No More Mr. Nice Chef

Zander Café
525 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 222-5224

Kristine Heykants

"When I got to the Twin Cities I was one of the youngest chefs in any kitchen, but now I look back and I'm one of the old dogs," reflects Zander Café owner Alexander Dixon, his voice an even, stately measure of just how calm confidence can make you. Dixon has a lot to be confident about. He started his career in 1980 as the New French Café wunderkind fresh from the Culinary Institute of America, moved on to cook at well-known places like Faegre's and the Rosewood Room in the (then extraordinary) Crowne Plaza Northstar Hotel, and has proved time and again that he can take--or leave--the fickle world of restaurateuring.

His newest project, the Zander Café, follows a period when Dixon thought he would give up cooking in favor of the wine business; a previous non-restaurant episode had him living in Nantucket and building ships. In fact, if you like the elegant chairs and funky light fixtures that fill Zander's spare, modern space, you should know that Dixon made them from scratch.

Since opening the café three months ago, Dixon seems to have settled into what many would consider an ideal life: He lives five blocks from his bistro in the Selby-Dale neighborhood, he works exclusively with friends and others with a like set of goals and habits, he surrounds himself with art--the café also functions as a simple gallery for some local artists. Perhaps most importantly, he's stopped compromising. "I'm fed up with contrived dishes that have thirty different things going on at the same time," he says. "When I was in the heat of it at the New French Café I was probably as guilty as anyone of doing that, but as a chef when you get older you just begin to know better. You get more confident with what you like and what's good. You don't feel like you have to stretch out there to get the long ball every time you get the opportunity, and you feel comfortable doing the simple, direct thing."

That simple, direct thing means not catering to every Joe with an opinion: "I'm not trying to please the whole world anymore, I'm just trying to please the people who appreciate what I do. I don't compromise a whole lot now: If I make something hot, I make it hot. If I put garlic in it, I put garlic in it. But I'm not going to compromise down to appeal to the lowest common denominator to draw the largest crowd. That's why the restaurant is as small as it is." While the restaurant may be physically limited, it has resonated widely around town and packs in diners hungry for well-spiced, straightforward food.

Dixon changes the menu every few weeks, so many of the following dishes may be gone by the time you come by, but on my visits chipotle satay pork skewers ($6) were crowd-pleasers, scorching morsels that hearkened to the real meaning of the word "appetizer": With their brief fire and quick intensity, they really did awaken the appetite. The bruschetta ($6) was the simplest combination of grilled bread and sweet, ripe tomatoes with a scattering of olives, a dish so vibrant with color and deceptively simple in its composition that it looked like a photo from some glossy magazine. Dixon's only apparent bow to public demand, the Caesar salad ($5), was delicious, vibrating under a muscular dressing full of garlic, anchovies, and parmesan. Crab cakes ($6) with a jalapeño remoulade were plump and nicely meaty with a jazzy counterpoint in the sting of the traditional mustard mayonnaise.

My only complaint with any of the starters involved the cream of garlic soup ($3 cup, $4 bowl), which was deliciously deep and roasty, but so buttery and rich in texture that I found it ultimately cloying. I encountered a similar problem one night with a special of pan-fried scallops on a bed of creamed spinach; the scallops were tender as ripe pears, the spinach fresh and un-mushy, but it was as decadently creamy as any expense-account steakhouse's token vegetable, and I couldn't bring myself to eat much of it.

Zander Café's entrées are all $15, and each is powerfully flavored. The bouillabaisse was laced with a fierce rouille (a mixture of hot chilies, garlic, fresh bread crumbs, and olive oil pounded into a paste and mixed with seafood stock) which made the stew--full of big shrimp, lots of fish, and a handful of mussels--delicious. In fact, the bouillabaisse boasted a broth so potent, so vibrant with garlic, it virtually could have stood alone as an entrée. It was peasant food in the most traditional sense: robust, hearty, generously apportioned, and candid in its flavors. (I should mention that while the scads of garlic sat fine with me and my dining companions, I bet there's a substantial number of garlic-phobes who would have just wilted before them.)

A pepper-crusted pork tenderloin served with mashed potatoes and a Madeira mushroom sauce was also very good, the meat cooked to a lushly tender texture, the buttery mashed potatoes and the slightly sweet, refined sauce comforting in their tasty familiarity. Perhaps my favorite was the seared ahi tuna, served crusted with black sesame seeds and perched on a sauté of gingery cabbage in a plate decorated with pools of wasabi vinaigrette. It was a simple dish, well-centered on a few essential culinary pairings, emphasizing the strength of the flavors without any unnecessary glitz. Nice.

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