Cue the Applause

Cue, the fine-dining restaurant in the new Guthrie, neatly combines high food ethics and high style

Cue at the Guthrie
806 South 2nd St., Minneapolis
612.225.6499
www.cueatguthrie.com

When Cue, the showpiece fine-dining restaurant in the brand-new showpiece Guthrie Theater, opened, my phone lit up with various magazine editors in New York, all wondering: Is the Guthrie really the most beautiful building in the history of mankind? Is the restaurant wonderful, or is it bizarre and uncomfortable to dine beneath a 25-foot portrait of Arthur Miller? The answer is: kind of, yes, to all.

Right on Cue: Staff members prepare to wow the pre-theater dinner crowd
Kris Drake
Right on Cue: Staff members prepare to wow the pre-theater dinner crowd

If Jean Nouvel's Guthrie is a postmodern, image-echoing, industrial space-castle on the Mississippi, Cue, designed by the firm Durrant, which has a specialty in food-service locations, is all that made digestible. The restaurant itself is like nothing else we have here in the land of the faux-Tuscan dining room: The space is vast and all cobalt, black, and steely silver, inset with lights, shine, and glisten at every corner. The overall impression of dining in Cue is of dining in a dark, starry bit of the cosmos, or at least a dark, starry bit of cosmos as rendered onstage: A slightly dropped segment of ceiling traces the Guthrie's thrust stage above, implying that you, the diner, are somehow onstage in performance, and aside from that, clever, subtle, theatrical accents grace every corner. For instance, many tables are lit the way stages are, by combining colored spotlights to create white light, though this also creates the odd effect of finding that your lake perch casts a blue shadow on one side and a yellow one on the other. But it's a lake perch that has made it to the stage! So it should be happy with that.

Most humans, meanwhile, should be happy with one of the tables beside the 25-foot-high window wall, which offers Mississippi River and Stone Arch Bridge views fit for the most improbable postcard shots. However, other tables are intimidatingly close to two-story black-and-white headshots of various playwrights that decorate giant screens outside the window wall: Only people with the easiest of consciences should sit under the giant photo of Arthur Miller's face (or, if you're seeking revenge on any HUAC rats, here's the table for them), and only the most oblivious or irony-minded could sip a cocktail in view of Tennessee Williams's enormous, drink-haunted countenance. No, this isn't the standard Minnesota restaurant architecture of Tuscan bathroom, or Chinese reproduction Prairie School, or cozy country cupboard we've gotten so used to; this is a no-kidding artwork of a dining room that actually takes some looking and thinking. It's fantastic if you like to think, but even if you avoid that activity, you'll probably find something to like at Cue. And there lies its genius, I think. But I get ahead of myself.

The thing most diners will like, whether they're full of thoughts or merely given to merry whistling, is the lobster bisque ($12). Order it, and you get a gorgeous bowl of turnip, onion, and potato soup made with earthy Minnesota roots captured in their sweetest autumn guise, then enriched with local butter and cream, the soup cradling a few morsels of perfectly cooked lobster from Maine, and the whole bowl singing a little song about the difference between sweet from the ocean and sweet from the land. Another delightful appetizer is a filet of Michigan lake perch crusted with herbs, topped with local micro-greens, and served in a bowl of fish broth enlivened with that Spanish staple, saffron ($12); the tender fish has its inherent grassy qualities brought out by the micro-greens, but is given oomph and accent by the winy saffron broth.

Are the purists in the house leaping from their seats in revolt and demanding: What? Is chef Lenny Russo, Minnesota's most catholic regional cook, importing things from Maine and Spain? Yes. It's true, Cue is different from Russo's other restaurant, Heartland, in that he uses fine-dining favorites from well outside our local food shed, such as Carnaroli rice, for risotto; saffron; Madeira; faro; and more. At Cue, Russo still relies on perhaps 80, even 90 percent local ingredients, going so far as to use locally milled flour in the slurry to make the pâté, but at the same time, he has made accommodations for the masses that make Cue both lighter and livelier than his St. Paul restaurant, and also provide an interesting answer to a question that's been raging in food world lately: Should we all give up?

Or more specifically, should we all give up on organics, since the standard has been co-opted by too many commodity farmers who don't care about the spirit behind the movement, only the profit in it? Shouldn't we give organics the old heave-ho, and replace that idea with a philosophy of "first and foremost local"? I've wrestled with this question for a while, but for me, while it seems obvious that the best food is local food, I really don't see an infrastructure here for any but the most committed shoppers to buy exclusively local, and I just don't know how much heart I have to hector a general public that just got used to paying double for organics into dropping that in favor of something they might not be able to achieve: When does virtue-fatigue set in for people who don't haunt food shops for a living? At what point is the joy in eating eclipsed by an impossible, or at least improbable, ethical standard? Giving up on organics kind of seems to me like asking the average Joe to tell all us food-thinkers to jump in a lake. But just when various food issues become too complex for this food writer's little brain, here comes Cue, providing a reasonable compromise between local and popular. In fact, one of Cue's primary achievements is in translating these concerns at the tippity-top of the food-thinker's pyramid into literally palatable solutions.

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