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(MSP) I want to like Spoonriver...

I've noticed a lot of positive comments about Spoonriver, but I've been so disappointed the 4 times I've been (1 lunch, 1 appetizers and drinks, 2 dinners - so yes, not brunch). I've just found everything to be too bland. I will admit I often order things that advertise curry/Indian/Thai flavors - maybe I shouldn't expect the strong flavors you'd find at say, an Indian restaurant? What am I doing wrong? Does anyone else agree with me? It's about 2 blocks from my office so it would be so wonderful if it was a good destination.

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  1. I think that it's just a matter of personal taste. I, too, am usually in the mood for bolder flavors. I ate there last week for the first time -- lunch -- and enjoyed both the soup and the veggie special. I thought both were well prepared. I guess it's just a matter of calibrating expectations.


    1. Kate, I have had the same problem with Cafe Brenda (I've only had brunch at Spoonriver and it was good and expensive, not great). The food just seems underspiced when I eat there. I had a mock duck with green curry and it was anemic. A vegetarian risotto that was well cooked but boring in flavor. Yes, cooking with animal fats adds flavor, but I have had plenty of vegetarian Indian food that is terrifically spiced and full of flavor. I have all the respect in the world for locally sourced ingredients, I guess I just want them to impress me as I have been at Auriga, Fugaise, Alma, and other locals.

      My main reason for not going to Spoonriver for dinner has been my experience at Brenda and fear that I will leave disappointed and light of wallet. To Bob's point, it would be hard for me to "calibrate" my expectations unless Spoonriver looked to "calibrate" it's price-point relative to what I expect from the food.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Foureyes137

        Fair enough. I haven't made Cafe Brenda a destination because I don't feel a strong connection to either the food or the space. I do, however, think that Spoonriver's space is appealing.

        1. re: bob s

          Agreed. The space is spectacular and the drinks I've had there have been outstanding. We live just on the other side of the river and liked stopping there for the farmers market and cocktails during bike rides last autumn. Lovely patio as well.

      2. I actually enjoyed the meal that i had there. More so than the meal at Cue. But i agree that it seemed like the more "ethnic" style dishes were a little lackluster. I thought all the appetizers were quite good. The fish that i had was perfectly cooked and quite delicious. I really think they have some good drinks. Interesting. The gin and tonic with fresh sage was great. Though I dont know if I would be back for a meal soon, but for drinks and appetizers yes. Oh, we also had desserts, all of which were great, but they were HUGE. Portion size much closer to Cheesecake Factory than fine dining. I do agree also that vegetarian fine dining can be much better. Brenda is making a great effort and I do want to support her, but the flavors could be better for the price. If anyone is ever in SF and wants to taste truly amazing vegetarian fine dining, check out Millenium. Flavors on par with any fine dining that i have had.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jaysin612

          At Brenda's restaurants, I think it's important to remember that she's cooking for health, too, so she uses almost no salt. Anything I've found to be bland has perked right up with a small addition of salt.

        2. I've only eaten at Spoonriver once, but I loved my smoked chicken-cheese-mango quesadilla. It wasn't spicy, but had a lovely balance of flavors. I had a taste of the caesar salad, too, which was very good. A seat on the patio, a glass of wine, and a quesadilla would be my idea of a good way to celebrate a warm day.


          1. I also work a few blocks from Spoonriver. I've been by several times, and I keep meaning to try it for lunch, but the menu never looks very appealing. I have had a take-out Caesar salad from their refrigerator case. While it had a very tasty dressing, the salad was an eye-popping $10. Just lettuce, croutons, and dressing ... maybe an olive or two. For $10.

            1. i agree with Anne that menu items at spoonriver are pleasingly subtle. even though i dig well(or highly)-spiced dishes elsewhere, i think i do set myself up for a different experience at spoonriver. i remember trying the salad with the wasabi-chevre and having the tastes play out: the wasabi was maybe the 5th taste rather than the 1st one i was expecting when ordering the salad. the hot-head in me was bummed for about 1 1/2 secs before i realized i really liked the salad. i will say that i've ordered a couple things that struck me as a little boring, but i've had some really good luck & nice surprises ordering the specials, esp fish special. i also like to try spoonriver's usually interesting soups, and some of their desserts are fantastically good (split them, they can be big). i've never ordered a cocktail there, just coffee and tea, but i've sat at the pretty bar and watched the pretty food come out, which for me was better than the movies. i dunno i guess i just really like what brenda langton is trying to do there, some of which maybe doesn't come off (& spoonriver is STILL a young restaurant) but i think that a lot of it does come off. i also really like the welcoming space. the servers were a bit scatterbrained when the place opened but the ones who've remained are friendly, thoughtful, and attentive. i confess that i really like spoonriver, and i want everyone else to really like it too! all the words in the world won't make you like spoonriver, Kate, but i hope you'll give it another shot.

              1 Reply
              1. re: soupkitten

                "Pleasingly subtle." Thanks soupkitten for articulating what I meant when I said calibrating expectations in my post above. I meant that you need to go in expecting food that will be well prepared and presented attractively, but where the pleasure may arise not necessarily from bold flavors, but from other aspects (texture, the blends, etc.) of the dish.

              2. Thanks everyone. I will give it another shot, and aim for appreciating the "pleasingly subtle" tastes :) I do remember one time though I got the curried vegetable special and the carrots on the side were 10x more flavorful than the main part of the dish - so there's potential! My husband ordered the fish special once and enjoyed it a great deal (that was the same meal where I ordered a lamb and pasta dish that was extremely bland). Like others, I like the idea of Spoonriver so much, especially since it's a great place for husband and me to meet afterwork.

                There's also that new "Spill the Wine" restaurant opening next to Grumpy's, can't wait for that one for an after work drink.

                Jordan - I also picked up a salad there once and was shocked at the price for so little. There are so few good takeout options in that area, they'd do a booming lunch business if they reduced the prices a dollar or two.

                2 Replies
                1. re: katebauer

                  I want to add a thumbs-up for Brenda's fish specials- always great at Cafe Brenda-
                  that's where I go when I want some good creatively done fish. Haven't tried any at
                  Spoonriver yet.

                  1. re: katebauer

                    Agreed. Matty B's is my go-to for lunch in the area now. The D'Amico-catered Mill City Museum cafe is OK for takeout. They'll give you a discount if you tell them you work in the area.

                  2. bob_s says: 'calibrating expectations' and 'pleasure...not necessarily from bold flavors'
                    rowdy says: 'perked right up with a small addition of salt'

                    I for one LIKE the fact that the food at Cafe Brenda is not overpowering. Yes, I love Thai or Indian hot (on those rare occasions when a resto is willing to provide it) and the incredibly complex spice flavors of Indonesian food, but that's not what Brenda is about.

                    I don't cook with salt (to the dismay of my chowspouse who salts everything), I use unsalted butter, buy salt-free products when possible - even potato chips. I have found that without the salt, things actually taste good. Butter tastes like butter. Potato chips taste like potatos. That's why I find Brenda refreshing, as opposed to bland. It's nice to taste the innate flavor of things, and how the flavors and textures meld and blend.

                    On the other hand, $10 for a salad... Maybe that's the premium for knowing that it's organic and, when possible, locally grown.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Loren3

                      Loren, thank you- I say Right On! about cooking with low or no salt. I think salt is
                      addictive though and you have to gradually get used to eating without it. People
                      who are used to lots of salt, which is typical of most restos, find low sodium food
                      bland and boring. I'm not saying low sodium food is always tasty either. But I think
                      Brenda does a good job.

                      1. re: faith

                        Lots of salt seems to be far more typical in chain restaurants. On the rare occasion I have to eat in one, I almost always find the saltiness to be overpowering.

                        However, there are many, many ways that quality salt can enhance a dish. Dara wrote an article a while back about salt varieties, and how they're used in various local eateries: http://citypages.com/databank/25/1213...

                        1. re: Danny

                          I've sent back meals at the following places for unpleasantly salty food:
                          Alma, Lurcat,Zander Cafe, Giorgio's on Lake, Firelake. I often find Italian entrees oversalted. And you can't always tell the sodium content- foods can have a high level of sodium, but the flavors balance each other in a way that makes the food seem palatable. And as much as I admire Dara, MHO is that the current trend
                          to 'gourmet salts' is one that I am staying away from. I occasionally have tried
                          samples of fancy salt out at Whole Foods and find them all to be....salty, with
                          some variations in the undertones. Not pleasant. I guess it takes all kinds..

                      2. re: Loren3

                        The fact is, I'm one of Brenda's biggest fans, and have been a regular at all three of her restaurants for the last 30 years! As in almost weekly, on average. I've seldom found her food "bland" and have probably not used salt more than 5 times over those 30 years. I love the fact that I can go eat her food and know that I'm doing nothing but good for my body. I'm glad that some other 'hounds also appreciate her cooking.

                        Yes, the flavors are subtle. And pleasing. I don't think I've ever left one of her restaurants thinking I had a bad meal. There aren't too many places I could say that about.

                        1. re: Loren3

                          I definitely hear what you're saying, I just have a personal problem with paying $25 to be bored to death by an entree that seems to promise boldness (not heat or saltiness) in it's described ingredients (green curry) and execution, but offers it not. I too am very mindful of my sodium intake, and in my case, my issues have nothing to do with the level of salt. I abhore oversalted food (though I understand many foods require it to be even moderately interesting/palatable i.e. - soups and sauces).

                          Having been the operations director for a company with a vegetarian CEO, I've had many opportunities to try Cafe Brenda, and always leave wondering what could have been. I do not expect to be underwhelmed by Spoonriver's dinner options because of that however.