Ravioli Rock

Chet's Taverna
791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul, (651) 646-2655 Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sunday 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

Minnesota diners owe a lot to rock 'n' roll. Those hangover-torpedoing hashbrowns at Alias 8 are the work of half a dozen rockers, as are those tasty Uptown Bar burgers. Joe LaBatt, the chef garde manger (cold chef) at Auriga, plays and sings in the Freedom Fighters. The best restaurant in Red Wing is probably the Stag's Head, the work of former Hüsker Dü pillar Greg Norton, who was seen earlier in kitchens including the Loring Cafe and the St. Paul Table of Contents.

Mike Phillips, the co-owner and chef of Chet's Taverna, graduated from Hamline University with a degree in Russian Studies in 1989 and immediately dedicated himself to such rock bands as Salbando and Silver Salute: "I played guitar and bass, wrote songs, and generally made a fool out of myself," he says now. "Restaurants are an easy job to do when you're playing music. It's a lot of the same kind of stuff--you get together with a bunch of people and do this creative thing. Hopefully people come when you put it out, and like it; hopefully those people come back." Indeed, plenty of parallels between a local band--pick your favorite--and Chet's Taverna suggest themselves. Both inspire fierce loyalty among their fans, both dazzle with a few perfected numbers, both cultivate a friendly community and encourage neighborliness.

Chet's oeuvre is Mediterranean-influenced home-style food, slightly more upscale than its sister restaurant, Northeast Minneapolis's Modern Cafe, more elegant with its sage-colored walls and old-fashioned lithographs. Like the Modern, Chet's is at its best with simple, rough-hewn dishes. A lunch of tender slices of roast pork in a sandwich crowned with a salty tapenade and served beside a scoop of creamy mashed potatoes ($6.50) is fantastic, doing all the things a sandwich should do: satisfy (with familiar ingredients), amuse (with internal contrasts), and satiate (with big portions).

The quarter-chicken lunch ($7.50) features a bird perfectly caramel-toned and crispy outside, beautifully tender within, and complemented with rich mashed potatoes and salad. The dish could be a rival to the Modern's pot roast for "best Minneapolis comfort-food lunch." At a recent dinner, a braised lamb shank was lovely, as pliable as flower petals, mahogany brown, infused with long-braised flavor that contrasted well with the sweet mashed yams it was paired with--though not with the slightly acrid tapenade, a paste of kalamata olives and pumpkin seeds. Chet's offers some vegetarian items, such as a lunch sandwich of feta cheese and roasted root-vegetable pesto ($6), or lunch and dinner portions of fried polenta served with a scattering of roasted root vegetables. (The polenta is $7.50 at lunch and $11 at dinner, when it comes with a wheatberry stew.) Actually, roasted root vegetables are in nearly every vegetarian lunch item and will remain dominant on the menu until springtime brings a new array of vegetables and preparations.

It must be noted that Chet's, again like a local band, has a few limits in technique and vision that keep it from making the leap to a higher level. On my visits the kitchen seemed obsessed with those premixed baby-lettuce combinations: They appeared in sandwiches, beside meats, and in pastas, without any apparent rhyme or reason. A lunch dish of penne with lamb, mixed greens, parsnips, and sage ($7) tasted like uninspired leftovers--good chunks of lamb in a dish that otherwise had no unifying principle or taste. At dinner, a dish of gnocchi that was supposed to feature sausage, spinach, and roasted fennel ($9.50) was equally bland; the sausage was more like unseasoned pork, and instead of spinach, the hard gnocchi were nestled in more lettuce mix. And if Chet's can turn out a delicious chicken, it can also serve up a frightful one: One Saturday, the bird ($13) was served so pale and limp it looked like pudding.

Desserts, too, need work. One night's chocolate bread pudding was burned on top and ice-cold in the middle. Slices of a fig-studded pound cake were nice enough but appeared more like a breakfast bread than a dessert, despite the dollops of strawberry sauce. A dinner entrée of pan-seared boneless pork chops ($13) defined Chet's problem of perfection marred by a single, but glaring technical flaw: The pan-seared pork medallions were dreadfully overcooked and cottony, but everything that accompanied them was marvelous--buttery mashed potatoes swamped with a lush lemony gravy touched with anchovies, and the plate was scattered generously with capers and plump, pitted kalamata olives.

Please note that these limitations--along with the closely spaced tables and raucous noise level--are also what helps create Chet's charm. The place is so pretense-free, it often feels like a neighborhood dinner party more than a restaurant. (You know the kind--a buffet in which some dishes are perfect and some were neglected while the host chatted with the guests.) Rough edges and reliance on the audience's faith are what keeps local treasures that way: Who wouldn't prefer the company of a young, awkward Prince Rogers Nelson to that of the annoying, polished Artist?

 

TABLEHOPPING

COOKING BAND ALERT: Speaking of bands, the lineup at the Alias 8 Diner (formerly the A & J Gem Café is positively orchestral. Josh Van Loon (self-described cook/waiter/head of special operations) is in Captain Wonderful. Mike Koleman (cook/matchmaker) plays with the John O'Brien Band. Gabe Jankowski (spatula ninja) can be seen with Segue. And if you're a follower of DJ Drunken Monkey, well, he's here, too.

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