Cue the Applause
Cue at the Guthrie
806 South 2nd St., Minneapolis
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.
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.
For instance, you could be utterly ignorant of common hog-feedlot practices and Cue's avoidance of same, and still find Cue's pork prime rib ($26) delicious. It's a rack of several Yorkshire pork chops pan-seared so that the plummy meat is russet-brown at its exterior, the fat as crisp as bacon, the interior meat slightly gamy, but so rich and sweet you may find yourself proclaiming to your date, as I did to mine: "Pork doesn't get any better than this, this is why we live in the Midwest!" This pork, which comes from Fischer Farm in Waseca, is served with a simple "stone fruit catsup," a thin red sauce with sweet and piquant notes, as well as a roast hash of squash, potatoes, and more root vegetables. The Hill & Vale Farm Minnesota lamb roast ($27) might as well be sushi of the land—berrylike meat is served rare and red as raw tuna, and is just as lush and melting. It's accompanied by local preserved cranberries, toasted walnuts, and Native American hand-harvested wild rice, and is such a local dish it could be on our state flag. Has the pre-theater crowd ever had it so good?
I was surprised by the extent to which Cue really does function as a pre-theater restaurant; on many nights the dining room is packed at five o'clock, and empties out at 7:00 as if someone had just sprung trap doors beneath all the seats. (To lure in diners without theater tickets, the restaurant has just started offering a $40 three-course meal, starting at 6:30.) At ten o'clock on Fridays and Saturdays, Cue also offers a post-theater menu of lighter fare and desserts, including the remarkable spinach and frisée salad ($10), dressed in a simple lemon vinaigrette but topped with a supple poached duck egg and a circle of pancetta as crisp as burnt sugar.
My only complaints with Cue have to do with the desserts, and the kitchen's propensity to oversalt things. The salt problem tends to afflict risottos the most: One night's vegetarian entree of a sugar pumpkin risotto ($18) topped with fried bits of leek was so painfully salty I couldn't even taste the pumpkin. Another night, the risotto of black barley and preserved cherries that accompanied a marinated and grilled Wild Acres poussin ($27) was almost inedible. The fried oyster mushrooms topping the Hidden Springs Creamery sheep's milk ricotta and almond ravioli ($19) had such a dusting of finishing salt, they actually burned my lips.
Desserts have enormous consistency issues. I don't doubt that pastry chef Carrie Summer is talented, but what reaches the guests is all over the map. I tried her version of cheesecake ($8) twice. Once the dish was the very definition of adorable: A quarter-inch thick, bright-orange square of sponge cake was topped with a simple, creamy ice-cream scoop of cheesecake-like filling, on top of which rested a salty little parmesan tuile that seemed to speak wittily to the various extremes of the life of cheese—the aged parmesan, the youthful cream of the cheesecake filling. Beside this artful stack were tender little nubbins of spiced poached pear; it was a playful, tasty little flight of joy. The next time I tried the dish, however, the sponge cake had ballooned to a Halloween potluck half-inch thick, the poached pears on the side were undercooked and unripe as potatoes, the cheesecake filling was melted and slovenly—it was like a fun-house distortion of itself, except without the fun. It also left me wondering if the brioche donut with mustard ice cream ($8) was always as repellant as it was when I tried it—I got a fried, eggy thing that looked like a mini-muffin paired with a sauce containing sour preserved cherries and served alongside an unsweet mustard ice cream that tasted as if it longed to be off somewhere private with roast beef. The pastry chef favors unusual ice-cream flavors: Thyme ice cream accompanies the chocolate dessert (a dessert which strongly resembles a brownie); pumpkin ice cream comes with the fairly standard spice cake.
If the whole idea of mustard, thyme, and pumpkin ice creams drives you to drink, please know that Cue is a great place to do so. The cocktails are both original and tasty—and that's the rarest combination when it comes to dry cocktails, isn't it? Hats off to head bartender Conor Kennedy, he has accomplished much. I was delighted with how dry the house Ginger Manhattan ($9) was. It's made with fresh ginger-infused Jameson and sweet vermouth, and it is a noble variation on the classic. A Minnesota Apple Collins ($8) was made with caraway-infused gin and fresh local apple cider; it tasted like a pure and clean Tom Collins that also was an apple sandwich on rye bread, which is a nicer experience than it sounds. The wine list at Cue is a joy—it's global, entirely thought through, and manages to hit the sweet spot of being both long and carefully chosen, meaning it's almost entirely free of popular deadwood. The Riesling, Alsatian, and dry Chardonnay sections are particularly appealing. The stemware is Spiegelau crystal, and you receive it even if you order from the glass list. I like the glass list very much, though, at $8 to $18 per, it reaches some ridiculously expensive heights; I just think it's kind of nice to get to try some pricier things I wouldn't ever buy a bottle of. Speaking of which, a number of rare dessert wines and ports are available at Cue by the glass, including Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Eiswein ($13), which has the perfume of ripe peaches and tastes like honey infused with the energy of a strong spotlight. I split a glass with a friend, and our server kindly poured two little half-glasses for us into rosebud-shaped Spiegelau dessert-wine glasses, and as I sipped the rare treat I took a few moments to think about the birth of the first Guthrie Theater. No, seriously, I did.
The year was 1959, and a bunch of theater bigwigs, led by Tyrone Guthrie, the greatest British director of his time, decided that Broadway had gotten too commercial, and a future loomed in which the amount of money a show would need to recoup for its production would prevent any classics, like Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies, from ever being staged again. (This, mind you, was decades before The Producers and Hairspray were even a glimmer of valuable name-brand identity in a marketer's eye.) Anyhoo, in 1959, Mr. Guthrie and co. issued an open call, through the New York Times, for cities willing to imagine another model of theater financing by subsidizing a regional theater devoted to staging the classics. The good private citizens of Minneapolis rushed in with a donated chunk of land (the space beside the Walker) and a rich capital campaign, and thus beat out Detroit, San Francisco, and other interested cities. Nonprofit theater was pioneered, Mr. Guthrie was knighted, and the heavily discounted last-minute "rush" ticket became a staple joy of every Twin Cities resident with more taste than cash. And somehow a little bit of anti-commercial, or better-than-commercial, DNA was wound into the deep soul of the Guthrie Theater, and now it can be seen everywhere, even in the tasty, mostly local, morsels at the end of every theater-goer's fork.
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