Rat Pack Revelry

Afton House Inn

3291 S. St. Croix Trail, Afton

436-8883

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Afton House Inn

3291 S. St. Croix Tr.
Afton, MN 55001

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Outstate

You know your Gimlets from your Rickeys, your Old Fashioneds from your Sidecars, and your Frisco from your Bronx. You've got your white-fox stole, your diamondante cat's-eye glasses, and your pink New Look tulle straight from the cleaners. Darling, you're stunning. Or maybe it's your silver sharkskin and Italian leather moccasins. I don't know. Yet the question arises: what are you going to do with yourself now? Pace in the hall while Dean Martin booms on the hi-fi? Rent a rat-pack flick like Ocean's Eleven and dribble popcorn down your Dior? Hardly. You need to go where the food's as show-biz as you, where the salad's got flash, the steak's got pizazz, and the ice-cream sauce scorches the ceiling.

That's why you're going to spritz on that final layer of Aqua Net, hop in the El Dorado and zoom off to the Afton House Inn, where the clapboard exterior says Pig's Eye Parrant, the looping wreaths say Martha Stewart, and the signature dishes are pure perfect Frank Sinatra, the Sands, 1966.

Start with the Caesar Salad. Your waitperson, or, preferably, the confident and wry maître d' Al Kiehl, will pilot an immense cart over to your table. Out comes the parmesan, the lemon juice, the Worcestershire sauce, the egg, the tabasco, the anchovies, and the romaine--and they fly into a big wooden bowl like just so many martinied partygoers leaping into a fountain. ($5.95 per person, minimum two people.) As your Caesar is made the whole dining room will be looking at you, which is why this is the perfect time to throw off your stole, to reveal the bejeweled tops of your opera-length gloves. It's time to shine. I'd say that either a vodka martini or a scotch and soda goes well with a Caesar--though of course you can order off the rather pricey wine list. If you're there late enough you can gaze at your own lovely reflection in the giant picture windows that look out on a marina on the St. Croix, otherwise you simply see the marina. (Is that Sammy Davis, Jr. pulling up anchor?)

After your Caesar you must, you simply must, order the Afton House Steak Diane--another dish prepared tableside. First, someone, let's say it's Al, wheels out the cart. All eyes swivel toward you. Al flips on the table-top burner. Blue flames leap. He takes two thinly pounded tenderloin fillets, heretofore discreetly hidden, and slathers them with mustard. He spoons herb butter out of a ramekin and into a shiny copper frying pan. It sizzles. It pops. He dashingly tosses the meat into the pan. He adds Worcestershire sauce and sliced button mushrooms. Sizzle! Pop! The Diane vapors course through the room, whetting all appetites. The dramatic tension is high. Suddenly Al flings brandy in the pan. A bright ball of flame flies up, up, up toward the rafters. Al doesn't even flinch. Once the flames subside, Al adds a generous portion of veal demi-glace to the pan. And you poo-pooed dinner theater.

Best yet, the Steak Diane ($22.50) is pretty darn spectacular: The meat is terrifically tender, the sauce is rich as all get out--this is as melt-in-your-mouth creamy as steak gets. Be sure to order a baked potato on the side, because the potato comes with this very mod sour-cream relish tray. The other steaks-- Filet Mignon with Bordelaise sauce ($20.95), New York Strip Steak with Café de Paris butter ($18.95)--are safe bets, as are the appropriately casino-luxe dishes like Chicken à la Crab ($16.95), a chicken breast stuffed with crab meat and served with homemade hollandaise, or Veal Scallopini ($20.95), pounded fillets in a port and gorgonzola sauce.

Sadly, more contemporary dishes, like the Dungeness Crab Cakes appetizer ($8.50), don't have the verve of a flaming Diane. The crab cakes were goopy and the ancho-sauce was dull as dirt. The Cajun Blackened Swordfish ($18.95) was accompanied by a salsa-fresca--a chopped tomato pile that tasted like nothing but mealy old winter tomatoes. Just because it's hard to get good tomatoes in winter doesn't mean you're obligated to serve the bad ones. Other lapses in Afton House judgment include the lousy cafeteria-quality rolls, the icky garlic mashed potatoes, and the pesto bow ties. The mashed potatoes tasted as though they'd been cooking for days, and the pasta was lukewarm and so wet with pasta water it seemed like a prank--was that Sammy Davis, Jr. slipping the bus boy a sawbuck?

For dessert, again, demand the cart. Sure, there's a dessert tray of cakes and pies, but they're not homemade. What you want are the leaping plumes of flame occasioned by Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Strawberries Victoria, or Crepes Elaine. (All are $4.95 per person, minimum two people.) They all operate on the same principle: sugar, butter, fruit, heat, and the flame of a liqueur--Bananas Foster with a banana liqueur; Cherries Jubilee with the juice of half an orange and half a lemon, and kirsch; Strawberries Victoria with strawberry schnapps; and Crepes Elaine with chocolate and Grand Marnier--and they all end beside ice cream.

Another reason to have these flaming treats here is because chances are high that you'll never be able to do it at home--even Al, who flames dozens of dishes every week, admits it: "I just can't do it at home." Al thinks that home fires just don't get hot enough, and he should know, since he's been flaming tableside for nearly 20 years. "If you tried to do this at home they'd probably be calling the fire department," he says. "I wish I could glamorize this for you, but it's not like I'm performing magic out there. It's just a matter of practice makes perfect, having everything ready to go, and knowing when the pan is nice and hot."

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