Backstage@Bravo!
900 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 338-2737

Want to really feel like a heel? I don't know why you would, but let's just posit that you've been envious of the whole Clinton-Starr mea-culpa shebang, yet your actual life is pretty much beyond reproach and you want to keep it that way--still, you wouldn't mind some real, profound, gut-wrenching guilt. After all, a big sack of regret is just about the oyster Rolex of the late '90s, no?

Christian Johnson

So what you've got to do is book yourself a table at Backstage@Bravo!, order one of their enormous cocktails, and watch a series of earnest-faced youth sing their hearts out to an empty room, while you feel achingly self-conscious and derelict about not enjoying your meal. Or, as one of my friends said through the teeth of his forced smile as six members of the singing and table-waiting company ran through a rousing rendition of "Steam Heat": "I wish someone else would show up to help with the smiling, nodding, and clapping duties."

It was my second visit to this new version of the enormous downtown restaurant, a version in which the raw bar has been replaced by a company of singing waiters as the main attraction. It was seven-ish on a Friday night, a time when restaurants should be full, and it was the second time I was seated at one of only two occupied tables in the front room, mere paces from the piano where the singers perform. Another night I'd felt like a voyeur at some contemporary rendition of Fame, and wouldn't you know it, I actually got to witness a puppy-eyed kid with a quavering voice auditioning for a chance to be a waiter, while the kitchen doors--mere feet from the piano where the singers trill--opened every few moments to release thunderous clanging.

It was yet another evening on which I silently thanked heaven that my rich personal tapestry of stage fright and cat-scratch voice prevented me from ever daydreaming myself into the lead in Les Miz--Mama, don't let your children grow up to love show tunes, for down that path heartbreak surely lies. Even if you're a swell singer with a formidable stage presence, here you'll be overshadowed in your audience's memory by bad food. Pity the woman I saw rattle the bones of "Summertime." Pity the sweet-faced guy who gamely piped out Jacques Brel's "Jackie," that self-deprecating funny-sad song with the refrain: "If I could be for only an hour/If I could be for an hour every day/If I could be for just one little hour/Cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way." But I predict you'll pity yourself most of all, because the best version of "Route 66" in the world won't make your dry pork chop moist. Heel! Ingrate!

OK, so here's the part when I beat up on this big-eyed mewling kitten of a nightspot (the tenderhearted among you may want to avert your eyes):

Backstage, once famous for its Caesar salad, now serves a Caesar ($4.95) triply cursed with dry croutons, tasteless parmesan, and a watery, flavorless dressing. The Puerto Rican shrimp cocktail ($8.95), described on the menu as being composed of "black tiger shrimp served with a spicy cilantro-lime avocado dipping sauce" was neither. The dressing was bland, mayonnaisey, and not in the least bit spicy; the shrimp measly, wet little nubbins fit only for blending into more complicated dishes. When I told my server (who was a wonderful tenor) that they weren't tiger shrimp, he told me they were, too. Later he said I was right, and the wrong shrimp got on the plate. Then I saw those same little guys served to another table. Whatever.

I ordered the cocktail on another visit and got standard-size shrimp, about the size of those pink-pearl erasers, but they still weren't the famed Penaeus monodon renowned for growing to as much as 3 ounces apiece. Of course you can serve immature black tiger shrimp and they're still black tiger shrimp, but that's equivalent to putting "french fries" on a menu and serving four per order: There are certain expectations that must be met.

The seafood club sandwich, described as "crab, lobster, shrimp, and sea scallops with fresh fennel, celery and red onion topped with lettuce, tomato, and hickory-smoked bacon" ($9.95), was a complete mess, missing any detectable lobster, scallops, or fennel. Instead, it held a clod of stringy crabmeat with some teensy bay shrimp, which squished wetly into the bread, soaking clear through the bottom slice and making it puddinglike. Most unforgivable, the bacon arrived so lightly cooked it consisted mainly of big, translucent swaths of fat. I still can't believe it happened. And let's not even dwell on the side order of freezer-burned fries.

So maybe, you're thinking, mistakes were made. Can't we just get this behind us? No, no, no, because in my recent run of visits I was also treated to greasy calamari ($7.95); deep-fried stuffed wontons ($5.95) filled with an uninspiring cream cheese-seafood mixture; a grilled pork chop ($16.95) as dry as cotton and served in a disconcertingly sugary, vinegary sauce; and a New York strip steak ($18.95) blackened with a quarter-inch of inedible char and accompanied by sticky-sweet mushrooms. The lamb couscous ($15.95) should have been a fragrant mixture of braised ingredients over light and airy herbed grains, but instead the tasteless stew lay limply on salty, sodden grains.

Desserts were likewise calamities: On every visit I tried the fruit tart ($3.95), and each time I got an old, soggy, refrigerator-tasting crust topped with a few fresh berries and a flat berry sauce. The bourbon pecan pie also tasted strongly of the refrigerator. There is simply no way to relax and enjoy the show with such a minefield of a dining experience.

On the other hand (Here, kitty, kitty! I make nice now!), I do have three compliments for Backstage. First let's all praise the bartenders, because they serve the most enormous cocktails, generously sent out like old-fashioned malts--not only do you get your drink, but you get to keep the pint-glass shaker with another entire serving in it. Let me re-emphasize this point for all the world's hooch aficionados--for $6 worth of manhattan, martini, cosmopolitan or any such cocktail served neat (no ice), you're really getting two, perhaps three drinks. I also had two tasty dishes on my very last visit; the mussels ($7.95), in a buttery sauce of bacon, garlic, and thinly sliced leeks, were tender and very good, and a Southwestern chicken cordon bleu ($17.95) was extraordinary, a tender half-bird in a rich blue-cheese sauce served with a hunk of cayenne-touched blue corn bread and a little julienned ham. I think of that bird as a phoenix, a bright star rising on the horizon, betokening a new future, a coming joy, an end to the present crisis.

TABLEHOPPING:

BEE'S KNEES: Been by the Buckingham Bee? It's a sweetheart of a Victorian tea room up in White Bear Lake (2179 Fourth St.) that first came to my attention when it participated in the Walker Art Center's 10th anniversary celebration of the Sculpture Garden, at which all the featured edibles were cherry-related (you know, Spoonbridge and...). The Bee's Kathleen Boehm Lindenberg, an avowed Anglophile, showcases her collection of antique ceramic transferware in the tea room, and serves traditional English tea and baked treats all week. But it's on Fridays and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. that Boehm Lindenberg really goes all out, with a formal three-course brass-bell tea. You'll start out with a course of finger sandwiches and fruit, ring your bell when you're ready for a course of scones, Devonshire cream, and preserves, and ring again for the pièce de résistance, a two-tiered server filled with an assortment of five sweets. Every so often Boehm Lindenberg also hosts full-fledged costume teas, like the Great Gatsby Roaring '20s Tea on September 27, and a Madeline French Tea on October 18. Both the Brass Bell tea ($12.95) and the theme teas ($15.95) require reservations; call 653-9533.

Buckingham Bee Tea Room's

Cherry Clementines

* 4 cups flour

* 1/2 cup sugar

* 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons baking powder

* 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar

* 1 heavy pinch salt

* 21/2 cups heavy whipping cream

* 2 large eggs

* cherry preserves

* pearl sugar

* milk

Blend dry ingredients well with a wire whisk. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs well, then blend in the heavy cream. Pour mixture into the dry ingredients and blend quickly with a wooden spoon. Place dough on a lightly floured surface. Knead gently to work in any loose flour, pat out dough, and then roll to a quarter-inch thick. Cut with a 4-inch circular biscuit cutter. Place rounds on a parchment-paper-covered baking sheet. Place a generous tablespoon of top-quality cherry preserves on one half of each round, fold the other half over the preserves and pinch edges together. Brush with milk and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake in a 350º oven for 15 to 17 minutes until golden.

Yield: 14 clementines. Can be assembled ahead and frozen; thaw one hour before baking.

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