Set the stage with a blockbuster meal at Spoonriver.
That chomping noise you hear is the sound of me eating my hat.
OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. But in the three years following its debut, Spoonriver has shed its strong sisterly resemblance to Cafe Brenda and matured into its own singular self.
It's funny how things work out, because the restaurant has evolved into a far more appealing precurtain destination than the Guthrie Theater's own dining establishments. The food at girl-powered Spoonriver is lighter, more approachable, less expensive and, frankly, more imaginative than what the big corporate boys are cooking across the street. No wonder Cue is going in for a top-to-bottom overhaul.
Chalk up that victory to owner Brenda Langton, who has been banging the local-organic-sustainable and vegetarian-friendly tom-tom around these parts as long or longer than anyone. As Minnesota's whole-grain-croquette capital, Langton's landmark Cafe Brenda has always occupied a narrow yet important dining-out niche. But when Langton nabbed Spoonriver's golden chunk of riverfront real estate, her eat-healthy practices suddenly found themselves in front of a much more diverse audience, namely thousands of hungry Guthrie ticketholders.
Co-chefs Lisa Carlson and Liz Benser have obviously crunched the demographics strolling through their door and are cooking accordingly, with winning results. Interested in a robust mushroom-pistachio-soy terrine, or hummus flecked with tangy preserved lemon, or delicate ricotta- and herb-filled ravioli? Not a problem. Or how about a superb pulled-pork sandwich, one of the city's best chicken salads or thick slices of shoulder steak popping with big, beefy flavor and finished with a shimmering, garlic-kissed demiglace? Yep, they do that, too. Beautifully.
Part of the menu's allure is its constant attention to balance. Lamb's bold flavor, sweetened by currants and mellowed by bulgur, makes for an excellent burger, minus the usual attendant McDonald's hangover. A luscious pâté of chicken and duck livers is lightened with tangy figs and paired with pert pickled vegetables that are artfully arranged, Botticelli-style, within a purple cabbage leaf. Cool citrus cuts against rich duck confit that's served on the bone.
There's an attractive modesty, as well: Homey sandwiches (tuna salad, turkey, ham and cheese) get the same loving attention as the far more glamorous daily seafood and vegetarian specials that serve to freshen the somewhat static menu. Not that fussed-over is synonymous with strained, or mannered. Nothing's manhandled here; for the most part, it's Mother Nature that comes shining through, in sane-sized portions. What a pleasure.
Agreeable quirks start with sizzlingly browned dumplings stuffed with green onions and snappy shrimp. The soups' vivacious colors and alluring scents are attention-grabbers long before the first spoonful hits your mouth.
If there's an occasional dullard -- and I encountered a few -- it's still easy to bright-side it: At least you're eating well, because after years of hand-in-hand relationships with legions of local family farms, Langton connects her customers with the region's most pristine ingredients. And she doesn't charge Gold Card prices for the privilege.
Pastry chef Kristen Schafbuch's show-and-tell dessert tray is a well-tuned complement to Carlson's and Benser's efforts. I loved the dense, ultra-moist ginger cake with its cheeky crown of maple-scented whipped cream. Ground almonds and quinoa flour were key ingredients in a fetching vegan cake that tasted as if it were well-acquainted with eggs and butter, and a delicate touch saved a chocolate-hazelnut mousse -- garnished with bits of fudgy brownies, toasted coconut and curly chocolate shavings -- from dietary overkill. Only a sad-looking (and equally sad-tasting) coconut milk/mashed banana brûlée disappointed; sometimes there's just no substitute for copious amounts of good ol' cream.
Pleasure in the morning
Weekend brunch is another highlight (even more so when the neighboring Mill City Farmers Market opens its fourth season on May 9), starting with Schafbuch's coffee cakes and moving into extravagantly filled omelets, buckwheat crêpes stuffed with smoked salmon and dilled sour cream, a salsa-dressed tofu-ginger scramble as well as several holdovers from lunch and dinner. But would it kill the bar to squeeze some fresh OJ?
In the looks department, Spoonriver has curb appeal, and then some, especially postsunset, when the theatrically lit space glows like an abstracted marquee, its happy shock of a salmon-tinted back wall an animated foil to the Guthrie's moody blue. A bank of 12-foot-tall windows frames the pencil of a dining room, making it one of the few Twin Cities restaurants that actually acknowledge the sidewalk -- and the surrounding city.
For its first (and, to date, only) restaurant project, U+B Architecture and Design of Minneapolis shrewdly slipped all manner of imaginative touches into this tight but highly functional space, and they've held up beautifully: swaths of wavy-patterned Brazilian granite that subtly salute the nearby Mississippi, a scene-setting entry boxed by tall grasses embedded in resin, room enough for a handy (and nicely stocked) takeout area and materials -- a silvery banquette, that aforementioned expanse of orange Venetian plaster -- that flirtatiously twinkle and sparkle. (One complaint: The furniture is a tad dainty for Norwegian farmhands like yours truly.) I'd love to see U+B take another shot at a restaurant; why hasn't some other smart operator sent a commission its way?
Distinctive design often originates from the client, and the outspoken Langton no doubt steered that process with the same vision that has propelled her enduring restaurant career, now more than a quarter-century strong and counting. Langton would undoubtedly credit her drive to a lifetime of conscientious consumption; seriously, the woman has more energy than Barack and Michelle Obama combined. It's difficult to visit either one of Langton's restaurants and not encounter, firsthand, her uniquely Mother Jones-ish brand of hospitality.
But here's my theory. I'm convinced that, sometime since 2006, Langton has had herself cloned (or, given her restaurants' green ethos, recycled), because she's clearly figured out how to be in two places at once. Don't ask me how. This diner is just grateful for the scientific breakthrough.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757