Cue's Second Act

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.