The Many Shades of Red

Fifteen years after the collapse of communism, the Reds invade downtown Minneapolis
Raoul Benavides
Red Restaurant
821 Marquette Ave. S., Minneapolis

Only a few times in all my years on this beat, only once or twice before, have I walked into a restaurant and within a dish or two looked around and thought, By God, we have a real talent here. A real talent! Something important that changes the whole lay of the land in local restaurants, changes birthday plans, nudges careers, alters the community perceptibly by simple ambition realized. You might not think that mere talent can do this, but sometimes, once or twice in a decade, it can.

So attend carefully to what I have to say, because I have measured these words carefully: Marianne Miller, the young chef at brand-new restaurant Red, is not just one to watch, she is already well on her way to being one of the best chefs in Minneapolis.

I knew this the second I tasted one of her pelmeni. Pelmeni are little meat-filled dumplings (they live in the same filled-pasta family as tortellini and pierogi). But, like tuna hot dish, they're usually more about survival than desire. Red's pelmeni, however, are about desiring miracles: Here delicate parcels of exquisitely tender pasta are wrapped around a vaporously mellow bite of pork and veal. These wee, comforting bundles are then tucked into a bowl that has been painted with overlapping pools of bright-green dill oil and a golden champagne vinegar sauce, and they're crowned with a dollop of house-made crème fraîche, which tastes like the freshest imaginable sour cream, touched with dill. So you have these little cuties, which are profoundly comforting--silky and weighty, fresh and elegant--and then you get to sluice them through these three flavors, the green herbal vibrancy of the dill oil, the sour pop of the vinegar sauce, the fresh and light of crème fraîche, and each bite becomes that rarest of culinary accomplishments: A profoundly delicate and delicately profound comfort food.

So, like I said, I knew there was something special about Miller when I tried those pelmeni. But I felt the gravity of the entire local restaurant scene shift when I received a plate of gruesome-sounding Mexican blue prawns with feta and mint salad in a chilled watermelon broth ($9.50). To tell you the truth, I ordered this appetizer exactly because it sounds so horrendous: shrimp, feta, watermelon? Eeek. It sounds like the worst kind of blundering fusion. Yet this works dazzlingly, shockingly well.

To make it, Miller takes three large blue prawns, dusts them with pepper, cumin, and a tiny bit of tobacco-smoked paprika, and broils them until they get the barest crisp of black outside. Then she takes freshly sieved watermelon, deepens it with a shot of verjus (kind of like lemon juice, but made from sour green grapes), decorates it with islands of feta and watermelon cubes, stacks the prawns in there, and further adorns the bowl with millimeter-wide ribbons of mint.

It still sounds terrible, right? Okay, but the genius of the dish is in the details. Instead of sweeter white prawns Miller uses meatier, less refined blue prawns, which lend an earthy note to the dish, an earthy note that is further enhanced by the spices, and especially the almost undetectable smoked paprika. By spiking the watermelon with the sour verjus, she moves the whole dish closer to the classic pairing of shrimp and lemon (which you can well imagine with feta cheese). And yet the dish is still built, of all things, with watermelon. So the watermelon and mint read as shocking, unusual, and new--the one thing you never thought a shrimp appetizer could ever be--but still exceptionally good, sensible, and likable.

And thus my lunch date and I found ourselves fighting over rights to the last bit of shrimp and--I'll tell you, even as I type it, it still looks terrible--of shrimp and watermelon.

Like most things that come out of nowhere, Red has actually been in the planning stages for about four years. It opened this past January 31, the child of a few local investors, including Russian émigré Alex Margolin, who is the restaurant's general manager, and Boris Fridkin, the architect largely responsible for the striking reimagining of the old un deux trois space.

Where all was once dusty pink and comfortable for ladies of a certain age, now all is revolutionary red and gold. The chairs are showy red and black graphic pieces that make everyone who sits in them look like some kind of kingpin in a rock-video shoot. Meanwhile, techno, Sadé, and the Postal Service burble along on the loudish loudspeakers, flat-panel video screens show art compilation clips, and the most aggressively hip, most authentically hip restaurant in the history of Minneapolis has debuted.  

Which, I bet, will scare the bejesus out of a good half the population. Can a fine-dining restaurant in Minneapolis succeed if they ignore the all-important fuddy-duddy demographic? When you consider it, don't you, too, feel the gravity of local restaurants shifting?

Will you, personally, like Red? Hard to say. Here's a test. First, read the following list: Basement Jaxx, kumquat vodka, Robert Cavalli, wasabi foam, Paper Denim, fruit minestrone, Jimmy Choo, Sephora, Coachella, Prada, et cetera. Okay, now, do you feel: a) needlessly annoyed by a Dadaist word salad; or b) intrigued? Then you should correspondingly a) go to Red exclusively for lunch; or b) alert your friends that you have finally figured out where to go for your birthday.

When you go, stick to the left-hand side of the menu. The menu is arranged somewhat traditionally, with things that might be appetizers to the left, and things that are larger to the right. In my experience, the most reliable magic is on the left side; order enough of those things and you'll find exquisitely inventive, mind-bendingly ambitious, unimaginably difficult dishes. Lamb carpaccio ($9) is sliced from a lamb loin only an inch or so wide. It's grilled, cut into paper-thin slices, and arranged on a tray like touching polka dots, served beside a little dish of just-crushed avocado mashed with a whisper of wasabi--an effervescent presentation that manages to be both rich and rangy at the same time.

This is definitely a restaurant built for people who have some understanding of cooking, and what is difficult and what is not. I almost want to say that, just as there are writer's writers and musician's musicians, Miller may well be a chef's chef. I don't mean that disinterested fuddy-duddies can't find something to like--they will. But more that some of the most difficult dishes won't impress them at all.

For instance, the "deconstructed Bloody Mary" might not look that difficult; what is it, eight clams on a plate? But truly, these clams are served in the most pristine condition in which I have ever seen a clam. They are clean as marbles that have been boiled, not a speck of sand, seaweed, or anything anywhere on them, and they are served warm and moist--not easy to do in a large restaurant kitchen--and then beside them were all of these little pots of things to put on the clams, such as razor-thin slices of salted celery marinated in Meyer-lemon juice. (It takes a certain mad dedication to transform an inch of celery into an individual salad.) Using your little bowls and clams, you can then leap into your choice of a dozen ways to eat...a clam. Nowhere in this town is a plain old clam presented so exquisitely.

I wish you could see it. Just see it, because Miller's plating--you know, the simple act of putting things on plates--is unlike any I've ever encountered. At Red, it's not unusual for a single dish to come presented in four, five, even seven separate little trays, boxes, tureens, cups, or assorted doohickeys. That deconstructed Bloody Mary ($8.75) came on a rectangular tray, and on that tray the clams came in a square bowl, each clam lined up so that they faced up in perfectly symmetrical rows--like the children's book heroine Madeline and her classmates, in two straight lines, if Madeline et al. had been clams. And beside the box-bowl were four more little bowls about the size of saltcellars, each of which was lined up, like birds on a wire, on top of one long, single grilled ramp. Beside the ramp-line was another bowl, this one filled with a milled tomato salad that stood up in a perfect flip. Finally, one last vessel filled out this tray: a shot of horseradish vodka.

If you're counting, that's at least seven containers for eight clams. This is normal at Red. The general effect at the table is of a dollhouse, or a tea party. Or a dollhouse tea party. I find this profusion of plates charming; I felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter's tea party.

The absolute height of plating, and of cooking, and of utter extravagance, is to be had in Red's two-pound lobster entrée (market price, I paid $44--and, again I don't say this lightly, it was worth every penny. This is the dish to beat for 2004. I dare all of you.) Anyway, this Atlantic lobster is cooked to perfect temperature, removed, in a way that I cannot fathom, whole from its shell, and sliced, invisibly, into diagonal slices. It is laid across mashed potatoes made sweet and light with Meyer lemons, and then it is given a sort of halo of pale Japanese mushrooms.

Still with me? Okay, this lobster, all red and brilliant, is laid out the long way across a rectangular plate. At the top right-hand corner of the plate is a beurre blanc made with Meyer lemons, and at the bottom of the plate is a totally different butter sauce made with truffles, vanilla, and white chocolate. Yes, white chocolate. The sauces meet and blend in the center, and so you can just sit there, like royalty, swooping your slices of lobster through lemon sauce, or white chocolate sauce, or both. It tastes sweet, light, lilting, rich--it tastes like I imagine one of those sunbeams breaking through clouds might taste, fleeting and rare. So, when is your birthday, anyway?  

While this lobster was a great use of those old French workhorses butter and cream, I have found that sometimes Miller gets a bit lost in dishes that become uselessly rich. The halibut ($24) one night was a good example of this. While the fish was beautifully fresh and perfectly cooked, armored in a potato chip of a crust and flaky and tender, it was surrounded by a disparate grouping of salty, fresh, or green things--fiddlehead ferns, pitted green lucques olives, preserved Meyer lemons, edamame--that didn't much go together when cloaked in the saffron-vanilla sauce that accompanied the dish. And so it seemed like the applied solution to this problem was to just keep adding richness to get it all to harmonize, which it never did.

These big entrées tend to be Miller's weakest point; she's not always content to let the pricey prestige proteins that center these plates do their own work, and tends to gild them into a lesser state. Two little $28 lamb chops, for instance, were utterly overwhelmed by the too rich, too concentrated sauce of plums, cherries, and fresh figs that surrounded them.

Then again, trying too hard is not the usual sin in Twin Cities dining.

Eagerness to please is the leitmotif at Red, you see it in all sorts of other aspects of the restaurant. The desserts, by pastry chef Nicole Francoli, are capable and charming. I particularly liked a coconut panna cotta ($7) which was paired with a fresh fruit salad dressed with a "water" conjured from candied orange peel, basil, and lavender. Again, just when you think you've witnessed the intellectual exhaustion of fruit salad, voilà, enter Red.

Red's wine list, done by chef Miller, covers a lot of ground usefully. And while it's got lots of prestige bottlings at prestige prices, there are also plenty of choices for everyday celebrating: A bottle of Kim Crawford dry Riesling, for instance, at $28, has the zest and zing to brace against oysters, as well as the finesse to stand beside a richer fish. The Champagne list, which stands besides the caviar list, is pricey, but it has a few very good approachable bottles, like Veuve Clicquot for $76, or flowery Roederer Anderson Valley brut rosé for $50, and if you've got an occasion that calls for Champagne and caviar I can't think of anywhere more pleasant to call for it--not in this time zone, anyway.

The service at Red is likewise raring to go. Hosts are sweet and helpful; every single server I encountered had an encyclopedic knowledge about the food at hand. Frankly, sometimes it even got a little silly, with servers announcing dishes and their contents as if they were footmen at the king's ball. But, you know. There is so little decent service in town that if we start condemning good service because it's a titch too eager, well, if we start condemning eagerness, we risk losing any population of beavers that might set up shop here. And groups of talented, hip, eager beavers should be welcomed with nothing so much as a red, red carpet.

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