After 38 years in the business (she bought her first restaurant when she was just 21), Brenda Langton enjoys a kind of royalty status in the industry. People know who she is, people like what she does, and she can quietly, like a fine timepiece, tick on without too many interruptions or reasons to stop off and retool.
But with that status can come a kind of strange obscurity, too. Unless you're a regular, how often do you go, or think of it as doing things that are new, or cutting-edge? The place is one of our finest local treasures -- if you can believe it, the Spoonriver location has been open for nearly a decade, its anniversary is this year. Following are 10 things that might change the way you think about these two grande dames.
10. The restaurant changes its menu just twice a year -- once in spring and again in the fall. Langton's signature cooking style -- high on flavor but also locality, sustainability, healthfulness, and in some ways even spirit means that the team works exceptionally hard at getting the formula fine-tuned. So they change it with the seasons and that's it.
And they've just now changed the menu for spring, so this is a fine time to rediscover it with beautiful, verdant dishes like warm Vietnamese sauteed shrimp and lemongrass salad or lime coconut chicken salad that is nothing like any chicken salad you've ever had (see #8 below).
9. The kitchen never uses canola oil -- she hasn't had it around for years -- because she doesn't believe it's healthful. Instead, they favor extra virgin olive oils, Minnesota cold-pressed sunflower oil, toasted sesame oil, rice bran oil, and hazelnut oil, most of which have the added benefit of also being delicious.
8. Designer spices out of New York City, La Boite, are a fixture at the restaurant. All the bigwigs in NYC use them, people like Eric Ripert. "Lior Lev Sercarz is a magician with spices -- we need to know when it's time to embrace people who specialize in something and I'm never going to be able to do what he does." She's right -- none of us can. The "fragrant spices" turned a coconut chicken salad into something utterly bewitching, with notes of cardamon, cilantro, mint, jalapeño, and, well, magic. "I create dishes around his spices."
7. Best-selling author Dan Buettner of The Blue Zones has included a recipe from Langton in his new book, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People. He's a big fan of Spoonriver and visits whenever he's in town. He says it's impossible to get a meal that's not good, and good for you.
6. While the kitchen eschews most dairy because many people have a difficult time digesting it, they do use ghee, which the lactose-intolerant can in fact tolerate, because the milk solids have been removed. "I had a woman come in and she was 70 years old. She never knew she could tolerate ghee." Additionally, feta finds its way into many dishes because of its probiotic quality -- it's fermented. And don't call Spoonriver vegetarian. All sorts of beautiful pastured meats are served, including beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, bison, and even a little pork in the form of charcuterie.
5. Thanks to a lack of reliance on cream and butter to enrich dishes, the kitchen must get creative with supplanting that richness, so things like ground nuts, vegetable purees, coconut milks, and spiced oils enhance food, resulting in a world of stealthy flavors that seem to come at you from every direction, in every shape and color, like a rainbow-colored dance party in your mouth. You'll begin to reconsider the merits of animal fats.
4. Executive chef Liz Brockie has been with Langton for 28 years. That's unheard of in the business, so imagine the mind-meld they've got going on. It's longer than the typical successful marriage. Sous chef Chris Bundy has been around for 14 of those years.
3. Wheat-intolerant people, listen up: Almost the entire menu is naturally gluten free, including THE ENTIRE DESSERT MENU (they use a secret, house-made blend of wheat free flours), wherein a slice of chocolate cake is enriched with coconut milk and will have you pushing aside standard cake forever. Also, rediscover tapioca pudding, a complex carb, sweetened with guava. Sounds strange, tastes intoxicating.
2. Did you know the place has a most excellent little grab-and-go section? And if you live or work in that end of downtown you know the dearth of such things. So grab stuffed grape leaves with olives, or giant white beans with spiced sheep feta, and fuel that jog, that bike ride, that farmers market trip, that healthier lifestyle. Don't you feel better already?
1. Do you like Picasso? Matisse? The 64 Crayola pack? Lisa Frank Stickers? The first tulip blast of spring? Beauty in general? Spoonriver's plates just might be the most painterly, colorful ones in town. We all know that you eat with your eyes first, so fix your stare upon these plates. But don't look too long. Snap a picture and eat. Your blood sugar will thank you for it.
Spoonriver is open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, and boasts a full bar with a separate bar menu of terrines, dips, pates, and yes, burgers! Three of them, no less.
The sunny and colorful room, like the plates, is also one of the prettiest around.
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