It has been a watershed year for chef Tim McKee.
Along with overseeing four top-performing restaurants -- La Belle Vie, Solera and Barrio in Minneapolis and Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater -- he and business partner Josh Thoma opened their second Barrio in St. Paul's Mears Park neighborhood in June. A few weeks earlier, he was the first Minnesotan to be named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, his industry's equivalent of being handed an Oscar. Oh, and in July, McKee launched a little enterprise called Sea Change.
The name has several meanings. First, the obvious: The Guthrie Theater's principal dining venue, formerly known as Cue, has swapped management (now Dallas-based Culinaire), hired the region's highest-profile chef (McKee) and been transformed into a seafood-focused restaurant.
Another switch: By pledging to source all underwater proteins from what he calls "sustainable fisheries and environmentally responsible farms," McKee is communicating a break from harmful production practices.
But to this diner, the name signals an exciting new epoch in the local seafood dining category. Sea Change is clearly the genre's first notable player since the Oceanaire Seafood Room dropped anchor more than a decade ago.
Much of the food is sublime, due to both McKee's prodigious culinary gifts as well as his deep talent pool, most notably chef de cuisine Erik Anderson (previously at Porter & Frye and Auriga) and sous chef Jim Christiansen (a longtime pillar in the La Belle Vie kitchen). Prices rarely land above the low-$20s, which represents another about-face. McKee told me that many diners viewed Cue, fairly or not, as too expensive and, let's face it, when Minnesotans hear the word "seafood," our brains automatically start thinking "Ka-ching."
Kudos to raw
But not at Sea Change, particularly at its raw bar -- the seafood shrine -- where a small investment can yield outsized results and where subtle incursions of unexpected flavor combinations add to, but never overwhelm, the pristine seafood.
Plush cubes of ruby-red yellowfin tuna melt in the mouth, their cool flavor chased by a gently spicy heat. Hefty chunks of sweet crab, rearranged in the shell like a nautical twice-baked potato, are lightly dressed with a preserved lemon emulsion. Shears of supple albacore tuna and rich, translucent lardo play nicely against tiny cubes of crunchy vegetables. Shimmering prawns, split lengthwise and garnished with red chile flakes, finish with a teasing rosemary tang.
Other small plates similarly delight. Delicate croquettes sing with fresh clam and tarragon flavors. Octopus, slow-cooked for 10 hours until it's mouth-meltingly tender, is finished on the grill and paired with a lively salsa. Pairing rich pork belly and gently fried oysters, slider-style, is a stroke of genius. A green curry-coconut milk broth adds distinction to steamed mussels.
Appearances matter here. Raw oysters are artfully arranged, and steamed shrimp are plated to spotlight the crustacean's lovely C-curve. A contemporary Nicoise tastes as good as it looks. Smoked salmon is admirable not just for its luscious flavor but also for its meticulously sliced garnishes (seriously, the kitchen's precise knife skills are a joy to behold), and the eye-catching roasted beet salad seems inspired by the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches.
Entrees with class
The slightly more conventional seafood entrees still bear McKee's sure-handed touch, and with an average price of $21, they're within reach of the rush-ticket crowd. The deconstructed bouillabaisse, fragrant and satisfying, just might be the dish I'll return to all winter for internal warmups. I loved how pickled burdock and gently braised butter lettuce brought additional color and texture surprises to gorgeous orange-fleshed ocean trout. Swordfish has replaced sturgeon in a memorable cassoulet brimming with shrimp and zesty garlic sausage, and artichokes and perfectly cooked white beans were a fine foil to crisp-skinned arctic char. Another plus: The vast majority of the menu takes a very light approach, an asset when going upstairs and settling into a long-winded Guthrie evening.
The menu's "Not Fish" section could be subtitled "Hedging Our Bets," with well-crafted crowd-pleasers that range from comfort-minded short ribs and a succulent grilled duck with cherry accents to an elegant beef tenderloin. In that same vein, a handful of beef, pork and chicken starters are perfectly pleasant but are frankly outshined by their far showier seafood counterparts.
Lunch grabs a few greatest hits off the dinner menu, then adds a few terrific sandwiches -- a stack of thin-sliced veal, grilled trout with a curry aioli, a crab-cake BLT, an exceptional burger topped with blue cheese and sweet caramelized onions -- and the bar's superb fish and chips. Most prices fall in the $12-and-under range.
Although it's still not really a daytime room, the dramatic surroundings were tweaked by Shea Inc., the omnipresent Minneapolis design firm, and the revisions are almost all for the better. Graphics inspired by sea currents and seaweed-tinted accents introduce an aquatic theme without overdoing it (although an ample emerald-and-sage-colored mobile seems to reflect the urge to buy a painting because it matches the sofa). These lively color bursts also break up the unrelenting blue-on-blue-ness.
Well-placed cabinets and cone-shaped light fixtures do their part to cozy up the cavernous space -- now, when it's half-full it doesn't feel empty -- and chalkboards listing the provenance of the day's catch add a much-needed casual note to what had been a too-formal setting.
Best of all, the space remains a magical evening destination, twinkling and glowing like a scene out of big-budget production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Soften it with a little candlelight, and even a schlub like me would feel like a movie star.
A few suggestions
Complaints, I have a few. General manager Lorin Zinter -- another well-schooled La Belle Vie veteran -- has injected a welcome dose of hospitable warmth into a previously chilly room, but that doesn't mean I didn't encounter a few rookie service glitches. Pastry chef Niki Francioli's intellectual, high-concept desserts are noteworthy for their intense flavors and clever textural juxtapositions, but they can sometimes feel as if they're trying too hard, and it would be nice to have an option or two below the $8 to $10 range.
Speaking of expensive, the wines-by-the-glass list averages a somewhat tone-deaf $11 (perhaps management is trying to pay off the uncomfortable bar stools, slick and undoubtedly pricey holdovers from the Cue era). The menu is not without its clunkers (a drab linguine with shrimp, a peculiar scallops preparation) and vegetarians are pretty much out of luck. More than once my nose caught an overly fishy scent slinking past our table.
"So you didn't like it?" asked my friend as I bored him while rattling off my beefs. Where did he get that impression? On the contrary: With McKee & Co. at the wheel, this is change we can all definitely believe in. Heck, if McKee said he was opening a taco truck, I'd camp out overnight to be first in line.
But since he and Thoma are already a few inches away from launching a portable Barrio (grilled shrimp tacos, coming to a corner near you), what's left? World domination, perhaps?
"No, I'm not doing anything else," McKee told me last week. "Then I laugh because I've said that seven other times."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757