitch-perfect. It’s as if the Bon Appétit test kitchen airdropped a restaurant right next to the GRAM. And that’s not a knock. It’s simply what we eat now. Perfectly roasted cauliflower, smoked salmon platters, avocado everywhere: and that burger... The dish belongs in the GRAM, not next to it.
It’s all very “now,” this menu. A local, seasonal restaurant that doesn’t gloat about it. Food just is fresh now — that’s the way restaurants are. Ramps appear on tonight’s halibut special. That’s what ramps do: in a matter of weeks, they’re here, and then they’re not. And of course the ramps are from West Michigan!
What this menu also does spectacularly is take you places, most notably East. Chickpeas, sumac, dates, mint and cumin feature prominently on dishes like the lamb meatballs with its curried lentils and roasted eggplant. Meanwhile, the aforementioned cauliflower was charred to perfection with carrots and served with a cool cumin yogurt and tangy pickled golden raisins.
Even further east takes you to heaven with the must-try kimchi hash. But the French toast, served with Japanese milk bread and sour cherries, is a fresh take on a dish we’re very familiar with. Or try the chicken and rice, a very humble, yet rich nod to a Korean staple.
In a previous issue, I’ve written about the Untraditional Caesar salad, a kale and cauliflower mixture with aged Gouda and potato chips. I’ll mention it again to add that it was basically all I was eating in the month of February — add the sardines, of course.
The menu in full, here, deserves a few tables on the sidewalks of Monroe, an Aperol spritz or two (or three) and a glass of rosé during these lazy summer months. I said the dinner service here is still in its infancy, but I only mean in the number of days it’s existed, because this place clearly has legs already.
I’m not sure when exactly we started to eat in the way we do now. Can you remember when you first started to see kimchi in supermarkets? I guess the whole deal started with foreign objects like quinoa and sriracha (not combined, necessarily) and snowballed into avocado toast, foraged vegetables, house-made tahini and tinned fish. Call it sustainability, call it local, farm-to-table.
Whatever you call it, it’s here at Little Bird. Bright, bracing flavors and simple, unpretentious food. I can’t imagine eating this way growing up, but one thing is now for sure: we’re never going back.