An Engaging Place to Spend Eternity

Forepaugh's
276 S. Exchange St., St. Paul; 224-5606

Molly doesn't want to leave. And frankly, who can blame her? One moment she's the life of the household, living in a mansion on gorgeous Irvine Park, surrounded by finery and luxury, the apple of her rich, though moody, lover's eye--the next she's abandoned. Her lover and employer, Joseph Forepaugh, a 19th-century dry-goods baron, committed suicide, and left his upstairs maid with few options, her beloved home on the auction block. So Molly did what any sensible 19th-century heroine would do--she hanged herself from a chandelier and turned into St. Paul's most frolicsome ghost.

Now Molly does whatever she darn well pleases. Like resetting the tables after the staff has gone home for the night. Or causing dry plants to drip on customers. Exploding glasses that sit innocently on shelves. Pounding on the inside doors of empty closets. Rattling racks of dishes. Extinguishing candles and splattering wax about. Turning lights on in the middle of the night. Causing strange, chilly drafts to eddy around tables in warm rooms. Sometimes, when Molly is feeling particularly high-spirited, she'll even appear in person and walk through walls. One couple who had a wedding-reception dinner at Forepaugh's found a mysterious arm in one of their photos--reaching out from a wall. It seems like everyone who works at Forepaugh's has a story about Molly making her presence known--and yet no one is frightened. Joan Frantz, a manager at Forepaugh's, says that the staff is used to Molly's foolish little pranks. Frantz even says that séances have revealed another ghost in the house who doesn't like to make himself known; the other ghost is a former gardener.

There's no mystery in why Molly sticks around--it's hard to think of a more engaging place to spend eternity. Every room is prettily furnished with Victorian wallpaper, curtains, comfy furniture, and all the trimmings, and Forepaugh's white-glove service and fine food ensure that the place does a rollicking business. What more could a 19th-century prankster want?

Avant-garde foodies won't find any groundbreaking infusions or 3D sauce sculptures at Forepaugh's, but for excellent versions of Country Club Continental--think cream, think wine, think butter-knife-tender meats--I don't know of anywhere better. Their onion soup ($3.75 lunch, $4.25 dinner) is perfect: caramel-tinged onions in a rich and not-too-salty broth, a giant crouton of grilled bread resting under a blanket of good-quality Swiss cheese. Onion soup is so frequently terrible that finding a perfect bowl of it seems like a revelation. An appetizer plate of salmon gravlax and smoked trout ($7.25) is filled with mouth-meltingly tender morsels of fish, and is generous enough for two. A Maryland crab cake that was a featured appetizer one night was scrumptious--airy light, sweet, tender, crisp, simply wonderful. Beef Wellington ($19.75), a filet of beef wrapped in a pastry crust, is a featured special most weekends, and is perfect. (I like Beef Wellington on a couple of levels: First, it's at the top of my list for "don't try this at home" recipes--right after chain-saw ice sculptures--because there are about a million things you can do to mess it up; and second, because a beef-butter-pastry concoction is outright decadent in our Susan Powter/Jenny Craig world, so I find Forepaugh's dedication to this difficult dish gratifying, in the same way that I find well-executed high-wire tricks and stubborn iconoclasts gratifying.) Everything else I tried at Forepaugh's, like the understated veal medallions sautéed with cream and apple brandy and served with plump gnocchi and saucy apples, was on the high side of fine. I could quibble with the vegetable side dishes--$4 for a hunk of broccoli, even in a light hollandaise, seems excessive, but my only real disappointment was with a roast duck with a honey-lime glaze: The duck ($16.25) was overcooked and stringy, and truly lackluster. But this duck didn't bother me for long--service here is so ship-shape that every diner's needs are seen to immediately. Finding service so attentive, and so unobtrusive, is truly a treat, as is Forepaugh's rowboat-sized dessert cart. Filled to brimming with goblets of homemade mousse, real English trifles loaded with real eggy custard, fancy black-and-white cakes layered with buttercreams and ganaches, this is the dessert cart that delineated your fantasy world when you were 8, and actually manages to live up to your adult expectations.

In addition to dinner, a lovely lunch, and an elegant brunch ($13 delivers champagne, fresh fruit, home-baked breads and muffins, coffee, tea, or milk, a selection from the dessert cart, and your choice of entrée, ranging from omelets to pasta to Emince de Filet Dijonnaise, a beef filet served in a mustard-cream sauce), Forepaugh's is famed for their holiday specials, like Valentine's Day, when roses grace the tables and heart-shaped tartlets peek out from among the desserts; or, of course, like Halloween.

By the time this hits the stands, there may not be any coveted third-floor tables left for Halloween, but the folks at Forepaugh's say they've never known Molly to be more active on October 31 than on any other day. They will say this, though: If you're sitting on the third floor and you suddenly become aware of the heavy smell of lavender perfume, that's not the dowager at the far table--it's Molly, and she finds you very interesting.

 
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