Plaza Suite

Paraiso

175 E. 5th St., St. Paul; 229-0113

La Strada

175 E. 5th St., St. Paul; 228-9434

          ALTHOUGH HALLOWEEN MAY be gone, there's always something to be spooked over: a haunted past, a nasty witch, voices in the head that just won't go away. Two recent expeditions to the Galtier Plaza gave me a delicate case of the creeps, which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy myself. Far from it, my friend and I had a fine time climbing up and down the escalators and searching the wide open spaces for signs of life. Galtier Plaza, for those of you who don't know, is a fancy, multi-tiered shopping mall complete with lots of glass, dusty rose railings, shiny faux-marble floors, and scads of "For Lease" signs. We felt like tourists trodding over ancient ruins, except that we forgot our cameras and had no one to guide us, or to answer our questions about the first inhabitants of this mall, how far they dated back, and what it was that delivered them unto extinction.

          But we are here for fun, aren't we? I had heard about a new restaurant, Paraiso, whose fanciful, brightly colored business cards promise "live salsa, Latin Jazz, all-Latin pop music, and Caribbean, Mexican, and American Cuisine." Paraiso had taken over from a stately supper club that, despite all good intentions and lush food, didn't hang on long enough to leave much of a mark. How would the elegant wood floors and intimate, candlelit corners look under the operative of buoyant salsa music, with the relish trays done over in spicy, sensual Caribbean fare?

          We were not to find out, unfortunately. Things don't seem to have clicked yet at Paraiso, or at least the grand picture that I had dreamt up in my head was not to be realized on our visit. Maybe the leviathan scale of the restaurant combined with the relative absence of people made things appear depressingly empty. Instead of racy pop music, soft jazz spilled tepidly over the pink linens on our table--left over, perhaps, from the former tenants.

          The food I had envisioned, a cachet of exotic flavors, was not quite realized either; we were instead greeted by the plainest of menus in both form and in content. Which to choose: chicken consomme ($3.75) or noodle soup ($3.25); nachos ($3.25) or chicken wings (4.25)? We picked out the most interesting of the bunch and had a nice meal of it. We split an order of quesadillas ($3.25), flour tortillas served plain and simple, stuffed with plenty of stretchy cheese. We could have eaten more, dousing them as we did with the sides of two salsas, homemade fresh as you please: one red and zesty with tomatoes, chilies, and onions; the other a green, fiery sauce made from chilies and spiked with ripe avocados and cilantro. My friend's entree, Caribbean chicken with potatoes ($6.25), was a bit cheerless, with slightly underdone potatoes and the chicken dressed in only a thin slip of curry. But the meal was filling and remained a point of contention between our dueling, greedy forks. We similarly enjoyed the enchiladas suizas I chose. Though they were nothing to poke your eyes out over, they were served good and hot, and running over with an abundance of slightly spicy red sauce, made comforting and thick with melted cheese.

          Dessert wasn't on the menu, nor was it mentioned by our waiter, so we didn't probe. All in all, the key here seems to be that the ingredients are fresh, the food inexpensive, and the service pleasant and relaxed. We vowed to return some weekend night when, one hopes, things liven up considerably.

          Two flights below is La Strada, a small, cheesy Italian cafe serving surprisingly authentic and delicious fare. Casual is the word here, and everything takes on a cheerful, reassuringly familiar glow, what with the swooning Italian pop music playing in the background, the red-and-white linens, and the pasta/clown series of paintings. It is, in other words, the perfect place to come and share a bottle of Riunite with your loved ones.

          Prices here are so reasonable that you may want to treat yourself to a salad along with your lunch entree. We did anyway, and enjoyed the caprese: a cold salad of sliced tomato and fresh mozzarella, drizzled over with olive oil and dressed with fresh basil leaves ($4.95), best enjoyed between bites of the salty, chewy house baguette. The Caesar salad was nice too, nothing fancy, but fresh with a large slather of lemony dressing and parmesan cheese ($4.95).

          The robust entree menu includes a variety of panini sandwiches, hot sandwiches, pasta dishes, and chicken dishes. After deliberating between a healthful tuna sandwich made with olives and capers ($4.95) and the scampi al pomodoro ($6.95), I chose the second and was not disappointed. The fettuccine was cooked al dente, the jumbo shrimp sauteed in a vivacious lemon-white wine sauce strewn with a volatile amount of fresh garlic--Yum! My friend's lasagna ($6.50) was equally gratifying, tasting homemade and fattening the way good lasagna ought to, stuffed with peas, mushrooms, bechamel, and parmesan cheese.

          We're bound to come back for dinner someday, if only to try two dishes that sound impossibly wonderful. The risotto Mari e Monte is the famed Italian creamy rice with porcini mushrooms, jumbo shrimp, and onions sauteed in alfredo sauce ($12.95); and the scampi al salmone is made with jumbo shrimp, smoked salmon, mushrooms, capers, and onions in a wine cream sauce ($12.95). Farewell Galtier, though we won't leave you for dead.

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