Remember Cue at the Guthrie?
The press release from the Guthrie Theater touting a January three-course prix fixe menu for $29.95 took me by surprise. This isn’t just a prix-theater early bird special – it’s available any time, and includes a free self-guided iPod tour of the theater and complimentary glass of wine or cup of coffee after dinner.
Back when Cue opened in the summer of 2006, a table at the new Guthrie Theater’s sleek dining room was the hottest ticket in town. Cue had snagged a local celebrity chef, Lenny Russo, and all the buzz that came with the opening of a major new landmark, designed by superstar architect Jean Nouvel.
Russo’s opening menu, assembled with the help of a network of Midwestern producers made the concept of Midwestern haute cuisine seem like more than an oxymoron: Rick Nelson’s review in the Star Tribune praised the wild boar pate with pickled vegetables; sliced elk with wild rice and blueberries; and a salad of grilled quail with summer squash and poached tomatoes, among other dishes.
Russo left about a year ago, to return to his own Midwestern haute cuisine restaurant, Heartland, and I hadn’t been back since. The buzz and the crowds have evidently died down – when we visited at 8:30 on a Saturday night, the dining room was about three-quarters empty. The theaters were empty last night, which may explain the sparse crowd, but Cue had ambitions to be a top destination restaurant.
The new Cue menu is still very stylish, but not nearly as inventive or adventurous as it was in Russo’s day. The elk, quail and wild boar are gone, though the menu does offer a cassoulet made with pheasant confit. (I was puzzled enough by this description to ask the chef: duck confit is duck cooked in its own abundant fat. How do you confit a bird as lean as pheasant? Turns out, you cook the pheasant in duck fat. Which makes sense, but must make the pheasant taste like duck.) A lot of the usual suspects show up, including artic char, ahi tuna, mussels, filet of beef with wild mushroom sauce; free-range chicken breast with whipped potatoes.
The prix fixe menu varies a bit from day to day, but the basic format seems to include a choice of soup or salad; a choice of fish, chicken or pork chop, and a choice of desserts from a list. In strictly economic terms, the $29.95 special is a good deal: the pork chop costs $29.00 a la carte, and if you add the cost of soup or salad (8-$9) and dessert ($8), plus the price of the audio tour (5), and the complimentary glass of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay (or coffee) that accompanies the audio tour, the savings are substantial. But this still isn’t bargain dining: with tax, tip, and three glasses of wine between the two of us, our tab still came to $115.
We had a pleasant dining experience in striking surroundings, with friendly and attentive service and food that was well-prepared but not exactly exciting. My winter squash soup was a low-calorie puree with diced cubes of roasted potato and just a hint of sweetness (pear, as I recall), and my grilled pork chop was thick and juicy, nicely complemented by whipped sweet potatoes, roasted golden beets and a chutney of walnuts and raisins. Carol’s menu started with a rather bland fennel salad, followed by grilled coho salmon served over Israeli couscous and baby zucchini with a hint of a citrus sauce. I thought the salmon was a bit dry; Carol didn’t. Neither of us was very impressed by our desserts – a cranberry upside down cake with a citrus sorbet, and an almond, apple, and crystallized ginger cake with almond cream and cream cheese ice cream.
Bottom line: an enjoyable evening, and the self-guided iPod audio tour, narrated by director Joe Dowling and several Guthrie actors, was a fun little bonus at the end. But I am glad I didn’t pay full a la carte prices. When it opened, Cue was vying for a spot on the short list of top Twin Cities destination restaurants. Now it seems more like a convenient but pricy place to dine before the show.