Splendor in the Grass

Ala Francaise French Bakery and Vietnamese Cuisine
823 University Ave., St. Paul; (651) 291-2661
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m. daily

Kiev Foods
2509 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; (651) 690-5655
Hours: Monday-Friday 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Saturday 10:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m; Sunday 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.

Aster Café
125 Main St. SE (in St. Anthony Main), Mpls.; (612) 379-3138
Hours: Monday-Thursday 7:30 a.m-10:00 p.m., Friday 7:30 a.m.-1:00 a.m.; Saturday 9:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m.; Sunday 9:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.

Michael Dvorak

Location Info


Ala Francaise

823 W. University Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Macalester/Groveland

Kiev Foods

2509 W. 7th St.
St. Paul, MN 55116

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Highland Park

Strudel & Nudel
2605 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; (612) 874-0113
Hours: Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 8:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.

Everybody's always up in arms about how magazine photos of skeletal models are making teenage girls feel inadequate. But turn your attention to another societal crisis in the making--those Bon Appétit photo spreads of happy, flawless dinner parties that can turn plump-and-pleased gourmands into nail-biting, hand-wringing wrecks.

You must know the photos. Lanky "real people" with suspiciously strong teeth, questionably tidy cutting-boards, and shady links to (underworld?) florists who fill their homes with lavish arrangements. You know what they don't show--the (Cosa Nostra?) food stylists polishing the grapes, the (vice-filled?) days the "real people" took off work to clean the house, the (Pirates of the Caribbean?) hair and makeup experts arranging the photographees' visages.

And you know the horrors of trying to replicate the flawlessness in your own home--the galumphing out the back door with the recycling, the beating of the bathroom rugs (and the sneezing), the horrified realization that your beloved has brought your best French mustard to a tailgate party and it's just plain gone, and now you run to the corner Spend 'n' Dash, and all they have is the yellow goo in squeeze bottles, and the Spend 'n' clerk insists there isn't better mustard in the back, and no, he won't go look, and, no, he doesn't care about what goes in a classic vinaigrette.

Luckily, a simple solution presents itself. Keep a blanket in the back of your car, leave the recycling and the bathroom rugs to molder on their own, and head out into the picture-perfect splendor of our ecstatically beautiful parks. I am telling you, it's a miracle. Put a blanket down on plush grass beneath soaring trees at the edge of the Mississippi River, and you are immediately transformed into Martha Stewart by way of Botticelli.

Really. It's true. Try it. The natural flower arrangements, the expert lighting, the cutting-board-free relaxation that spreads across your face--hey, Mother Nature's your art director! If you take it upon yourself to break various local ordinances by pairing a bottle of Gewürztraminer with your spring rolls--well, what you lose in law-abiding uprightness you'll more than make up for by saving the nation from the Bon Appétit Crisis.

My vote for most breathtakingly cosmopolitan picnic goes to the combination of takeout from Ala Francaise, a Vietnamese restaurant on University Avenue, and the newly redone nouveau-Victorian landscape in front of the conservatory at Como Park. Ala Francaise makes Vietnamese sandwiches by splitting large, airy French rolls and filling them with scads of ingredients--julienne pork loaf, julienne carrots in a sweet-vinegar dressing, barbecued roast pork, lots of fresh cilantro and slices of jalapeño, all topped with a bit of mayonnaise and Maggi sauce, a lightly spiced vinegar dressing. The bargain-priced sandwiches ($1.50 for a regular, $2 for one with extra meat) are light, sweet and spicy, the fluffy bread and the biting jalapeños playing off each other nicely, the cilantro and vinegar adding to the zingy buoyancy. Spring rolls, another great finger food, come filled with fresh herbs, a couple of good-sized shrimp, barbecued pork, noodles, and lettuce ($2.75), all crammed so tightly into the rice-paper wrapper the rolls appear translucent, like deep-sea fish.

A refrigerator case full of other picnic goodies sits beneath the register--options include American sodas and spring waters for 75 cents, fancy Asian juices and sodas for a little more, Vietnamese beef jerky dressed with a bit of flavored oil and coated with sesame seeds ($4 for about a quarter pound), and a couple of varieties of pork buns. The basic kind ($1.50) is a rice-dough ball filled with barbecued pork, half a hard-boiled egg, and a vegetable mixture; you can have yours heated up for the road, and it should still be hot by the time you park by the conservatory. (The trip, driving west from the restaurant on University, then north on Lexington, shouldn't take more than ten minutes.) Set your blanket near the blue lagoon, admire the fancy trellis next to one of the benches with the very best view--is that Edith Wharton descending the hill from the spidery conservatory which soars in the distance? Oops, nope.

Too refined for ground seating? There are tons of picnic tables on the southern edges of Como Park; at the east picnic ground, you can watch a kids' softball game beneath the protected roof of a giant shelter, at the west ground, there's a kids' jungle gym and mini golf. Choosing a table also opens up a wider range of Ala Francaise options--like the bun nam nuong ($4.75), a salad of noodles, cucumbers, lettuce and cilantro topped with flattened, grilled pork meatballs, accompanied by a cup of sweet-hot vinegar dressing. The dish is fresh, light, and very tasty. But no amount of wishing will make it finger food.

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