That Continental Touch

The Continental Pantry

381 Michigan St., St. Paul

           LAST WEEKEND, WHILE attending a rather hazy wedding reception, I met a slick restaurateur who cornered me for a chat about the great lengths to which he had gone to modernize his kitchen. Forty-five minutes into his mind-numbing spiel, he was just getting started on the subject of the electronic vibrators his waiters carry so they can be summoned to the kitchen at any time. "It is a ghastly innovation letting the waiters carry those things around," an elderly woman piped in. The restaurateur, like any good faddist, had a pocketful of literature extolling the devices right on his person, but the woman would not be swayed. To this lady, and to all others who have not been impressed with the rash of flat, streamlined businesses that try so hard to pass themselves off as restaurants, I am happy to recommend the Continental Pantry, located in the old CSPS Hall (built in 1887), certainly one of the most beautiful restaurants in the Twin Cities.

           Breakfast is my favorite time for a visit, and even if you had a particularly rough night the night before, you should find it easy to make breakfast hours (7 a.m.-3 p.m. on weekends; 7:45 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday). The Continental Pantry has an eerie charm, as if someone had locked up the place 40 years ago and reopened it for you just this morning. Glass cases full of sugared roses, violets, and daisies, along with jars of gumdrops, stand amid grand piles of powdered cookies, poppy seed kolackis (delicious coffee-friendly pastries costing a mere 85¢), and ornate cakes. If your eyes are swimming with delight at this point, just wait until Ramon Granda--host, baker, waiter, cook, and no slave to technology--lets you through the plastic gate to to the dining room.

           Ramon must be given much credit for his visual touch; the entire room looks like a forgotten wedding, full of crepe paper streamers, flags, and plastic flowers. From the scenes of Germany that hang in the bathroom to the plastic cheese suspended from the electric fireplace, there is plenty to marvel over.

           Our recent visit on a sunny morning put us in high spirits. "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" was drifting through the dining room, and apropos of nothing, Ramon told us, "If you want to dance, go ahead." The breakfast menu is less exotic than Ramon's sensibility, balancing the wondrous atmosphere with simple fare. There are a few tricks here and they all involve sauces. As in "zesty Creole sauce," "secret Cajun-hollandaise sauce," and "special cheese sauce." Varied as they are, they seem to share a common genetic strand.

           Unfortunately they are frequently unavailable, but that's part of the charm. Hence there will be no Cajun, Haitian, Mexican, benedict, or poached special breakfasts for you if you miss sauce hour, and chances are you will. The trouble is, they are all made from scratch by Ramon, which can lead to complications if you're busy doing everything, as he is. Once, I am proud to say, I did come at the right time from a sauce point of view. I proceeded to order the Cajun ($4.95) I'd always wanted, and I wasn't disappointed--my eggs laden as they were with plenty of fries, grilled onions, peppers, mushrooms, cheddar cheese, and sauce: glorious, slightly salty, slightly peppery hollandaise.

           Most days, however, it's apple pancakes ($4.50) for me--buttery and hearty and perfectly fluffy--or one of the omelets, which are always big, hot, and made to order. (I recommend you try one with the pepper relish.) The omelets are served with a heap of homemade hash browns, toast, and jam for $4.95. And while you're eating Ramon makes you feel right at home, waiting patiently on the other side of the room until you've finished talking before he zips up to the table to refill your coffee.

           Dinner, served 4-8 p.m. most days, is strictly an Old World affair. The schnitzel dinner is my personal favorite, consisting of an abundant plate with your choice of dumplings or potato pancakes, zippy kraut or red cabbage, soup (on our visit it was a turkey risotto that would cause any grandmother a fit of envy), salad, and juice ($9.95). My friend opted for a healthy plate of liver and onions ($7.50), which isn't quite my bag, but he swore that it was quite delicious. Other dishes range from Polish pot roast ($9.95) to Hungarian goulash with a sweet paprika base ($9.95) to beef burgundy ($9.95). Rounding out the international theme, one can also get wienerschnitzel ($10.95) or spaghetti ($8). Meals come with a bread basket, choice of noodles, dumplings, or potatoes, and your choice of soup, juice, or salad. It's not high cuisine, but my experience there has always been wonderful.


           LAST MINUTE JOYS: If you catch this in time, you're in luck; Up North and Liquor Depot present an evening of wild game, cigars, and whiskey. If you aren't privy to cigar chic (hey, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers are into it), here's your chance. On Wednesday June 26--tonight, that is--at Up North (1501 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.) aficionados will be supping on mixed greens topped with salmon and fresh vegetables in watercress cream dressing; chive ravioli stuffed with herbed buffalo and sun-dried cherries; grilled venison; sautéed duck; and French bread pudding. The potables promise to be just as distinguished; they include Glenmorangie's 10-, 12-, and 18-year-old whiskeys. The cost of the evening is $34.95; call 375-1718.

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