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.

           SPORTS DEED:On Sunday, August 11, Murray's Steak House is proud to host the WCCO Sports Huddle Show with Sid Hartman and Dave Mona. The doors open at 9 a.m. and breakfast will be served during the show, which airs until noon. Hear the hosts blast away as you devour pieces of pastry dunked in summer fruit compote, eggs strata, O'Brien potatoes, and sausage, all washed down with juice and coffee. This experience must be paid for in advance by credit card, $35 a ticket. Call 333-2507 during business hours for reservations. During the show, one lucky caller and one paid guest will receive a Silver Butter Knife gift certificate, compliments of Murray's. Proceeds of the event will benefit Kids Cafe, a program of the Boys and Girls Club of Minneapolis and Perspectives Family Center of St. Louis Park. This program serves between 80-100 disadvantaged kids a hot balanced meal four nights a week.

           WHY PIE RULES: Reading a juvenile detective story aloud to my niece the other day, we came across a longsection about a pie sitting out on the window ledge to cool. (The pie would not long remain there, the disappearance being the main impetus behind the detective's lengthy caper.) I stopped reading and we both stared off into space for a time, thinking about fresh pie cooling on a window ledge. When was the last time you saw a sight like that? My own encounters with pies remain limited to looking at the ones on sale in the damaged/stale food cart in the local grocery. Still too expensive. But the next day, a recipe book from the Edgewood Restaurant and Motel appeared in my mailbox, and there on the first page...a recipe for lemon meringue pie. Apparently there had been an actual lemon meringue pie that arrived with the booklet, but something so delicate and alluring does not have much staying power in an office full of hungry people. Here, then, is Marie Hemke's recipe for Lemon Meringue Pie, the crown jewel of the Edgewood Restaurant:

           Pie Crust Ingredients:

* 1 1/2 cups flour

* 1/2 cup lard

* pinch of salt

* iced water

           Mix all the dry ingredients with the lard until crumbly. Then, little by little, add the iced water and mix the dough until it holds together well. Roll out and place in a 9'' pie tin. Bake at 325° F until light brown.

           Lemon Filling Ingredients:

* 1 1/2 cups sugar

* 1/3 cup corn starch

* pinch of salt

* 1/2 Tbsp. butter

* 1/2 cup lemon juice

* yolks of 4 eggs

* 1 1/2 cups water

* grated rind of one lemon

           Blend the dry ingredients in a double boiler or heavy sauce pan. Add the water and cook the mixture until it is thick and shiny. Stir frequently. Separate the eggs and set aside the whites. Mix the egg yolks, lemon juice and lemon rind together. Pour into the cooked mixture and cook again until boiling. Stir frequently. Pour into the baked pie shell.

           Meringue Ingredients:

* whites of 4 eggs

* 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

* 1 Tbsp. water

* 1/2 cup sugar

           Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and water in a mixing bowl. Beat until frothy. Slowly add the sugar with the mixer on low speed. Whip at high speed until meringue is stiff and shiny. Spread on top of the lemon pie, attaching the meringue to the pie crust, making peaks with a spatula. Then bake at 350° F until meringue peaks are golden brown.

           ADD SOME DISTINCTION:Used to gulping wine dispensed from a foil pouch inside a cardboard box? See how the other end of wine drinkers operate, and learn something about distinguishing between inexpensive wines and wines of good value. Wine expert Daniel Johnnes, author of Daniel Johnnes's Top 200 Wines will be signing his book at Baxter's Books (608 Second Ave. S., Mpls.; 339-4922) from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, August 7.

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