Clearly we live in a world of Top Chef and foodie goodness. How else could you explain the fact that so many people, myself included, are familiar with the term soft opening. For those not in the know, a soft opening is when a new restaurant opens its door without fanfare or press in an attempt to give their operation a final run through on live paying guinea pigs…I mean customers. This past weekend I was lucky enough to experience this for myself as I visited the newly opened Red Stag Supperclub.
The Red Stag has been on my food radar for months now and for a couple of reasons. First off, there’s the obvious fact that its in my neighborhood sitting squarely in the heart of the East Hennepin river district. Even after a year which saw the arrival of several new joints, we can always use more. Secondly, there is the fact that the owners took inspiration from a variety of regional old school supper clubs most notably The White Stag Inn a favorite of mine in northern Wisconsin. The White Stag is the kind of place where you get a relish tray, a wedge of lettuce salad, and just about the best damn steak you’ll ever have. It’s the kind of place you discover as a child and love as an adult. It holds a special place in my heart due to nostalgia and its fine food. Anyway the promise of an eatery using the old supper club format as inspiration kept me excited for the last six months as The Red Stag was under construction. Last week when a friend and I drove by the front of the building we were surprised to see what looked like an open restaurant and sure enough after checking the web we discovered that yes the day had finally come (although the official opening was not until yesterday).
One other item that has made The Red Stag a point of interest prior to its opening is the fact that it’s the first LEED certified restaurant in Minnesota. LEED is a certification given to businesses that are building using only sustainable and recycled products. For example the Stag recycled old pieces from other restaurants including marble flooring and a refurbished piano. Walking in to the restaurant one would never know it. The place looks amazing and certainly looks the part of a supper club right down to those old uncomfortable wooden chairs and the bartender clad in plaid. The pictures adorning the walls immediately plucked at my nostalgia strings and the bar is a thing of wooden beauty. It’s a wide open space with an equally open kitchen but the volume or the surprisingly packed restaurant was never a nuisance or annoying. Yes it seems I wasn’t the only one anticipating this place as when we arrived at 6:30 on their 3rd night of service, The Red Stag was already featuring a 45 minute wait for a party of 3. Thankfully they feature a communal table that me and my companions were more than eager to share with another group of four. I must say there was something odd about sitting at the head of a table and staring down past four empty spots to group headlined by a complete stranger who was staring back at me, but then again that’s a supper club for you, a good place to meet and mingle. Since this was a soft opening I’m going to skip observations on service altogether. As with any new restaurant I imagine it will take a few weeks to iron out all the details but I can say that our server was relatively knowledgeable about the new menu and everyone from the bar staff to the bus boys was eager to please and engage in conversation about their new enterprise.
The intent of the restaurant is obvious and that is to take the supper club and update it with a modern take and it seems like an idea that could cause some growing pains for the Stag. I mentioned that the place was packed and the cross section of the clientele was very telling. You had folks in suits one table down from folks in hoodies and jeans. The menu continued this juxtaposition with items such as bone marrow right up next to basic steaks. I’m not sure if this approach can work without alienating one type of customer or the other. Furthermore the prices seemed a bit on the high note from the bar ($3.75 for a PBR!) to a $44 “baseball cut” sirloin. My friends and I thought we’d circumvent the entrees in favor of sampling a variety of small plates and sides. Here we found a variety of quality items but once again the theme of value reared its head.
We started with a round of four dishes to share thinking that would satisfy our hunger. A fresh take on a Waldorf salad featured some incredible flavors including a crème fraische foam and smoked raisins that danced on your pallet. Sadly however the $9 salad would barely be adequate for 1 let alone 2 or 3 people. We also tried the roasted acorn squash that was cooked to perfection and served with a brown sugar maple sauce. Again the flavors were spot on but while the decision to serve the squash in its gourd was physically attractive, the mechanics of extracting all of the “meat” we exasperating. The triple cooked fries were essentially large tater tots with crispy outsides and mashed potato like insides. They were tasty but unevenly seasoned and at an average of $1 a fry, hardly a good value. Completing our first round was the lobster truffle mac and cheese. At $9 this was the best bargain on the menu and almost made up for some of the other pricing missteps. We expected a mac and cheese with the essence of lobster and yet the small casserole dish (still probably not enough for more then one person) contained succulent chunks of lobster meat mixed in with the creamy sauce and firm noodles. One might expect this dish to be overpowering and rich but the flavors were subtle and oh so savory. Still we were left hungry so we ordered another round of the magnificent mac and cheese and also tried the flatbread of the day. The flatbread was another success as it melded duck, gruyere, and grapes on a bread reminiscent of Indian nan. We closed out with a crème brulee that featured an unadvertised coffee flavor to it that was good but unspectacular.
Everything we tried except for the fries and dessert made an impression with its flavors and I certainly plan on coming back to sample their steaks and other entrees but again I’m concerned with the concept here. While the fine dining crowd will certainly appreciate the menu ex-Cosmos chef William Baskin has compiled here I doubt the sweatshirt crowd I noticed this past Saturday will make return trips based on the question of value. Likewise I’m not sure if the fine dining crew will appreciate the whimsy of the environment and theme. With a space this large and the high cost of the quality ingredients (all from local farms by the way) I’m not sure if the Stag concept has the same sustainability its building has.
Red Stag Supperclub, 509 1st Avenue NE Minneapolis, 612-767-7766 redstagsupperclub.com