Alive from St. Paul

Several of the entrées were superb, most notably the grilled Copper River Sockeye Salmon ($13.95), a succulent fillet grilled crispy outside and tender within and served with a light, tart, Riesling-lemon sauce; and the luscious Grilled Angus Tenderloin Tournedos ($17.95), tender medallions of beef perfectly cooked and served with a lovely green peppercorn sauce, and arranged around spectacular mashed potatoes laced with mascarpone, chives, and roasted garlic--prevaricate, deceive, thieve: Do whatever it takes to get some of these potatoes. They're perfect. The Pork Tenderloin Medallions were disappointing, the carmelized-onion-and-garlic demi-glace indistinct (they've since been dropped from the menu); also a letdown was the chicken option ($13.25), a chicken breast stuffed with brie and wild mushrooms that was too heavily cheesy for my taste, though I could see that if you count yourself a beer-cheese soup lover this might be the dish for you. Large salads are available for lunch and dinner. I very much liked the pan-seared duck-breast salad ($7.95), a simple preparation garnished with fried beet crisps and dressed with a strong orange-balsamic vinaigrette. I could have lived without the ungarlicky Caesar, though the grilled chicken breast that accompanied it was done well ($7.95). The desserts were fun and festive, especially the cantaloupe-sized wedge of caramel-drenched turtle cake ($3.95). The chocolate raspberry crème brûlée ($4.95) was tasty but oddly soupy; the chocolate fondue was frustrating, as it was a giant bowl of good buttery chocolate served with a merely reasonable portion of fruit, and garnished, bizarrely, with heaps of lettuce. My friends and I ended one evening simply dipping our spoons into the chocolate, making it a spoon-fondue.

Quibbling about too much chocolate is silly though, and it obscures the real point that there's a big airy place in downtown St. Paul with good beer, perfect bar food, and good coffee and desserts; and that when attending productions in the blooming theater district--now the Ordway, the Park Square, the Fitzgerald, the American History Theatre, and the Times Theatre Company--there's a good place to go before and after productions; and that, after years of dormancy, downtown St. Paul is coming to life after dark.

TABLEHOPPING

QUIT YOUR DAY JOB: Looking to trade in your file folders for a set of crystal goblets? There's no better time than the present, at least according to Maggiore owner Barbara Allen, who says that with Americans' increasing food sophistication has come an explosion in jobs in wine and wine-making. Allen says jobs in wine are now a "wide-open adventure," and to celebrate she's hosting a Working Women's Wine Dinner. Participants get to dine on luxurious fare like butternut ravioli in a vanilla bean sauce and quail baked with Vin Santo, taste a variety of Italian wines chosen by four prominent wine women, and even get to chat with these folk, namely Shelley McAndrews of Paustis & Sons, Marion Dauner of Vinifera Minnesota, Annette Stadelman of Phillips Wines, and Kim Bugge from Griggs Cooper. Seating is limited for the $48 July 24 dinner; call 730-7223 for reservations.

MINNESOTA ZEPHYR: Family events can be logistically taxing. On the one hand you've got your great-grandmothers, who don't like to walk for more than 15 minutes. On the other hand you've got second-graders, who don't like to sit still for half that long. Plus, letting youth blow off steam in corporate play-areas--i.e. Camp Snoopy--isn't as intellectually challenging as you might like. Well what about an afternoon on the Minnesota Zephyr? This historic train zips up and down the beautiful St. Croix valley, coming and going from a logging-and-railroad museum, and the lunchtime ride, complete with box lunch, can be yours for $10.95 per person--$2 off the regular price--now through Sept. 1, with one of the discount coupons found on Kemps yogurt lids. Not only will this give you the opportunity for family fun, it may well be the only time in your life active yogurt cultures create fond family memories.

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