When a dinner-theater production is all about the transformative and seductive power of food, the stuff it serves to the audience had better be damn good.
And during "Cascabel," Rick Bayless curled my toes.
The show may be corny in spots, and the everybody's-happy resolution might make even Gilbert and Sullivan blush, but the food half of the equation is focused, intelligent and superbly executed.
About the only thing bad one can say about the menu served at "Cascabel" is that everybody is served the exact same meal. But considering that Lookingglass Theatre's makeshift kitchen is attempting to feed 142 people simultaneously, a fixed menu seems more than reasonable.
The dining aspect of the production begins well before the patrons take their communal-table (for the most part) seats. In the lobby, there are complimentary margaritas (the glass rims coated with crushed cascabel peppers, a cute touch) and passed, single-bite nibbles — a beach-themed nibble of guacamole, crab and crushed-tortilla "sand," and a near-liquid queso fundido over chorizo puree.
Once seated, diners are confronted with a banana-leaf-wrapped package pinned with a note reading, "Patience is a virtue. Do not open." But before the big unveiling, servers pass platters of additional small bites: chipotle-glazed Gunthorp Farm bacon on crunchy huitlacoche brioche, and a plate labeled "not cherry Jell-O" of star-shaped, cracker-mounted shiitake-beet gelee with a dab of whipped cream cheese and a sprinkle of guajillo-porcini powder.
Finally, five minutes or so into the production, the effusive maitre d' character allows us to unfasten the banana leaf, revealing ceviche-style tuna over passion fruit custard and avocado crema; the tuna has a nice little pepper jolt, tempered by tiny bits of jicama, red onion and tomatillo.
The main course is a mole poblano, a dish that has been in Bayless' repertoire for decades; the rich, impenetrably dark mole, redolent of cinnamon and chocolate with a warm chile presence, combines with a black-bean tamal and braised kale to support a thick medallion of medium-rare beef tenderloin. Filet of beef is standard dinner-theater fare, to be sure, but executed like this? Never.
Beverages are self service, apart from one theatrical exception I won't divulge here. There is wine, beer and bottled water at the table; water is complimentary, Mexican beer is $4, half-bottles of wine are $20 and $22 and full bottles $30, $31, $58 and $60. Pour what you wish, and settle up at meal's end (credit and debit cards only).
Dessert, served at the play's happy conclusion, is fittingly dubbed "celebration cake," a Oaxacan chocolate cake with orange icing and blood-orange espuma, decorated with "shards of festivity," colorful wafers mimicking the burst of confetti that accompanies the play's finale. The shards taste rather like communion wafers, which, given the show's redemptive finish, seems rather appropriate.
All in all, a most spectacular little dinner, and easily the best meal I've had as part of a theater performance (fittingly, the kitchen crew gets a curtain call). I may never feel the same way about bananas ever again (another surprise I'll leave for you to discover), but otherwise I left very happy.