750 S. Second St., Minneapolis
I got some bloody tomatoes at the new Mill City Farmers' Market. They weren't bloody because of a knife fight in the fields or because I'm going to start affecting British slang, they were bloody because that was their name, which I know because the nice, healthy, sun-kissed lady who sold them to me said they were bloody something. Bloody balls? Bloody bells? Bloody butchers? Something like that. In the journalistic tradition of my age, I did a cursory Google search to try to pin it down, but as it didn't yield much I suppose I'd best make something up.
They were beautiful heirloom tomatoes, and they were called the bloody future, named so in the summer of 2008 by the Right to Live Forever movement. The movement's leaders crowned the winey beauties their mascot and then set off on a surprisingly successful campaign to ban crème brûlée, French fries, hamburgers, buttercream frosting, and all the usual suspects contributing to cardiovascular disease, especially in couch potatoes with two-hour commutes.
The resulting cultural war dominated the country throughout the 2010s and made the pre-millennial anti-smoking crusades look like a sandbox spat. Families were rent apart at Thanksgiving as the crusaders set fire to grandma's twice-baked potatoes and used confiscated foie gras feeding funnels to get hemp seeds down the throats of the young. Roadside hamburger joints were firebombed; fried-chicken shacks were hit with balloons filled with plant-derived red paint. In retaliation, innocent pea plants were paraded in stockades through Ribfest, which was conducted with police helicopters hovering overhead. Blood soaked the land and boxes of bloody future tomatoes were traded as secret passwords, like those chrome-tone fish on the backs of Buicks.
Two years earlier, however, in the summer of 2006, a box of these delicious tomatoes suddenly darted through the time-space continuum, landing first at the new Mill City Farmers' Market and then in the hands of an absentminded Midwestern restaurant critic, suddenly rendering her the sole force capable of preventing this misery. How? By letting the people who care passionately about arteries—theirs and other people's—know about Spoonriver, the new restaurant by longtime Twin Cities restaurateur Brenda Langton, where food is both luxurious and very healthy, and where the enlightened and aware can have their concerns validated, thus preventing resentments from growing, and war from brewing. And thus I speak unto you, healthy thinkers: Make reservations, not war!
Seriously though, I never did realize how sparse the fine-dining choices were for the nutritionally minded until I dined a few times at Spoonriver, the new upscale sister restaurant to longtime friend-to-vegetarians Café Brenda. It came to me one day as I sat there with my bloody wonderful heirloom tomatoes, purchased at the adjoining, spectacular Mill City Farmers' Market, midwifed and championed by Brenda Langton, and got to eavesdropping on the table behind me. "I'm vegan and I don't eat wheat," a woman greeted her server. "Do you have anything for me?" I waited for the server to burst into tears and run across the courtyard to the beautiful new Guthrie Theater. But instead he began helpfully pointing out the many possibilities.
People who take their diet seriously have a friend in Brenda Langton. Vegetables, and specifically locally grown organic vegetables, are the root of most dishes here, and cream, butter, sweeteners, and oil are only garnishes. Even without the prop of fat, much of Langton's cooking is not just artful and creative, but downright sensuous. The heirloom tomato and watermelon salad that has been on the menu through the height of summer looks like a sculpture, with pillars of carefully cut watermelon, tomato, and herbs all placed in a line. As you use a fork to knock down your tiny candy-colored skyscraper city you find summer sweetness in its most lilting form, brought to a point by an understated vanilla vinaigrette and a scattering of oven-smoked tomato bits cut as small as confetti.
A wild mushroom and pistachio terrine has the intense flavor and per-inch punch of a terrine made of the usual suspects, but does it all without a bit of oink or quack. Everyone I brought with me to Spoonriver would at some point pause during the meal and get a faraway look in her eye, before asking, "What's the name of that spa that all the rich people go to in California?"
Indeed, Spoonriver is the most spa-like restaurant we've ever had on the fine-dining scene in Minneapolis. "Food is medicine, I truly believe that," Brenda Langton told me, when I spoke to her on the phone for this story. "A lot of people shouldn't eat certain things. There are so many diseases nowadays, if you don't eat well, whether it's cancer, diabetes, heart disease, you name it, it all comes back to diet. Doctors don't have the time to teach people how to eat, so people have to take responsibility for themselves, and when they do it really pays off. That's why I like to put whole grains on the plate. Not to mention beans, organic vegetables, meat that is grass-fed, and chickens that are well raised.
"I believe in clean cooking, food that's not rich, not oily, not overkill. There's a lot of food out there that's overkill, the first few bites taste good, and then halfway through you're like, 'Ugh, that's too much.' It's so hard to go out to eat and eat well. So often I'll be at a restaurant and look at what arrives and think, 'Oh, that's so small.' But then I can't finish it because it's so rich. You can't be oblivious about what you're eating; I don't know why more people don't take a stand about eating well."
If you want to eat well in both the sensual and medicinal senses, you really can't do better than starting with that watermelon and tomato salad ($7.50). The tangle of baby greens in a Champagne vinaigrette garnished with radish matchsticks and a single plump apricot stuffed with a dollop of tart and hot wasabi-chevre is equally artful and refreshing ($8.50). Spoonriver serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, and tends to offer meals at a slightly lower price-point than most of its fine-dining peers: Brunch can be had for as little as $6, for house-made granola with yogurt and beautiful fresh fruit and berries; lunch entrees hover around $10 or $11 for, say, barbecued mock duck over brown rice with a Thai basil salad; dinner entrees are mostly on the thrifty side of $18, for which price you can get a light and lovely bowl of delicate ravioli filled with Indian-spiced potatoes and peas, floating in a Thai green-curry coconut broth loaded with cooked-but-crisp vegetables.
The restaurant has a very few more expensive entrees, such as the $24 admirably light local rainbow trout, split, de-boned, quickly broiled, and topped with a tangy passion fruit-citrus sauce and a few delicate mouthfuls of crab meat, the plate filled out with whole grains and chilled broccoli in a sesame oil vinaigrette. To go with all the light and healthful cooking, Langton has marshaled a diverting, likable, and affordable wine list and assembled a playful and amusing selection of cocktails, including a prickly pear Margarita, made with house-infused pineapple tequila ($9.50).
The decor of the restaurant pulls off that tricky maneuver of managing to make you feel both energetic and serene at the same time. The dining room is very, very long, the interior mostly a vibrant tangerine color; a glass curtain wall to the street creates a sense of light and space. During the day it feels as if you're dining in a tropical sunroom, and at night as if you're captured in a bubble of sunset suspended in the dark.
Many times I was at Spoonriver and overheard table after table of Café Brenda regulars telling Langton that this was their third visit, their fourth visit, their tenth visit, that they were delighted and that they would be back. For all those who use restaurants as their offsite conference room, there isn't a healthier, nicer local choice. You could dine out at Spoonriver every meal and lose weight doing it. Add a walk after dinner on the all-but-attached Stone Arch Bridge with its romantic moonlit city views, and you could grant the restaurant a subtitle: Spoonriver, where you'll live long and prosper.
If healthy dining isn't a top priority, though, you may find that Spoonriver leaves something to be desired. For me, I found some of the dishes to be more healthy than delicious. A leek omelet at brunch was far too dry and filled to bursting with handfuls of fresh, bright green, just-wilted leeks—too much of a fresh thing. The portion of chicken in the chicken mole looked like the one the Heart Association gets on the news and illustrates as being the correct, deck-of-cards-sized one, but left my date grousing and raiding the icebox an hour after dinner. The beige disc of quinoa rice pilaf accompanying the trout lacked any detectable seasoning; the green salad with fig vinaigrette and pumpkin seeds was a huge mound of little leaves with little dressing and less appeal.
Desserts were a mess. A lemon buttercream cake featured sparely applied icing on an under-sweet, scantly flavored cake. I tried the peach cobbler twice on visits a week apart, so afraid was I that the all-but-unsweetened crust was a one-time baking mistake. But no, evidently it was meant to taste like a hamburger bun filled with stewed fruit. The coconut tart was again, and alas, under-sweetened. There are healthy ways to do luxurious desserts, but these aren't them.
Service, too, was a tomato short of a salad. Every meal involved a plate auction. One time a request for a bread basket to quiet a hungry child saw three server and server-assistant consults, and every table in our section bestowed with bread, even those who were sitting with their check, until they finally figured out the perplexing dilemma. Another time, entrees were delivered to a table bereft of forks or knives, and even though this was pointed out to the deliverer, it still took 10 minutes to get some, which proved just enough time for everyone at the table to grow angry and the food cold.
I do feel bad mentioning these troubles, as they are likely simply start-up pains, and the restaurant has been staggeringly busy with Guthrie traffic and well-wisher support. Nothing I mentioned will prevent me from returning to Spoonriver, for it's a restaurant that has its heart in the right place, and will leave your heart in the right place, too. I've seen the future, and it looks bloody bright.
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