Dining Down Under

St. Paul Cafe

350 Market St., St. Paul; 228-3855

           THE ST. PAUL Cafe is a sensible place to dine. Located in the basement of the St. Paul Hotel, it isn't quite as distinctive as the St. Paul Grill, which looms importantly on the main floor. The Cafe is in the basement, after all, and the setting, with its low ceilings, pastoral water colors, fake vines, and muzak, reminds one more of a festive dentist's office than of the small town cafe that it's meant to resemble. Still, with prices that average a third lower than those to be found at the St. Paul Grill, and with food and service equally as stellar, one can forgive the surroundings.

           If anything, the Cafe provides a great testing ground for those practicing for greater occasions to come. The restaurant was filled with tidy children in button-down shirts and starched pigtails testing the waters of etiquette with proud parents in tow. And there were plenty of first dates and businesspeople to provide for humorous people-watching. We especially enjoyed the couple sitting one table over; when the gentleman proposed ordering the Southwestern chicken tostada with refried beans and seasoned chicken breast, accompanied with cilantro-cumin sour cream and salsa ($5.50), his female companion griped, "We might as well have gone to Taco Johns!"--an impressive shriek indeed considering that she herself was chewing what appeared to be a massive wad of gum. All through our respective dinners, our tables enjoyed stealing glances at one another's meals and stealing snippets of one another's conversations. In that respect, the "cafe" atmosphere was up to snuff.

           The St. Paul Cafe features regional cuisine from around the country with two menus, one permanent and the other changing every month to reflect a featured region; this month's special is the Pacific Northwest. The strawberry spinach salad ($4.95) that we started with is on the permanent menu, thankfully, for it would be a shame to see it go away in just 30 days. The ingredients--juicy strawberries and clouds of fresh spinach with a poppy seed vinaigrette and a wedge of creamy brie cheese--are impossibly fresh and make this simple dish taste like a bit of luxury.

           My aunt, who claimed never to have tasted a crab cake before, chose an opportune place to try them; here they are about two inches thick, lightly fried and topped with finely shredded lemon peel and an artful squirt of tangy aïoli ($6.50). In comparison, the 'Nawlins chicken and sausage gumbo ($3.75) tasted less "'Nawlins" than it did Las Vegas casino buffet, but one clunker in an entire landscape of delights isn't much to mourn.

           For our main course, we ultimately turned to the regional menu after long and arduous perusal of the regular menu with its list of incredible-sounding dishes, including roast tenderloin of Iowa beef with wild mushroom-zinfandel sauce ($19.50); grilled Florida snapper with champagne- cream sauce and candied pecans ($17.50); and blackened pork medallions served with red beans, rice, and tomato sauce ($13.95). Never having tried duck, my aunt was anxious to sink her dentures into it while she had the chance. We split a plate of sautéed duck breast ($16.50), which was more than enough for us both, especially considering the short work we had made of the appetizers. Covered in a wild blackberry-ginger sauce, the duck was succulent and flavorful, sided with a blend of wild rice flavored with smoked bacon and mushrooms and a lightly cooked blend of summer vegetables.

           The desserts, made on the premises, are miraculous. I was happy for the people who were sitting in front of hedonistic offerings of New England steamed chocolate pudding ($3.75), chocolate turtle tart drenched in a warm caramel sauce ($3.75), and nectarine tart with fresh raspberries and coconut crème anglaise ($3.50). I'm sure they were happy for us as well, sitting with berry-stained lips and happy faces in front of a large bowl brimming over with a chilled cherry soup ($3.95) that contained several surprises; who would have dared hope to find fresh blueberries, raspberries, and rhubarb mixed in with the tart cherries? Add to this concoction a couple of gingerbread dumplings, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, topped with delicate ribbons of vanilla crème fraîche, and we were wired into a state a bliss after the second spoonful.

           All in all, the St. Paul Cafe is almost as lively a bet as the traditional St. Paul Grill upstairs. Who could want for more? Indeed, it seems as if the Hotel itself occasionally forgets that there is a world outside (excepting the Ordway Theater across the way, of course). When we asked the concierge for directions to the Galtier Plaza, he furrowed his brow in concern; why in the world would we want to go there?

           TABLEHOPPING

           STUDIES SHOW...Edy's Grand Ice Cream has been watching us, and here's what they came up with. According to an Edy's Grand Ice Cream survey conducted for July, National Ice Cream Month: Women are more likely to share their ice cream (65 percent) versus the 52 percent of men willing to offer up a taste; the older a person gets, the more likely he or she is to like their ice cream in a float, shake, or soda. The shocking survey polled 1,005 adults including 500 women 18 years of age and older, living in households in the continental United States. A complete report on the survey is available by calling (800) 777-3397.

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