Applause, Please

Backstage at BRAVO!

900 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 338-0062

It seems like every time you drive down Hennepin Avenue, there's another patch of neon, each one brighter and more self-important than the last. Call me grumpy, call me cheap and snotty, but I've never had any interest in seeing any of the touring Broadway shows that flop in along that strip. Therefore, I really hadn't planned on going to Backstage at BRAVO!, part of the three-story "BRAVO! Celebration Center," a restaurant, bar, and banquet facility designed with the theater patron in mind. But raw oysters on the menu (especially in these parts) are quite a lure, so on a late night last week, we stopped in to sniff around.

Done up with reminders of Broadway giants past (the full-sized cardboard cut-outs of dancers from A Chorus Line are especially ghastly), parts of the gigantic complex look a little too cute and clever for words. There is a pink neon announcement for Smokey Joe's Cafe, and confusing bathroom signs meant to look like dressing rooms ("Male Actors/Female Actors"; what kind of smutty plays are they rehearsing here anyhow?). My snotty haunches reared a bit, but immediately fell back on sight of the first dish we ordered. The atmosphere might be a little hokey, but the food enraptures.

The executive chef Andrew Zimmern, last cherished at the extraordinary Cafe Un Deux Trois, puts in an equally impressive performance here. His menu has a subtle sense of humor--with signature dishes such as the lobster club sandwich ($18.50) and Grandma's eggs in the hole with applewood smoked bacon ($8.50)--but mainly impresses with its wealth of creative seafood dishes.

One of the best of these is a plate of Irish smoked cod roe on an oatmeal buttermilk blini ($7.75), a generous pile of wonderful caviar on a slightly sweet pancake topped with a dollop of freshly made sour cream, a dusting of chives, and a swirl of herb oil. If you've never tried caviar, this is a wonderful way to start. We were a little disheartened to feel the last bite slip down the hatch, but who can be too glum when oysters are on the way? The crisp blue points we ate were elegantly bedded on a silver tray of ice, with fresh lemon, a flurry of cilantro, and a variety of accompaniments. I usually am of the school that a good oyster needs no embellishments, and that too much make-up and jewelry can spoil a pretty face. But in this case, we couldn't resist fattening the already hefty, crisp oysters with heaps of homemade horseradish, lemon dill sauce, and tarragon mignonette spiked with peppercorns. At $1.50 a piece ($7/half dozen, $14/dozen), they were delicious enough to be worth their dearness. If you have deep pockets, you might wish to make a meal completely from the offerings of the raw bar, which also include clams (also $1.50 a pop), whole giant black tiger prawns ($11.50/half pound), dungeness crab ($12.50/half), cold poached Maine lobster ($14.50/half), a variety of carpaccios (of these, bluefin tuna with sesame seaweed salad, wasabi, and tamari seems especially wonderful, $9.50), and a couple of "coctels." We pounced upon the tiger prawn and lobster coctel with mango, lime and Indonesian chilies. Served in a giant margarita glass rimmed with creole spices and stuck with a lime, with a bit of crumbly corn cake madelines, it was delicious, and generous enough to give two people equal access to the lobster and prawns. Wet cloth napkins and lemons were set aside for us to wash our hands with, and we sadly bade farewell to the fabulous raw bar.

The rest of the menu is divided in three: small plates, large plates, and the late-night menu. We passed by some of the grander items, such as the grilled lamb T-bone chops with crispy sweet potato shoestrings, replete with piquant marjoram beurre noisette ($19.50); and the Napa cabbage -wrapped king salmon with sweet herb and tomato vinaigrette ($17.50). (Expensive for a sandwich and salad, but remember how well we had stuffed ourselves on appetizers.) A lobster sandwich seems on the face of it to be a criminal waste of quality goods, sort of like waxing your car with a designer shirt. And putting it with bacon? But we loved the lobster club ($18.50), and thought that the cold lobster and applewood smoked bacon slathered with a bit of tarragon mayonnaise tasted just great. Add what seemed like a pound of crisp shoestring french fries and some tangy, homemade cole slaw, and you've got a better meal that you bargained for.

To balance things out slightly, we had an endive and frisee salad, the jagged greens looking wild and delicate amidst a scattering of roasted beets, toasted pecans, and aged chèvre ($6). The plate, set off with an artful design made with homemade beet oil (Mr. Zimmern seems to have an entire collection of house herb oils to play with), was a thing of beauty.

We almost passed on dessert, though the menu holds countless charms. It would be good fun to come here late and discuss the meaning of Grease over a nice Graham's 40-year-old port ($20) and a plate of assorted handmade cheeses ($9), or maybe the pineapple cheesecake with macadamia-graham cracker crust and poached tropical fruit compote ($6). We decided on the banana creme tartelette with warm caramelized bananas and roasted banana ice cream ($6). Only once before have I encountered such an artful display of dessert decadence. Our plate was sculpted with burned sugar spheres, standing upright and pierced with sugared antennas, the bananas all neatly in a ring around the plate in a light caramel sauce, and the tartelette dunked in chocolate and covered with fresh whipped cream and banana ice cream. Utterly dramatic and tasty, too. Sugar in this form shoots right to your head and shocks you up a bit. What better way to finish the evening?

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