TO BE CHEESY, it's so easy: words immortalized in a song sung practically everyday last summer by my next door neighbor, aged 5. I thought of that song when, months ago, I opened an invitation from McColl's Steakhouse to attend their grand opening, which would feature an Elvis impersonator throughout the evening. I was unable to attend, nor was I in any great rush to drop by, assuming that McColl's would fade as quickly as it had arrived--a cheesy hamburger bar politely waiting for its death in downtown St. Paul. What a fool I was! McColl's ranks right up there with the established downtown Minneapolis steakhouses, and to be frank, I prefer it over them--which has something to do with the charm of beauty not yet aware of itself, I suppose.
Set in a historic red sandstone building (built by the prolific St. Paul architect Edward Payson Bassford in 1892), McColl's is right in keeping with the taste of St. Paul's self-consciously humble highbrows. My friend and I arrived near closing time (10 p.m. weekdays), and although it was obvious that the restaurant staff was more than ready to go home (everything had been cleaned and put away and the only other customers were almost done with their meals), they treated us like long lost cousins. I wish we had arrived early enough to hear someone play the grand piano that stood in the lounge; not too many places remain where you can pop a dollar into the brandy snifter and have someone play you that dreary love song you love to cry over.
The decor here is elegant and simple, reminiscent of a rich man's study circa 1750, excepting the vague neon that lights the large picture windows overlooking downtown St. Paul and the poster of Vivien Leigh that graces the entry; one feels that she would have been quite at home here with a martini in her hand. The martinis are taken seriously and given their own menu; you'll find it pleasant to sip on one as you dip your hand into the relish tray that comes with all steak dinners. The icy cajun martini that my friend and I split ($4.95), speared with jalapeño peppers and laced thickly with Absolut pepper vodka, was thrilling and surprisingly smooth. We both adored the simple relish tray, adorned with fresh cauliflower, carrots, celery, radishes, and an ice cream sundae glass filled with homemade potato salad. We damn near broke the glass as we tried to scrape out every last bit of the cold salad, covered with Hungarian paprika and stuffed with an ungodly amount of fresh garlic. A basket of crusty sourdough quickly disappeared from our table as well, littering the pristine table with floury remnants.
The quality of the place was consistent in every aspect, and we found more and more to enjoy as the late evening wore on. My friend, a waiter himself, was impressed with the economy of the menu selections; why mess around with a billion trendy, complicated pasta dishes, salads, and entrées when the few things offered are bound to satisfy? There are appetizers (onion rings, paté and crackers, shrimp cocktail, walleye strips, and stuffed mushrooms, all between $5.95-$9.95), a soup of the day, a green and a Caesar salad, a few vegetable dishes, steaks, one fish dish, one chicken dish, and one pasta dish.
The french onion soup topped with a toasted piece of baguette and a sprinkling of romano cheese ($2.95/$4.95) is heady stuff, so much so that I could imagine the beefy onion broth as a perfume. We also indulged in a twice-baked potato ($2.95), fresh and light- tasting, albeit containing untold amounts of whole milk, cheese, and salt. The baked tomato ($2.95) told a similar story, delicious but not as healthy as it sounded, topped with cheese and layered thickly with an oily pesto. It, too, was wonderful.
I know that not everyone likes steak, and maybe no one should. But we thoroughly enjoyed our perfectly cooked, buttery tenderloin filet ($15.95 for 8 oz., $18.95 for 14 oz.), thick and delectably bloody. The sizzling noise the steak made on the hot ceramic was music to our ears, and if you haven't indulged in such a pleasure in a while, your experience here is bound to thicken your blood.
After such carnage, we were stuffed, naturally. My friend couldn't imagine that I would possibly want a dessert, but he underestimated the tenacity of my sweet tooth. Unfortunately, the chef had already gone for the night, taking the key to the fridge with him, a fridge that held hostage cheesecakes, chocolate-apple crisp, and other dessert cart splendors. Ah, well.
Lunch appears to be more casual, with the menu bending to offer classics like meatball sandwiches ($6.95), Reubens ($6.95), and--for those watching how the suit fits the gut--a tomato filled with chicken salad on a bed of mixed greens ($6.75). If I wanted to impress a client, McColl's is most certainly where we would find ourselves.
POOR YOU: No money, no fame. All you have is your name, a head of hair, and some pocket change. This, though, is enough for a good meal. At least in theory, according to Ruth and Bill Kaysing's The $.99 a Meal Cookbook. They give lots of advice on shopping and cooking, and do a bit of preaching about the spiritual and nutritious value of eating cheap and pure. Look to the Africans, they say, who eat a vegetarian diet of yams, corn, millet, and wild plants. They enjoy total freedom from any internal cancer, claim the Kaysings. Look to the Chilean miners who carry 80-pound sacks of ore up steep ladders all day long; they need no Olestra, no dorritos, cokes, or baguette, just corn with vegetables. I'm not one to preach too loudly myself, but as I was snacking on a fat-free twinkie (99 cents!) and flipping through this book, I thought the recipe for Catfish Gumbo looked mighty tasty. Of this particular recipe, the Kaysings say, "The legendary catfish: It's easy to catch, delicious, and probably one of the cheapest high-quality foods you can obtain anywhere. If you don't live in catfish country, though, you can make this gumbo with almost any other kind of fish as well."