I’ve had some stunningly delicious things at Sea Change, the new Tim McKee restaurant in the old Cue space at the new Guthrie Theater. Like what? Like creamy, glistening slices of raw scallop trembling and glimmering beneath perfect squares of cucumber compressed such that the water was forced from them. (Which both explores the essential cucumberness of scallops, but leaves cucumbers’ essential wateriness at the side of the road.) Of course, the cucumber wasn’t the point, just the starting point: This compressed, chopped cucumber was then scattered upon the fat, diver-caught scallops, alongside little bits of fresh oregano, fresh lemon juice, minute slices of Thai chili, and big pyramid-shaped flakes of Maldon sea salt. The whole dish was finished with big splashes of soft, fruity single-estate Italian olive oil, and each bite of scallop, oil, cucumber, and seasoning came together to create the general effect of being gently brushed by some magical form of white satin fused with fireworks. It was a plate to which the only sensible response was: Sir, set up six more of the same.
But no one ever says that. So instead I tried raw Santa Barbara spot prawns, tender as warm jelly and served on slices of fresh avocado made vibrant with layers of orange, by which I mean both fresh orange juice and also a powder made of the ground zest of dehydrated oranges. Each bite had as much shrimp as you could stuff in a bite, as much novelty as you could stuff in a bite of novelty, and as much grace as you could hope for in an appetizer. Still, as transported and ecstatic as I was with these raw-bar joys from Sea Change, I never felt I was having the correct response, all I could really think was: I missed you, sushi! I’m so happy you’re back I could cry!
I THINK I can actually identify the day, the hour, and the minute when most restaurant tastemakers backed away from sushi. It was January 23, 2008, and the hour was whenever you saw Marian Burros’s story in the New York Times reporting that the newspaper had paid a laboratory to analyze the methylmercury content in sushi tuna and discovered that a customer eating sushi in some of Manhattan’s most esteemed sushi bars would only need to eat one or three orders of fish to exceed the EPA’s recommended level of mercury consumption. I initially saw the article online, and then, over the next 24 hours, it was forwarded to me by a handful of friends and what seemed like every reader in town.
This story seemed to explain a previous finding, namely that roughly one out of four New Yorkers had blood mercury levels so high that doctors were legally required to report them to state health officials for tracking and testing. This added to a decade’s worth of news that irresponsible fish farming, and especially salmon farming, was destroying coastlines and ravaging wild-fish populations. This compounded the problem that bluefin tuna, the biggest, most prestigious, most delicious, and most sought-after tuna, is either headed toward extinction or already essentially extinct, depending on whom you ask. This, in turn, added to the gloom regarding the oceans in general, like the widely cited 2006 study in the journal Science that predicted all the world’s commercial fisheries would collapse by 2040 or so.
By the time the topic of sushi-related mercury poisoning gripped the popular imagination—as it did last December when Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway show Speed the Plow, citing mercury from sushi as the source of his health troubles—a lot of the people I know had stopped going out for sushi entirely. When the Oceanaire seafood chain declared bankruptcy earlier this year, I wondered if it was a tipping point in America’s relationship with seafood.
Into this environment our James Beard Award-winning chef, Tim McKee, introduced Minnesota’s first exclusively sustainable, strictly environmentally responsible seafood restaurant. It’s called Sea Change. Get it? It stands for a sea change in the way restaurants serve seafood and it’s in the former Cue space at the Guthrie, which, mercifully, has been warmed up and brightened. This warm-up was accomplished by making the space more playful, with a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sort of line-drawing squid motif, and also with warm glimmery sea-green accents and new lighting. The menu is significantly less expensive than the one at Cue was, though you may not realize that if you order every single item on the raw-bar menu every time you visit—which is financially ruinous, but what a way to go.
YES, AFTER A SERIES OF VISITS I’m more or less in love with the place. McKee and his chef de cuisine, Erik Andersen, are doing a wholly different sort of cooking than you will find at McKee’s other restaurants: Dishes tend to tilt away from McKee’s usual stars of Southern France and Spain. Rather, they draw inspiration most obviously from Italy—and its crudo tradition of serving raw fish with olive oil—as well as Asia. For instance, the frothy sauce of sake lees that accompanied the oysters gave them an ethereally subtle air of salt and sweet, perfectly enhancing their natural brine and sweetness without masking it. A comforting pasta dish dressed with creamy sea urchin and dotted with sweet, crisp rock shrimp was such a rewarding, intellectual study in the natural poles of the inherent dewiness and springiness of fresh seafood that they reminded me of dishes from the French Laundry in California, where Andersen once cooked.
Some fish entrées, like the pancetta-wrapped farmed sturgeon, are cooked as well as fish ever has been in this part of the world. The pancetta was wrapped around and seared onto the fish as tightly as the candy coating on a soft-serve cone. Crack the crispy exterior and each bite offers a ying-and-yang of salt and lush, with fresh green shell peas acting to reset the palate.
Not all the menu at Sea Change is fish: Warm baby beets presented as a salad with pancetta were artfully arranged, with the beets stretching their little roasted tails into the air like so many tiny sculptures, and a judicious amount of blue cheese and a sprinkling of walnuts provided a perfect counterpoint to the beets’ sweetness. A spoon-tender rare-seared duck breast served with lentils and stewed cherries in a burnt orange jus was charming, robust, and understated all at once. There’s a pork-belly and fried oyster slider on offer in the bar that’s haute junk food at its spicy, greasy, tender best.
The wine list, by La Belle Vie’s Bill Summerville, is something we have never before had in town: an experimental essay in whites. Odd whites, like a white Tempranillo, untrendy, underappreciated whites, like single-estate Muscadets, accessible lovable whites like Oregon Pinot Gris, and the chicest possible trendsetter whites, like Grüner Veltliner. Will this traditionally red-obsessed town care? Time will tell, but even if you don’t care at all about wine just know the whole list, red and white, is utterly usable, affordable, and, of course, fish-friendly.
The desserts, by pastry chef Niki Francioli, who had done less-memorable pastries at Cue, were quite lovely. I particularly liked the hazelnut semifreddo with Earl Gray foam in which the airy, fleetingly sweet hazelnut half of the dessert met the bergamot-scented foam in a diaphanous and intriguing way that I chased with a spoon until somehow it vanished entirely.
Still, no matter how extraordinary the ordinary parts of Sea Change are, the thing I loved most about it was being able to eat seafood again, guilt- and worry-free. This is accomplished because McKee and his kitchen expend considerable energy asking their suppliers questions about where each and every fish comes from. For instance, consider the albacore tuna: At Sea Change it’s paired with pressed watermelon and mint, which accents the fish’s natural sweetness and lightly meaty brininess. But if you were trying to figure out on your own whether albacore was ethically edible, you’d likely end up stumped: On the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list, the fish is included in all three categories. It’s red (avoid!), green (eat happily!), and yellow (use caution). To get only the green ones, so to speak, McKee and Andersen work closely with their suppliers, like the Fish Guys, who are Marine Stewardship Council certified, and Coastal Seafoods, to identify the good ones. In this case that means hook-and-line-caught fish (thus snaring no by-catch and not destroying any habitat with sea-floor-scraping dredges); California fish (not endangered); smallish fish (low mercury); and exactingly kept fish (bled and immediately deep-frozen) fish. Phew!
Every fish on Sea Change’s menu gets the same scrutiny. All of the restaurant’s most delicious items, like the scallops, oysters, and spot prawns from the raw-bar menu, are low-mercury and environmentally responsible, in addition to being lush, indulgent, and blissful. For anyone in Minnesota who eats with both body and mind, that’s a welcome change indeed.
806 S. Second St., Mpls.
Open Lunch Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner Monday-Sunday
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.