A Forward Thinking View of the Past: A review of the Red Stag Supper Club

By Michael Juhasz

Graduation is six weeks from now. We’d better get to planning receptions for our parents, the more entrepreneurial of whom may want to see some return on their $160,000 investments. Those recent mailings which announced the expectedly uninspired order of Commencement Weekend activities have left to us the task of finding a meal on Friday night. Alas, Café Mac will be closed and we shan’t be able to impress our families with one of the top rated college cafeterias in the country (as far as I can tell, the cafeteria earned its high ranking after a study suggested that only 39 percent of Café Mac patrons suffer from chronic gastrointestinal distress).

Where, then, shall we take our famished forbears? Could we find a restaurant that might convince our foreign relations that the Twin Cities are less provincial and plain than they’d thought? Maybe. I might even say probably.

The Red Stag Supper Club (509 1st Avenue NE, Minneapolis) recreates for curious out-of-towners and nostalgic locals, the barely extant supper club – a uniquely Upper Midwestern, early mid twentieth-century (20th) dining establishment which serves traditional American cuisine in a semi-casual environment. However, The Red Stag strives to “contemporize” the traditional menu and update the management of its resources.

When the Red Stag opened in 2007, it became the first restaurant in Minnesota to carry LEED-CI (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) registration. The restaurant uses only LED lights and 70 percent less water than other similar sized establishments – there’s even a half-flush feature on the toilets (the requisite toilet plunger is thankfully provided). This hip reinvention of a stale and bland formula should serve as an apt display of Minnesota’s rich cultural history in a non-repulsive (actually, pretty enjoyable) setting.

That being said, the Red Stag could be greatly improved if the playful reinterpretations, the modernizing revisions were played up further. The restaurant suffers a bit of an identity crisis. I can’t quite tell if the Red Stag really wants to be an ironic reincarnation of the Midwest’s historically perceived lack of sophistication, or if it’s supposed to be a sentimental revival of a longed-for cornball innocence. Part of my confusion comes from the Red Stag’s failure to fully follow through with certain themes.

The fact that the wait staff’s red and black outfits matched the red and black carpet demurely demonstrates the Stag’s sense of humor, but the joke was spoiled by the hostess, who, dressed in an aquamarine, bamboo-print dress, looked like she’d been conscripted from a Rainforest Café. Similarly, I appreciated the exposed decaying brick walls and solid Douglas fir ceiling beams contrasted against the sleek steel of the partially visible kitchen but not the tacky row of empty beer cans that line a high shelf in one corner of the dining room.

My complaints about the menu flow in a similar vein. Certain aspects of the Stag’s supper club menu, such as the bread bowl, have certainly been contemporized consisting of two crackers and two petits pains served with a pleasant bean paste; Tempura Broccoli, served with a mushroom soy sauce; a smoked, braised, and fried veal casserole; and red deer stroganoff. However, the inventive twists of other dishes were either too understated, or not terribly inventive. The gremolata, a traditional accompaniment to osso buco (braised veal shank), would have been a clever compliment to the roasted marrow bone, had it actually been present as the menu suggested it would. The butternut squash ravioli with roasted duck served, quite obviously, with grated cheese, Savoy spinach and dried Bing cherries is certainly more contemporary than classic supper club fare, but this exact dish has been boring diners since its common inception in the mid-90’s.

All told, all of the dishes we were served were well prepared but underwhelming, especially considering that Chef William Baskin has worked with revered culinary innovators like Grant Achatz (Trio) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck). Too many of the dishes were obvious. Too many were heavily dusted with some kind of homemade Mrs. Dash. (I found it in the sprinkled on the Veal Casserole, topping the Marrow Bone, flavoring the bean paste and burying the crackers). Expect the food to charmingly satisfy but not wow.

Though you might be too genuinely hip and with it to be taken in by the Red Stag’s incomplete attempt to achieve real inventiveness, your parents might not be. They might, however, appreciate the nostalgic quality and if they can’t directly relate, they can enjoy being tourists at a decent quality, very Minnesotan restaurant.