Meanwhile the St. Paul Grill, the sort of old-world superstar after which all the starlets style themselves, is now mostly coasting on its assets. Foremost among those is the lovely, lovely bar, all oak and shine and glass. At this bar, between a charming oil of nymphs cavorting in a waterfall and a soaring mirrored wall showcasing scores of glittering bottles, one can indulge in house-made pepper vodka ($5), try fancy cocktails like the sidecar ($6.95), choose from the much-awarded wine list, or sip any of dozens of single-malt Scotches, including some from distilleries that no longer exist, like Dallas Dhu. (A shot of the 12-year whiskey from this Speyside ghost costs $7.75.)

The St. Paul Grill has other graces. The servers are aces. The view over a light-festooned Rice Park and castlelike Landmark Center is romantic and evocative. The dining room is beautiful--it's the genuine gold-pocket-watch splendor that places like Ruth's Chris, Morton's, the Capital Grille and Merchants have spent fortunes trying to reprise. The atmosphere is so thick with Industrial Revolution clubbiness, you can almost see the ghost of James J. Hill hovering above your crab cakes.

So why are those crab cakes ($7.95) mushy and tasteless? Why does the cioppino, a seafood stew ($18.95), taste like nothing but canned tomatoes? Repeated visits to the St. Paul Grill proved to me that if you venture outside the safe alleys of drinks, potatoes, or premium bits of critters, you will be disappointed. A special of grilled striped sea bass ($19.95) was typically pathetic, with the terribly overcooked, rubbery bass not at all helped by a tomato-paste-y cream sauce. The potato-mushroom croquettes that accompanied the bass were a mess--the interiors had the consistency of barley stew while the exteriors were nearly burned, and tasted powerfully of cooking oil.

Diana Watters

Location Info

Map

Ruth's Chris Steak House

920 2nd Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Morton's The Steakhouse

555 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55402

Category: Restaurant > Steak House

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

St. Paul Grill and Bar

350 Market St.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Paul (Downtown)

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By contrast, the things the Grill stakes its reputation on--the grilled critters, the spuds--are as splendid as ever. The grilled shrimp cocktail ($10.95) is made of five succulent shrimp as big as pork ribs; the hefty burger ($8.25) is crowned with bacon and your choice of good cheese; the dry-aged steaks, like the peppercorn-sauced New York sirloin ($24.95), are admirable. And the potatoes, particularly the crisp, onion-and-bacon-infused hash browns ($5.95) and the sweet, golden french fries remain the best in town. (Fries are $2.95 a plate or $5.95 a platter.)

Desserts are sized for sharing and good enough, though nothing special. A banana cream pie ($4.25) was mostly fluffy and sweet, while a salad-plate-sized apple crisp ($5.25) with cinnamon ice cream and a crumbly streusel topping had a homespun, sugary appeal.

But like the other steak houses, the Grill could do so much more. Surely these big, expensive restaurants, drawing on vast resources in an increasingly competitive marketplace, don't intend to coast indefinitely on their ability to place expensive cuts of meat near flames? That would be cynical, right? Pessimistic? And depressing as all get-out?

Speaking of cynics, hand-wringers, and those annoying folk who try to jam-pack all of life into one unifying theory, don't you dare write in and point out that only boring people are bored. That's just one of those convenient tropes à la "a stitch in time saves nine." How often does a stitch in time save eight? Or 20? If I've learned anything in the year of Monica, it's that boring people are never bored. Never.

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