Cafe Nordo’s Dinner Drama Returns, David-Lynch-Style
Once again Erin Brindley and Terry Podgorski are cooking up another round of culinary theatre with Café Nordo where palatable and performative pairings reinforce and inform one another with an aim to elevate food consciousness. This latest production, Somethin’ Burning (at Theatre Off Jackson through November 16: tickets), features as strong a drama as Nordo’s ever produced but the food remains the primary attraction.
When we last encountered Chef Nordo he took us on a funhouse tour of culinary history, traipsing from room to room and course to course at Washington Hall. Each space was renovated to stage and complement a different course.
This time the Nordo technical team has built rooms forming a series of airlocks that lead dining audiences from the damp streets of Seattle into an inner sanctum out of Twin Peaks. While Somethin’ Burning is advertised as “a Lynchian Fever Dream” no tiny chickens will bleed on your plate. Rather it’s a send-up of Twin Peaks through Chef Nordo’s tasty and didactic lens.
The dining room itself suggests a melding of Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge and RR Diner. A mishmash of tables and café chairs line a crisscrossed alley staging with a bar, a diner table setting, and bandstand meeting a corridor under an antler chandelier.
Composer Annastasia Workman employs that bandstand well. She eschews Angelo Badalamenti’s surrealist lounge music from the television series for a more pleasantly dark style on the hot side of swing. The off-kilter lyrics and low-key delivery are a touch sunnier than Andrew Bird in his Bowl of Fire incarnation. Evan Mosher is notable here on muted trumpet and supporting the singing waiter Ricky Valentine (Devin Bannon) on vocals. Jessica Trundy’s lights work as hard as Workman’s compositions in making the music a focal point of the evening.
The acting demonstrates a marked improvement in the Nordo oeuvre. Mosher, in the role of Agent Eliot Penn, is capable, though with his ever-present boyish smirk he comes off more Matthew Broderick than Kyle Maclachlan. Nordo regular Opal Peachey is the most grounded and genuine in a cast that can get away with high artifice in this unusual setting. MJ Seiber also demonstrates great commitment in his performance as Rocky Graves, one half of a Greek chorus of supernatural bikers.
The script is a strong achievement for the Nordo team. The plot has an arc and features some character development with everything tying into the food. There’s enough structure to create identifiable patterns setting expectations and both delivering on them and then varying those expectations to create interest. The audience experience ranges from reasonably amusing and eccentric to utterly hilarious depending on one’s familiarity with the source material.
Most impressive is the way that Nordo’s local/organic food philosophy integrates into the plot. It can get a bit ham-fisted, but it moves the action forward authentically so we accept the propaganda—not that anyone attending Café Nordo is opposed to that philosophy. Nordo is preaching to the choir and the choir doesn’t mind one bit.
Strong as the plot is with its slight touches of the bizarre the text drama is out-performed by the food. There isn’t a false note from the kitchen as Nordo pulls off another miracle of stage management. Every dish is consistently appropriate in temperature and balanced in flavor with exciting surprises from an everything bagel spiced cream cheese to bacon candy.
Aside from an opening cocktail nod to cherry pie the focus fixes on breakfast, but this is no late night at the pancake house. We still get a fine dining experience, just in the guise of breakfast. Some elements are fairly ambiguous (is there a right time for a savory parfait?) but the most overtly breakfast-styled dishes are breathtaking abstractions. An initial course of donuts and gravy goes far beyond steak and eggs in mixing temporal motifs. The donuts feel impossibly light on their own and balance perfectly in the meat gravy though they overwhelm the vegetarian gravy a bit.
The final dish takes the cake giving us dessert in breakfast form. What appears to be scrambled eggs with hash browns and bacon is made from vanilla custard, shredded apples and that bacon candy. The expectations of the visual and the experience in the mouth leave the senses reeling a bit.
The extra $10 for cocktails is a steal for a series of drinks that almost steal the show. The Cucumber Collins provides a nice balance to the dominant dark notes in the series. On an especially wet and chilly night a second Toddy O’Brandy might be required before you bus, bike or cab it home. Remember, Café Nordo still doesn’t include a gratuity, so bring some cash, they earn it.