Healthy Choice

Café Brenda's new sister restaurant offers a virtuous take on fine dining

Spoonriver
750 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612.436.2236
www.spoonriverrestaurant.com

I got some bloody tomatoes at the new Mill City Farmers' Market. They weren't bloody because of a knife fight in the fields or because I'm going to start affecting British slang, they were bloody because that was their name, which I know because the nice, healthy, sun-kissed lady who sold them to me said they were bloody something. Bloody balls? Bloody bells? Bloody butchers? Something like that. In the journalistic tradition of my age, I did a cursory Google search to try to pin it down, but as it didn't yield much I suppose I'd best make something up.

They were beautiful heirloom tomatoes, and they were called the bloody future, named so in the summer of 2008 by the Right to Live Forever movement. The movement's leaders crowned the winey beauties their mascot and then set off on a surprisingly successful campaign to ban crème brûlée, French fries, hamburgers, buttercream frosting, and all the usual suspects contributing to cardiovascular disease, especially in couch potatoes with two-hour commutes.

The resulting cultural war dominated the country throughout the 2010s and made the pre-millennial anti-smoking crusades look like a sandbox spat. Families were rent apart at Thanksgiving as the crusaders set fire to grandma's twice-baked potatoes and used confiscated foie gras feeding funnels to get hemp seeds down the throats of the young. Roadside hamburger joints were firebombed; fried-chicken shacks were hit with balloons filled with plant-derived red paint. In retaliation, innocent pea plants were paraded in stockades through Ribfest, which was conducted with police helicopters hovering overhead. Blood soaked the land and boxes of bloody future tomatoes were traded as secret passwords, like those chrome-tone fish on the backs of Buicks.

Two years earlier, however, in the summer of 2006, a box of these delicious tomatoes suddenly darted through the time-space continuum, landing first at the new Mill City Farmers' Market and then in the hands of an absentminded Midwestern restaurant critic, suddenly rendering her the sole force capable of preventing this misery. How? By letting the people who care passionately about arteries—theirs and other people's—know about Spoonriver, the new restaurant by longtime Twin Cities restaurateur Brenda Langton, where food is both luxurious and very healthy, and where the enlightened and aware can have their concerns validated, thus preventing resentments from growing, and war from brewing. And thus I speak unto you, healthy thinkers: Make reservations, not war!

Seriously though, I never did realize how sparse the fine-dining choices were for the nutritionally minded until I dined a few times at Spoonriver, the new upscale sister restaurant to longtime friend-to-vegetarians Café Brenda. It came to me one day as I sat there with my bloody wonderful heirloom tomatoes, purchased at the adjoining, spectacular Mill City Farmers' Market, midwifed and championed by Brenda Langton, and got to eavesdropping on the table behind me. "I'm vegan and I don't eat wheat," a woman greeted her server. "Do you have anything for me?" I waited for the server to burst into tears and run across the courtyard to the beautiful new Guthrie Theater. But instead he began helpfully pointing out the many possibilities.

People who take their diet seriously have a friend in Brenda Langton. Vegetables, and specifically locally grown organic vegetables, are the root of most dishes here, and cream, butter, sweeteners, and oil are only garnishes. Even without the prop of fat, much of Langton's cooking is not just artful and creative, but downright sensuous. The heirloom tomato and watermelon salad that has been on the menu through the height of summer looks like a sculpture, with pillars of carefully cut watermelon, tomato, and herbs all placed in a line. As you use a fork to knock down your tiny candy-colored skyscraper city you find summer sweetness in its most lilting form, brought to a point by an understated vanilla vinaigrette and a scattering of oven-smoked tomato bits cut as small as confetti.

A wild mushroom and pistachio terrine has the intense flavor and per-inch punch of a terrine made of the usual suspects, but does it all without a bit of oink or quack. Everyone I brought with me to Spoonriver would at some point pause during the meal and get a faraway look in her eye, before asking, "What's the name of that spa that all the rich people go to in California?"

Indeed, Spoonriver is the most spa-like restaurant we've ever had on the fine-dining scene in Minneapolis. "Food is medicine, I truly believe that," Brenda Langton told me, when I spoke to her on the phone for this story. "A lot of people shouldn't eat certain things. There are so many diseases nowadays, if you don't eat well, whether it's cancer, diabetes, heart disease, you name it, it all comes back to diet. Doctors don't have the time to teach people how to eat, so people have to take responsibility for themselves, and when they do it really pays off. That's why I like to put whole grains on the plate. Not to mention beans, organic vegetables, meat that is grass-fed, and chickens that are well raised.

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