Sea Change's Tim McKee brings sustainable seafood to the Guthrie

Award-winning chef presents creative dining options at the "theatery"

For the first few weeks after Sea Change opened, every time someone asked me about it, I found myself mentioning three things: The place was run by James Beard Award-winning chef Tim McKee, the theme was sustainable seafood, and it was located in the Guthrie Theater where, um...the old Guthrie restaurant, uh—what was that place called again?—used to be.

The name of the old place—Cue, that was it!—kept eluding me because after the opening chef, Lenny Russo, moved on, my interest in the restaurant waned. If someone asked me where to dine before a show at the Guthrie, I was more likely to recommend Spoonriver. I'm guessing I wasn't the only one who felt that way, because when the restaurant management's contract was set to expire this spring, the Guthrie decided it was time for a new regime, a Sea Change if you will.

Earlier this summer, the Texas-based food-service management company Culinaire partnered with McKee to rebrand the first-floor restaurant. The cosmetic changes, courtesy of Shea Design (the group that worked on McKee's La Belle Vie, Solera, and Barrio), are minor, but they do soften the formerly cold, hard-edged dining room, notable for its enormous glass windows and midnight-blue color palette. The exhibition kitchen and bar look mostly the same, but the vast seating area is now broken up by wood credenzas, and a small lounge has been added near the host's stand.

Diners have to use their imaginations at Sea Change: The menu describes this raw-tuna dish only as albacore-watermelon-jalapeño-mint
Alma Guzman
Diners have to use their imaginations at Sea Change: The menu describes this raw-tuna dish only as albacore-watermelon-jalapeño-mint

Shea also introduced vibrant sea-green accents to the pillars and upholstery, as well as a neighborhood-eatery-style chalkboard menu that lists the origin of each day's catch. A dotted pattern on the booth fabric resembles octopus suckers, and artwork near the ceiling suggests a humpback whale's stripes. When the Muzak ebbs and flows like the tides, the room can feel a little fish tank-like, but fortunately the theme is subtle enough that it won't deter those of us who love to eat fish but don't want to feel "fishy."

The Sea Change menu—a diner's primary communication with the chef—is a bit esoteric. The descriptions read like grocery lists, with few adjectives: albacore/watermelon/jalapeño/mint, for example. Such simplicity can raise more questions than it answers, and the burden of explanation is shifted to the server: How exactly is this dish prepared? Is the watermelon cubed, sliced, pureed, frothed, or dehydrated? (Knowing the creativity that chef de cuisine Erik Anderson demonstrated most recently at Porter & Frye, it could be any—or all—of those.)

I'm the sort of diner who's perfectly happy to just ask the kitchen to send me whatever's good—and by the way, those thin slices of raw albacore and fresh watermelon looked as pretty as salt-flecked stained-glass squares and tasted like a delicious ocean spray. But I had to wonder whether the aging Guthrie's audience might read the Sea Change menu with the same perplexity as they did the instructions for hooking up the digital TV converter box.

Still, however sparsely the dishes were described, there was hardly one I didn't love. Just when I feared the recession would leave local diners with nothing but endless variations on pizzas, burgers, and fries, McKee and Anderson have pulled off the year's most beautiful, ambitious cooking.

But before I get into how delicious things tasted, I'd like to note how happy I was to eat seafood knowing it came from sustainable operations. (If you're not losing sleep about overfishing, bycatch, and degrading marine habitats, you probably should be.) Keeping up with sustainable seafood choices requires tracking all sorts of information—which fish are on what lists, the distinctions between farmed species vs. wild-caught, etc.—which is why it's a relief to have a trustworthy team doing that research. "We take all that guesswork out of the equation," McKee says.

On my first visit to Sea Change, I went straight for fish that's not often seen on local menus. Arctic char, a fatty, cold-water species whose flavor lies somewhere between salmon and trout, was perfectly cooked—soft flesh, steel-gray skin shiny and crackling. Its flavor was accented, though not overwhelmed, by a rich, salty white-bean puree and an artichoke giardiniera—a riff on the Italian condiment that added a bit of heat, pickliness, and crunch.

The sturgeon, too, was an excellent execution of a fish rarely served in these parts. Its stark white flesh has a firm, steak-y texture and a mild flavor that was enhanced by a tight prosciutto gift wrap. A pool of beurre blanc had its richness balanced by the freshness of an English pea emulsion. All the flavors worked together, a symbiotic ecosystem served in a dinner bowl.

Instead of your basic Italian-American shrimp scampi, Sea Change serves rock shrimp with linguini tossed in a creamy but tart sabayon that finished with the faint oceanic brine of sea urchin. Anderson credits sous chef Jim Christiansen for working up the dish, and notes that his collaborative process has also included chef Matt Holmes and the rest of the Guthrie's Level Five staff.

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