Sea Change's Tim McKee brings sustainable seafood to the Guthrie
For the first few weeks after Sea Change opened, every time someone asked me about it, I found myself mentioning three things: The place was run by James Beard Award-winning chef Tim McKee, the theme was sustainable seafood, and it was located in the Guthrie Theater where, um...the old Guthrie restaurant, uh—what was that place called again?—used to be.
The name of the old place—Cue, that was it!—kept eluding me because after the opening chef, Lenny Russo, moved on, my interest in the restaurant waned. If someone asked me where to dine before a show at the Guthrie, I was more likely to recommend Spoonriver. I'm guessing I wasn't the only one who felt that way, because when the restaurant management's contract was set to expire this spring, the Guthrie decided it was time for a new regime, a Sea Change if you will.
Earlier this summer, the Texas-based food-service management company Culinaire partnered with McKee to rebrand the first-floor restaurant. The cosmetic changes, courtesy of Shea Design (the group that worked on McKee's La Belle Vie, Solera, and Barrio), are minor, but they do soften the formerly cold, hard-edged dining room, notable for its enormous glass windows and midnight-blue color palette. The exhibition kitchen and bar look mostly the same, but the vast seating area is now broken up by wood credenzas, and a small lounge has been added near the host's stand.
Shea also introduced vibrant sea-green accents to the pillars and upholstery, as well as a neighborhood-eatery-style chalkboard menu that lists the origin of each day's catch. A dotted pattern on the booth fabric resembles octopus suckers, and artwork near the ceiling suggests a humpback whale's stripes. When the Muzak ebbs and flows like the tides, the room can feel a little fish tank-like, but fortunately the theme is subtle enough that it won't deter those of us who love to eat fish but don't want to feel "fishy."
The Sea Change menu—a diner's primary communication with the chef—is a bit esoteric. The descriptions read like grocery lists, with few adjectives: albacore/watermelon/jalapeño/mint, for example. Such simplicity can raise more questions than it answers, and the burden of explanation is shifted to the server: How exactly is this dish prepared? Is the watermelon cubed, sliced, pureed, frothed, or dehydrated? (Knowing the creativity that chef de cuisine Erik Anderson demonstrated most recently at Porter & Frye, it could be any—or all—of those.)
I'm the sort of diner who's perfectly happy to just ask the kitchen to send me whatever's good—and by the way, those thin slices of raw albacore and fresh watermelon looked as pretty as salt-flecked stained-glass squares and tasted like a delicious ocean spray. But I had to wonder whether the aging Guthrie's audience might read the Sea Change menu with the same perplexity as they did the instructions for hooking up the digital TV converter box.
Still, however sparsely the dishes were described, there was hardly one I didn't love. Just when I feared the recession would leave local diners with nothing but endless variations on pizzas, burgers, and fries, McKee and Anderson have pulled off the year's most beautiful, ambitious cooking.
But before I get into how delicious things tasted, I'd like to note how happy I was to eat seafood knowing it came from sustainable operations. (If you're not losing sleep about overfishing, bycatch, and degrading marine habitats, you probably should be.) Keeping up with sustainable seafood choices requires tracking all sorts of information—which fish are on what lists, the distinctions between farmed species vs. wild-caught, etc.—which is why it's a relief to have a trustworthy team doing that research. "We take all that guesswork out of the equation," McKee says.
On my first visit to Sea Change, I went straight for fish that's not often seen on local menus. Arctic char, a fatty, cold-water species whose flavor lies somewhere between salmon and trout, was perfectly cooked—soft flesh, steel-gray skin shiny and crackling. Its flavor was accented, though not overwhelmed, by a rich, salty white-bean puree and an artichoke giardiniera—a riff on the Italian condiment that added a bit of heat, pickliness, and crunch.
The sturgeon, too, was an excellent execution of a fish rarely served in these parts. Its stark white flesh has a firm, steak-y texture and a mild flavor that was enhanced by a tight prosciutto gift wrap. A pool of beurre blanc had its richness balanced by the freshness of an English pea emulsion. All the flavors worked together, a symbiotic ecosystem served in a dinner bowl.
Instead of your basic Italian-American shrimp scampi, Sea Change serves rock shrimp with linguini tossed in a creamy but tart sabayon that finished with the faint oceanic brine of sea urchin. Anderson credits sous chef Jim Christiansen for working up the dish, and notes that his collaborative process has also included chef Matt Holmes and the rest of the Guthrie's Level Five staff.
Even the ubiquitous scallop seems novel at Sea Change: A gorgeous platter presented three behemoth creatures with a flamboyant mixture of sweet corn, chorizo, jalapeño, and lime. It was like a deconstructed version of the best fish taco you've ever eaten.
Wisconsin's Star Prairie trout, a longtime favorite of locavore chefs, is served with an unusual combination of curry, fresh watercress, and cauliflower puffs that are a little like homemade Pirate's Booty. Anderson and his crew treat even the smallest details with care—those little puffs involve a multistep process in which cauliflower is pureed, mixed into a dough, steamed, dehydrated, and deep fried.
But Anderson also knows when to leave well enough alone, particularly with the raw-bar items, such as smoked salmon served with fried capers, grated egg, and buttery rye toasts. The Hawaiian-style yellowfin poke (pronounced POH-keh) features ruddy pink tuna cubes on bamboo skewers served on a seaweed-sesame bed. I hope poke replaces cocktail weenies as the party food of the next decade.
I was especially enamored with Anderson's intensely flavorful, well-balanced sauces—some were so good I would have drunk them by the glass. Oddly, the sole dish at Sea Change I didn't love was the one for which broth was most crucial: steamed mussels in a green curry that was dominated by coconut milk and too shy on the bright notes of kaffir lime and the funky pungency of fish sauce.
Even those who skip the seafood dishes will find much to be happy about. I loved a pretty beet salad made with crisp, rainbow-shaped pancetta arcs and a seared duck breast paired with lentils, pistachio, blackened orange segments, a sweet cherry sauce, and pickled cherry. It was the best duck dish I've had all year. Not bad for a seafood restaurant.
I found the service at Sea Change to be fine, though not as impressive as at La Belle Vie. But the restaurant's other elements, including the wine and cocktail lists, and the desserts, were equally first-rate. I discovered a surprising new favorite drink (I know sambuca and fresh basil sounds strange, but trust me, it's a heavenly match) and dessert, an ultra-smooth hazelnut semifreddo that was paired with the musty, floral essences of an Earl Gray foam. Cue's pastry chef Niki Francioli has been given more free reign under the new regime, resulting in more inspired treats, including an intense, blood-red cherry soup pooled around a lovely lemon panna cotta, and a dark-chocolate, ganache-like cake with hints of cherry and caramel.
Both in terms of concept and execution, Sea Change is the best new restaurant I've dined in so far this year. I think theatergoers will be pleased with the place, but I also hope Sea Change can cultivate its lunch and late-night crowds, with diners noshing on such dishes as fish and chips with tartar sauce foam. To make the deep-fried cod taste ultra light, the batter is sprayed on with a whipped-cream siphon. It's not a traditional technique, to be sure, but, like the restaurant, it's a welcome update to seafood cookery.
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