River City Rebirth
Yet again, the Minneapolis food scene is being reborn. And yes, that officially marks us as having been born again more times than a Pentecostal crack addict. How many times is it now? Well, I'm counting at least twice since the millennium. The first time was in 2003, the year Cosmos and Restaurant Levain opened, and forever changed the nature of the tippity-top fine-dining foods Minneapolitans would eat. Those two restaurants served ambitious, esoteric dishes straight from the minds of their chefs, unhindered by the limitations of traditional cuisines. It was Cosmos and Levain that declared that Minnesotans would eat anything if it were good enough, and we entered a new era.
Time passed. Last year, 2005, the year of the Great Consolidation, the scene was reborn again, with Five, La Belle Vie, 112 Eatery, and a revamped Auriga all muscling onto the scene to declare, Fine dining, fine dining is what we do in Minneapolis, and you'll have to go to a world capital like Paris or New York to do it any better.
Through it all, of course, there's been a simultaneous, major drumbeat throbbing through the prairies: Local is important; organic is important; quality in, quality out, both for the environment and for the food on the plate. The chefs in the Twin Cities who have pushed for these principles, against all personal convenience and ease, have been frequently named in these pages. But I never thought I'd see the day when the next wave of Minneapolis restaurants would see big money and high style behind the importance of local, knowable, organic, farm products.
Ladies and gentlemen, that day is here. Introducing the next big thing in how your food scene is about to be entirely remade.... Welcoming Cue and Spoonriver! There will be full reviews in these pages eventually, when the restaurants have had time to get on their feet, but by then the summer will be mostly over, and as the biggest thing in food this year is all happening this month, I figured you'd want to know.
For 20-odd years, Brenda Langton, of Café Brenda, has been quietly sticking to her principles and advancing the causes of the good, the local, and the real. Let this be a lesson about sticking to your guns, kiddies, because if you do good work, unwaveringly, even if it seems like nothing too flashy is happening for years and years, eventually the world will beat a path to your door. In this case the path in question is an 11-foot-wide, 100-foot-long new restaurant, Spoonriver.
"The whole restaurant is like a long, wonderful train car made of Venetian plaster," Langton told me when I spoke to her on the phone for this story, in the last phase of construction on the new complex. I say complex because Spoonriver isn't just a restaurant—it's a restaurant, a takeout deli, a full-service bar, and, in the summer, a key part of the Mill City Farmers' Market, which takes place in the plaza between the new Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum. (Where Chicago and Park avenues end, thus preventing themselves from plunging into the Mississippi.) The whole shebang is scheduled to open in mid-June, so it should be all going by the time this story hits the stands. If so, and you like unfussy, chef-driven, reasonably priced meals, incredible views, and local farm economies, you gotta get in there.
Spoonriver sounds as if it will be fancier than beloved sister restaurant Café Brenda, but will maintain the same low price points, while offering beautiful views of the Mississippi and the Stone Arch Bridge. While Langton will be the chef and force behind the restaurant, the day-to-day execution will be headed by the remarkable—and remarkably all-female—team of Liz Benser, a longtime Café Brenda chef, Lisa Carlson, the Lespinasse veteran cook who made her name opening Café Barbette, and, as pastry chef, Gwendolyn Efta. The restaurant will be open for Saturday breakfast from 8:00 a.m. (to complement the farmers' market outside), for Sunday brunch, lunch, dinner, and till midnight most nights.
Brunch will consist of light but intelligent fare such as fresh crepes filled with local Bar-Five smoked chicken, ricotta cheese, and vegetables, served alongside a green salad ($11.50); or a savory vegetable, tofu, and ginger scramble with a fresh salsa and toast ($9.50). Did I say tofu? Yes, I said tofu. Vegetarians, Spoonriver looks like the most exciting development in local vegetarian culture in the last decade, and while Spoonriver will have more local, sustainable meats than Café Brenda, it appears it will also continue Langton's tradition of winning every Best Vegetarian Restaurant award given out betwixt the St. Croix River and the Dakotas.
On that note, at lunch look for a Sloppy Jane (Joe's sister) made with savory sauced mock duck, or, for omnivores, a turkey-quinoa burger with a special tamarind-touched ketchup. (Both these lunch sandwiches are priced at $9.50 and come with pickles, cornichon, and vegetables.) At dinner, expect items such as an appetizer of a chickpea, sticky rice, and vegetable croquette with vegetable pickle and two sauces—one spicy, made with red-pepper harissa, and the other cool, made with minted yogurt ($6.50). Or, for an entree, roasted Minnesota lamb and vegetable ragout on a bed of fresh tagliatelli ($18). For dessert, expect things that are local, like a honey-buttermilk panna cotta; exotic, like coconut-milk tapioca with guava sauce; and specialty items like a vegan chocolate cake.
The gourmet take-away won't be the same old soups and salads you see everywhere, but will be more along the lines of dinners for people with spectacular kitchens who don't intend to use them that evening. Think salmon fillets baked in a blackberry-ginger-teriyaki sauce, black bean and rice croquettes with fresh salsa, shrimp gumbo, or special Spoonriver "sushi salads," in which a bed of rice holds cooked calamari, shrimp, crab, and such.
The new Mill City farmers' market that will take place every Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. looks thrilling, as well. It will have more of a restaurant-head's focus: Not only will there be tasty treats for consumption onsite, both Spoonriver-related and not, such as Eat Your Heart Out catering's savory tarts, but the vendors will tend to be of the fine-cooking variety, offering heirloom lettuces, organic squash, and varietal garlics, instead of the same-weedy-cilantro-at-every-booth that sometimes dulls our other farmers' markets. A few local cheese makers, including Prairie Hollow and Shepherd's Way, are signed up, which means that this may actually be the farmers' market of my dreams.
You know, the dream I have where I head out with the English Springer Spaniel in the morning, pick up a pastry and coffee from the farmers' market, stroll by the river, check out the view from the Stone Arch Bridge, stock up on heirloom lettuces, and meet friends on the patio for Bloody Marys at a well-pedigreed, organic-heavy, ethical restaurant, and, you know, brainstorm the website that makes me a billion dollars and saves the world. Now all I need is an English Springer Spaniel. And some friends. And a brain. But Spoonriver will have supplied the rest!
Thanks in no small part to Brenda Langton's long career, and bottomless street and business cred: It's having her name on the door that got Chipotle, the Wedge, Riverwest Condominiums, Mill City Museum, Muir Glen, and other business entities to pony up the big cash to get this dream market rolling. What, you didn't know it took big cash to get farmers to sit on a public plaza in the sun? Oh sugar, welcome to the 21st century. You're lucky they let you leave the house without a business plan, a marketing arm, and enough insurance to cover your Gremlin backing up over a suitcase of Faberge eggs. (Spoonriver, 750 S. Second St. (on the Chicago Plaza), Minneapolis; 612.436.2236. Mill City Farmers' Market, www.millcityfarmersmarket.org; 612.341.7580.)
I actually started this article with the Spoonriver item because I was afraid that news about Cue and all the associated new Guthrie restaurants would overshadow Spoonriver—and because Lenny Russo begged me to. My golly, this thing is just enormous. Physically, intellectually, in all ways: enormous. An enormous Cue.
Here's the story. Lenny Russo, a New Jersey-born chef with an appealing aw-shucks manner and a work ethic powerful enough to convert whole hogs to bacon bits before he finishes his morning coffee (which he seems to do routinely), Lenny has spent the days since 2002 turning his St. Paul restaurant, Heartland, into the standard-bearer for local, regional, purely from-scratch cooking. Truly, this man turned everything local into something delicious: local geese into appetizers, local elk into roasts, local trout into quenelles. He bought out the national supply of wild-grown hazelnuts; he showed that all-vegetarian cooking from local sources could be not just done, but cause longing in the hearts of committed foie gras eaters; and he all but single-handedly revivified the art of potted meats, such as rillettes. Basically, his from-scratch, all-local ethic was so intense that his restaurant became something of a tourist attraction for people who think about sustainable foods. Such as the people at California based Bon Appetit, (bamco.com).
Now, Bon Appetit is a catering company that is a national leader in issues of sustainable, organic, and otherwise ethical foods. How much of a leader? Darlings, they sell the food at the Monterey Bay Aquarium—they're the Seafood Watch folks—and if they're sustainable enough for marine biologists, that's sustainable enough for me. It's not just about the fish, either, they have this program called "Farm to Fork" that works with farmers based within 150 miles of their various restaurants to make sure as much food as possible is locally sourced.
Bon Appetit also makes serious restaurants: They do the restaurant at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and I've read that their café at the Modern Museum in Fort Worth is one of the best in that city. Anyway, when the Bon Appetit folks would come through the Twin Cities for various projects (they're not new to Minnesota—Macalester College, the Minnesota History Center, and the Carlson Companies are all Bon Appetit clients, among others), they would often stop at Heartland for dinner. Then, when the plans for the new Guthrie got rolling, badda bing, badda bang, the next thing you know Bon Appetit hired Lenny Russo to be in charge of the various restaurants at the Guthrie, and voila! June 27 it all throws down.
And when I say all, I mean all: Cue, the 170-seat white tablecloth restaurant, will be replete with a 300-plus-bottle wine list, Villeroy & Boch china, Spiegelau crystal, Mikasa flatware, specially hand-wrought dessert carts—in short, the works. The less formal but equally large fifth-floor café, which, as of this writing, was provisionally being called Level 5, will offer both casual fare and a sort of new American prix fixe tapas, with fixed price menus of small plates. And the Target Lounge—the bar facing the "endless bridge," the architectural showpiece which reportedly stretches from the new Guthrie out toward the river for a distance equivalent to 12 vertical stories—the Target Lounge will be a crudo bar.
What the heck is that? Crudo means raw in both Italian and Spanish. It's basically Italian sashimi, and is based on raw or cold-cured fish, usually gussied up with various flavored oils, and teeny-tiny accents of vegetable, citrus, or fruit. If you open your lunchbox today and happen upon paper-thin slices of yellowtail drizzled with yuzu oil and decorated with smoked sea salt and basil sprouts, that's the stuff. Crudo has been the darling of the coasts for a few years now, and while it pops up occasionally in an amuse bouche here and there in Minnesota, I can't say I ever thought that trend would make it here—and at something called the Target Lounge, no less. Well, paint me blue and call me a swimming pool, because it's happened.
In addition to these three restaurants, open every day except Monday, the Guthrie will also have several separate bars. It's going to function as one of the biggest catering and event spaces in the state, with lots of different spaces for groups of every size. Literally, every size: 1,300 people? Not a problem. Got a wedding coming up? An office Christmas party? Care about local farms? You see where this is going.
"One of the things that was so exciting to me about Bon Appetit was the opportunity to give our farmers that kind of windfall," Lenny Russo told me when I spoke with him on the phone for this story (and interrupted his stove-calibrating in his new kitchens). "I'm the benchmark in this region for buying local. A good 80 percent of what I serve comes straight from the farm. But with a big operation like Bon Appetit, it's a different scale altogether—a really big scale. All the farmers had to fill out paperwork, get more insurance, that kind of thing, but now I can say, 'Sign me up for another 300 chickens. Put me down for 300 pounds of heirloom tomatoes. I'll take all the sweet carrots you can grow. If I can't use them fresh, I'll put them up. Start another 10 hogs, I'll take them all. And don't raise them to 300 pounds, raise them to 180 pounds.'
"So I can get a whole new level of quality for my kitchen, and [the farmer] gets cash he can count on," Russo continued. "So I'll be serving a rack of young pork at Cue, on the dinner menu; it's going to be like pig veal—luscious. But you know us, we look at the whole hog—literally. You'll see the rest of it in the café, in pork meatballs, in the banquet menus, as a pork roast, maybe even in pickled tongue in an amuse bouche." Pickled tongue in an amuse bouche? If your idea of from-the-farm cooking is mired in thoughts of meatloaves and Jell-O salads, think again.
At lunch, Cue will have both comforts, like sweet corn-golden potato chowder with scallion oil and fried onion crisps ($6), and more substantial options like Minnesota free-range chicken coq au vin blanc with baby root vegetables, golden potatoes and white wine sauce ($14). At dinner, expect some of the terrines and other familiar things from Heartland, though they might be elevated by ingredient, such as a wild boar country pâté with house-pickled vegetables and grainy mustard ($10). Other options, like a starter of pan-roasted Wild Acres Farm free-range poussin with organic field mushroom duxelles, puff pastry, and blackberry glace de viande ($14), speak of the many hands which can work in a full production kitchen.
For entrees, get ready to see the Midwestern larder as you've never seen it. There's that rack of Fischer Farm young Yorkshire pork with stone-fruit catsup and roasted organic summer vegetables ($26). Or for vegetarians, Shepard's Way Farm sheep's milk ricotta-mushroom ravioli with sage cream, roasted field mushrooms, and fried sage ($19). Even the crudo bar will feature some non-coastal offerings, with steelhead tartare with trout caviar, smoked lemon vinaigrette, and fresh mint ($10); and Wisconsin elk carpaccio with celeriac and fresh horseradish dressing ($15). Pastries and desserts at Cue will also be serious business: Russo has hired Carrie Summer, a veteran of Morimoto, the Iron Chef's place in New York, and Jo Jo, the Jean Georges Vongerichten restaurant. One of Cue's opening desserts will be a tofu cheesecake box with rhubarb and strawberry ice cream ($8).
I was curious how a chef and pastry chef who have never worked together develop a complementary menu, so I asked Russo, and he told me, with characteristic bluntness: "Her stuff is a lot more rarified, and her style has a lot of Asian influences, unlike what I do. So she shot me a menu. I tore it to shreds. She shot me another one. I tore it up, too. My big thing is using as much as we can that's local and seasonal. This means you can't use a lot of citrus and tropical fruits on a spring menu; save that for winter. I want to see strawberries and rhubarb in the summertime because that's what's here. It's our job to figure out how to elevate them."
Why? Because strawberry farmers are farmers too, and strawberries raised to red in the sunshine (not raised to unripe and put on a truck) and picked ripe are the best strawberries there are. "I think of this all as a windfall for sustainability throughout the region," Russo told me. "I never dreamed I could offer farmers this kind of opportunity, in such a high-profile, high-volume operation. Because it's not just the Guthrie we're talking. Now that I've got my farmers in [the Bon Appetit system] I can hook them up with other Bon Appetit cafés in town, so the opportunities are just huge. That's why I took this job, to tell you the truth. I don't need my name in the paper, or my picture on the cover of a magazine—no offense, but I could give a shit. I've got more important things to worry about."
Like what? "Like putting my money where my mouth was, taking sustainability to the next level, seeing if you can change the world, you know me, that stuff."
You read it here first, folks: The next wave in Minneapolis restaurants is upon us, and it involves a level of urban and farm-country collaboration that hasn't been seen in decades, if ever. In fact, our food scene has finally reached the point where you can have a wedding just like your great-grandparents might have had, featuring food your neighbors raised. And if you don't think that's been a hard-fought battle that took hundreds of people their whole life's work to achieve, I've got a 12-story bridge to nowhere to sell you. (Cue at the Guthrie, 806 S. Second St., Minneapolis, 612.225.6499; www.cueatguthrie.com.)
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