Fork in the Road

Spoonriver brings healthy food options to downtown Minneapolis which are as trendy as they are tasty.

ON A COOL summer night, well past twilight, the bright orange umbrellas on Spoonriver’s patio are folded up like blossoms awaiting the morning sun. My companions and I are polishing off the last of a lemon-cream dessert when a young couple strolls by, holding hands. The man looks into the woman’s eyes and asks, crowing to the tune of “Moon River,” “Why’d they call it Spoooooooon-rih-ver?” Onlookers smile and laugh.

It’s a fair question. Spoonriver is no corny throwback to some nostalgic age, my huckleberry friend. Tucked into the ground floor of a massive condo development in downtown Minneapolis, next to the new $125 million Guthrie Theater (and a stone’s toss from the city’s new premier address, the Mississippi), the restaurant seems poised on the brink of the Next Big Thing. Creator Brenda Langton, longtime chef-owner of Cafe Brenda in the Warehouse District, has taken her natural, no-fuss cuisine to a crossroads. Perhaps a better name for her new venture might be A Fork in the Road.

Over the past 20 years, Langton has developed a reputation for serving up healthy, vegetarian-friendly, often organic meals: tempeh Reubens, free-range chicken, Japanese sozai platters (an assortment of brown rice, natto miso, beans, marinated tofu, daikon pickles, red cabbage, and more). Spoonriver, however, is more than just a restaurant with wholesome fare—it has a full bar, a to-go counter with sandwiches and salads, and a farm-to-table philosophy that’s mirrored in the nearby Mill City Farmers Market (which Langton helped organize as a showcase for locally grown foods).

Plunking her new restaurant into the epicenter of such red-hot real estate was something of a test for Langton: was her niche approach ready to go mainstream? Would the condo-and-theater crowd blanch at the sight of meatless potatoes and tofu scaloppine? Might Langton be forced to put a steak on the menu, just to keep the place in business?

Spoonriver retains the essence of Cafe Brenda while making a subtle shift, shedding the sozai and other, shall we say, overtly “hippie” dishes and introducing a few that are more refined—even fashion-forward. The tomato-watermelon appetizer is a great example of what’s new. The salad is composed of tomatoes and watermelon cut into cylinders that mimic the new Guthrie’s rotund shell; their sweetness is enhanced by a drizzle of vanilla-bean vinaigrette and balanced by basil and celery leaves. The flavors in the ravioli stuffed with Indian spiced potatoes and sweet peas, served in a green Thai curry broth, have a similar sensibility: contemporary, with a worldly flair.

The restaurant’s interior also reflects a shift toward the trendy. It’s long and lean, a compact 11 by 100 feet. (“Let’s just say that all the servers are really skinny,” one employee joked.) The walls are painted deep orange, and the appointments are subtle and chic: gray polka-dot carpet, a granite bar, and a vestibule with prairie grass pressed between sheets of glass. Passersby can ogle Twin Cities celebrities through floor-to-ceiling windows, be it Minnesota Orchestra director Osmo Vänskä, dining with his wife, or Langton herself, bustling about with the energy of someone half her age. (Perhaps it’s the bulgur and kale?)

Langton has never been shy about promoting her ideals (remember the “Eat your vegetables, dammit!” ads for Cafe Brenda?). But she also knows Spoonriver must attract its neighbors: empty nesters who are new to faux-meat sloppy joes, yuppies thirsty for $10 cocktails. (Of the drinks we tried, the Mill City Fizz, a blend of gin and muddled sage, and the fruity Ella Spritzgerald were mixed perfectly. However, the Brendatini was anemic, and the Circus Martini stung my sinuses like a shot of nasal spray.)

Langton does make some concessions to the traditional fat- and sweet-loving American palate, for example, enriching broiled Wisconsin trout with a crab-flecked butter sauce. But for the most part, Spoonriver’s dishes are balanced for nutritional quality and lighter than most restaurant fare.

A wild-salmon entrée, crusted with fresh herbs and served with purple potatoes, green beans, and cherry tomatoes, tasted as perky as it looked, its colors vivid as a box of crayons. A chickpea croquette dressed with harissa and yogurt and a quesadilla stuffed with smoked chicken and Keseri cheese became favorite appetizers. And those who mock mock duck should try Spoonriver’s vegetarian riff on barbecue: the dish’s Asian-influenced sauce is so lush that I’d bet a side of beef you won’t miss the meat.

When it comes to portions, some items may disappoint. The tasty but tiny turkey-quinoa burger seemed overwhelmed by its whole-wheat bun. And the appetizer salad of greens with goat cheese—stuffed apricots arrived with just one apricot. As I sliced the lonely fruit into tiny fractions for my guests to try, I was sorry to see goat cheese used with the sort of stinginess typically reserved for caviar.

Spoonriver’s dessert tray takes some navigating, too, unless you’re the sort who could go away satisfied with a handful of raisins and a cup of herbal tea. The kitchen eschews refined sugar, preferring natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup. And with certain desserts, such as the fabulous sour-cream spice cake and the fresh strawberry tart, you’ll never notice the difference. But a not-so-sweet chocolate cake seemed an affront to dessert-lovers on par with nonfat, sugar-free ice cream. Its bitter flavor brought back childhood memories of the time my best friend’s father fixed us “hot chocolate” made from water and unsweetened baking cocoa.

Chocolate cake aside, dining at Spoonriver does have a sweet finish: it reminds us that healthy foods can kick off the Birkenstocks and slip into a pair of stilettos. Nutritious meals—low-fat, whole-grain, and chock-a-block with vegetables—can be as sophisticated and delicious as filet mignon topped with foie-gras butter. Generous portions, creamy sauces, and 2,000-calorie desserts may be the more usual route to diners’ hearts—but it’s not the only way. When Langton came to this fork in the road, she stuck to the path less traveled: one that’s health-conscious, yet full-flavored. And that has made all the difference. MM

750 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations recommended.
Parking in ramps across the street or at nearby meters.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.