Backstage at BRAVO!
900 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 338-0062
It seems like every time you drive down Hennepin Avenue, there's another patch of neon, each one brighter and more self-important than the last. Call me grumpy, call me cheap and snotty, but I've never had any interest in seeing any of the touring Broadway shows that flop in along that strip. Therefore, I really hadn't planned on going to Backstage at BRAVO!, part of the three-story "BRAVO! Celebration Center," a restaurant, bar, and banquet facility designed with the theater patron in mind. But raw oysters on the menu (especially in these parts) are quite a lure, so on a late night last week, we stopped in to sniff around.
Done up with reminders of Broadway giants past (the full-sized cardboard cut-outs of dancers from A Chorus Line are especially ghastly), parts of the gigantic complex look a little too cute and clever for words. There is a pink neon announcement for Smokey Joe's Cafe, and confusing bathroom signs meant to look like dressing rooms ("Male Actors/Female Actors"; what kind of smutty plays are they rehearsing here anyhow?). My snotty haunches reared a bit, but immediately fell back on sight of the first dish we ordered. The atmosphere might be a little hokey, but the food enraptures.
The executive chef Andrew Zimmern, last cherished at the extraordinary Cafe Un Deux Trois, puts in an equally impressive performance here. His menu has a subtle sense of humor--with signature dishes such as the lobster club sandwich ($18.50) and Grandma's eggs in the hole with applewood smoked bacon ($8.50)--but mainly impresses with its wealth of creative seafood dishes.
One of the best of these is a plate of Irish smoked cod roe on an oatmeal buttermilk blini ($7.75), a generous pile of wonderful caviar on a slightly sweet pancake topped with a dollop of freshly made sour cream, a dusting of chives, and a swirl of herb oil. If you've never tried caviar, this is a wonderful way to start. We were a little disheartened to feel the last bite slip down the hatch, but who can be too glum when oysters are on the way? The crisp blue points we ate were elegantly bedded on a silver tray of ice, with fresh lemon, a flurry of cilantro, and a variety of accompaniments. I usually am of the school that a good oyster needs no embellishments, and that too much make-up and jewelry can spoil a pretty face. But in this case, we couldn't resist fattening the already hefty, crisp oysters with heaps of homemade horseradish, lemon dill sauce, and tarragon mignonette spiked with peppercorns. At $1.50 a piece ($7/half dozen, $14/dozen), they were delicious enough to be worth their dearness. If you have deep pockets, you might wish to make a meal completely from the offerings of the raw bar, which also include clams (also $1.50 a pop), whole giant black tiger prawns ($11.50/half pound), dungeness crab ($12.50/half), cold poached Maine lobster ($14.50/half), a variety of carpaccios (of these, bluefin tuna with sesame seaweed salad, wasabi, and tamari seems especially wonderful, $9.50), and a couple of "coctels." We pounced upon the tiger prawn and lobster coctel with mango, lime and Indonesian chilies. Served in a giant margarita glass rimmed with creole spices and stuck with a lime, with a bit of crumbly corn cake madelines, it was delicious, and generous enough to give two people equal access to the lobster and prawns. Wet cloth napkins and lemons were set aside for us to wash our hands with, and we sadly bade farewell to the fabulous raw bar.
The rest of the menu is divided in three: small plates, large plates, and the late-night menu. We passed by some of the grander items, such as the grilled lamb T-bone chops with crispy sweet potato shoestrings, replete with piquant marjoram beurre noisette ($19.50); and the Napa cabbage -wrapped king salmon with sweet herb and tomato vinaigrette ($17.50). (Expensive for a sandwich and salad, but remember how well we had stuffed ourselves on appetizers.) A lobster sandwich seems on the face of it to be a criminal waste of quality goods, sort of like waxing your car with a designer shirt. And putting it with bacon? But we loved the lobster club ($18.50), and thought that the cold lobster and applewood smoked bacon slathered with a bit of tarragon mayonnaise tasted just great. Add what seemed like a pound of crisp shoestring french fries and some tangy, homemade cole slaw, and you've got a better meal that you bargained for.
To balance things out slightly, we had an endive and frisee salad, the jagged greens looking wild and delicate amidst a scattering of roasted beets, toasted pecans, and aged chèvre ($6). The plate, set off with an artful design made with homemade beet oil (Mr. Zimmern seems to have an entire collection of house herb oils to play with), was a thing of beauty.
We almost passed on dessert, though the menu holds countless charms. It would be good fun to come here late and discuss the meaning of Grease over a nice Graham's 40-year-old port ($20) and a plate of assorted handmade cheeses ($9), or maybe the pineapple cheesecake with macadamia-graham cracker crust and poached tropical fruit compote ($6). We decided on the banana creme tartelette with warm caramelized bananas and roasted banana ice cream ($6). Only once before have I encountered such an artful display of dessert decadence. Our plate was sculpted with burned sugar spheres, standing upright and pierced with sugared antennas, the bananas all neatly in a ring around the plate in a light caramel sauce, and the tartelette dunked in chocolate and covered with fresh whipped cream and banana ice cream. Utterly dramatic and tasty, too. Sugar in this form shoots right to your head and shocks you up a bit. What better way to finish the evening?
If Goodfellow's is a place where the food, service, and decor are top notch, then the Backstage is everything the food is minus the crumb dusters and bow ties. It is backstage, after all. You might sneer at first at the splashes of downtown neon glamour, but the incredible food will turn everything into what it's intended to be: fun. The snobs in us were felled completely. Maybe we'll even go see one of those theatrical performances someday. Then again, I know that the price of a ticket would be much better spent on a plate of oysters here.
WE ARE ALL SEARCHING: The Frugal Wine Snob tip sheet, which debuted just last month, is a modest publication, one page at that, but it provides vital information, mainly by recommending wines under $10. The tips are short and to the point, like this one for Domaine De La Metairie Des Perdreaux, Corbieres 1994, France: "A lipsmacker with depth; nonfiltered, old school label a plus." The tip sheet gets high marks for telling you where you can find what on sale and for having hand-drawn pictures and print, novelties in this silly buy-a-font and marry your computer world. Don't expect soliloquies or tangents: The sole purpose of this tip sheet is to help you "Drink Good Wine Cheaply." Don't hesitate to give the Frugal Wine Snob your suggestions, or, to ask for your own tip sheet, send a SASE to: FWS, 1123 6th St. N.E., Mpls., 55413.
DO YOUR DUTY: Has the entire winter gone by without you making wild rice soup, the stuff people across the nation suppose that Minnesotans eat every single day? Well, let's hope winter is behind us, but we still have maybe a couple of chilly days before the sun comes out and burns us all to bits. Here is a recipe for wild rice soup, courtesy of the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council.
Classic Creamy Wild Rice Soup
* 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
* 6 TB. butter
* 1/2 cup flour
* 3 cups chicken broth
* 2 cups cooked wild rice
* 1/2 cup grated carrots
* 1 cup cooked, chopped The Turkey Store breast strips
* 3 TB. slivered almonds
* 1/2 tsp. salt
* 1 cup half and half
* 2 TB. dry sherry
In large saucepan, sauté onion in butter. Add flour, stirring constantly until bubbly; gradually stir in broth. Add wild rice, carrots, turkey, almonds and salt; simmer 5 minutes. Add half and half and sherry; heat through. Six servings. If you have any problems or concerns with wild rice, please address them to: The Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council, 1306 W. County Road F, #109, St. Paul, MN 55112; 638-1955.
And, as long as we're getting Minnesota traditional, why not serve that soup with lefse? This recipe, from Rise and Dine: Savory Secrets from America's Bed and Breakfast Inns by Marcy Claman, should be easy enough to get the novice into the kitchen.
* 3 cups prepared mashed potatoes
* 1/2 cup melted margarine
* 1 tsp. salt (if mashed potatoes not salted)
* 1 TB. sugar
* 1/2 tsp. baking powder
* 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* Confectioner's sugar (optional)
Combine all ingredients except flour. Add enough flour so that dough doesn't stick to your hands. Form dough into balls about the size of a walnut, and roll thin. Fry in an ungreased skillet over medium heat until set and lightly-brown on underside, then flip and brown lightly on other side. Serve with your choice of butter, jam, jelly, cinnamon, or sugar.
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