The Many Shades of Red

Young chef Marianne Miller brings something new and breathtaking to twin cities fine dining

Red Restaurant
821 Marquette Ave. S., Minneapolis

Only a few times in all my years on this beat, only once or twice before, have I walked into a restaurant and within a dish or two looked around and thought, By God, we have a real talent here. A real talent! Something important that changes the whole lay of the land in local restaurants, changes birthday plans, nudges careers, alters the community perceptibly by simple ambition realized. You might not think that mere talent can do this, but sometimes, once or twice in a decade, it can.

So attend carefully to what I have to say, because I have measured these words carefully: Marianne Miller, the young chef at brand-new restaurant Red, is not just one to watch, she is already well on her way to being one of the best chefs in Minneapolis.

Fifteen years after the collapse of communism, the Reds invade downtown Minneapolis
Raoul Benavides
Fifteen years after the collapse of communism, the Reds invade downtown Minneapolis

I knew this the second I tasted one of her pelmeni. Pelmeni are little meat-filled dumplings (they live in the same filled-pasta family as tortellini and pierogi). But, like tuna hot dish, they're usually more about survival than desire. Red's pelmeni, however, are about desiring miracles: Here delicate parcels of exquisitely tender pasta are wrapped around a vaporously mellow bite of pork and veal. These wee, comforting bundles are then tucked into a bowl that has been painted with overlapping pools of bright-green dill oil and a golden champagne vinegar sauce, and they're crowned with a dollop of house-made crème fraîche, which tastes like the freshest imaginable sour cream, touched with dill. So you have these little cuties, which are profoundly comforting--silky and weighty, fresh and elegant--and then you get to sluice them through these three flavors, the green herbal vibrancy of the dill oil, the sour pop of the vinegar sauce, the fresh and light of crème fraîche, and each bite becomes that rarest of culinary accomplishments: A profoundly delicate and delicately profound comfort food.

So, like I said, I knew there was something special about Miller when I tried those pelmeni. But I felt the gravity of the entire local restaurant scene shift when I received a plate of gruesome-sounding Mexican blue prawns with feta and mint salad in a chilled watermelon broth ($9.50). To tell you the truth, I ordered this appetizer exactly because it sounds so horrendous: shrimp, feta, watermelon? Eeek. It sounds like the worst kind of blundering fusion. Yet this works dazzlingly, shockingly well.

To make it, Miller takes three large blue prawns, dusts them with pepper, cumin, and a tiny bit of tobacco-smoked paprika, and broils them until they get the barest crisp of black outside. Then she takes freshly sieved watermelon, deepens it with a shot of verjus (kind of like lemon juice, but made from sour green grapes), decorates it with islands of feta and watermelon cubes, stacks the prawns in there, and further adorns the bowl with millimeter-wide ribbons of mint.

It still sounds terrible, right? Okay, but the genius of the dish is in the details. Instead of sweeter white prawns Miller uses meatier, less refined blue prawns, which lend an earthy note to the dish, an earthy note that is further enhanced by the spices, and especially the almost undetectable smoked paprika. By spiking the watermelon with the sour verjus, she moves the whole dish closer to the classic pairing of shrimp and lemon (which you can well imagine with feta cheese). And yet the dish is still built, of all things, with watermelon. So the watermelon and mint read as shocking, unusual, and new--the one thing you never thought a shrimp appetizer could ever be--but still exceptionally good, sensible, and likable.

And thus my lunch date and I found ourselves fighting over rights to the last bit of shrimp and--I'll tell you, even as I type it, it still looks terrible--of shrimp and watermelon.

Like most things that come out of nowhere, Red has actually been in the planning stages for about four years. It opened this past January 31, the child of a few local investors, including Russian émigré Alex Margolin, who is the restaurant's general manager, and Boris Fridkin, the architect largely responsible for the striking reimagining of the old un deux trois space.

Where all was once dusty pink and comfortable for ladies of a certain age, now all is revolutionary red and gold. The chairs are showy red and black graphic pieces that make everyone who sits in them look like some kind of kingpin in a rock-video shoot. Meanwhile, techno, Sadé, and the Postal Service burble along on the loudish loudspeakers, flat-panel video screens show art compilation clips, and the most aggressively hip, most authentically hip restaurant in the history of Minneapolis has debuted.

Which, I bet, will scare the bejesus out of a good half the population. Can a fine-dining restaurant in Minneapolis succeed if they ignore the all-important fuddy-duddy demographic? When you consider it, don't you, too, feel the gravity of local restaurants shifting?

Will you, personally, like Red? Hard to say. Here's a test. First, read the following list: Basement Jaxx, kumquat vodka, Robert Cavalli, wasabi foam, Paper Denim, fruit minestrone, Jimmy Choo, Sephora, Coachella, Prada, et cetera. Okay, now, do you feel: a) needlessly annoyed by a Dadaist word salad; or b) intrigued? Then you should correspondingly a) go to Red exclusively for lunch; or b) alert your friends that you have finally figured out where to go for your birthday.

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