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.

Michael Dvorak

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.

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.

A second glorious St. Paul experience was had courtesy of Mother Nature and Father Immigration down along the Mississippi, in Hidden Falls Park. I'm ever awestruck with this spot, tucked between bluff and water, blessed with white-sand beaches, gliding herons, skyscraping trees, and a view of the picturesque yellow-brick buildings of Fort Snelling. Likewise, I'm ever awed by my powerful feelings about a good salami sandwich.

Kiev Foods is a deli serving the Eastern European immigrant community in Highland Park, and they take salami quite seriously, offering over a dozen imports (Hungarian, Italian, German, Russian, Ukrainian) as well as domestic brands, so put that in your samovar and boil it, you lackluster generic sandwich shops! If salami sandwiches were bears, then Kiev's would be big, muscular polar creatures--potent, kick-ass, a little tough--and everyone else would just be dealing with various sorts of teddy bears. At Kiev you can ask to taste salami in order to pick your favorite; when I did, the hot-eyed teen behind the counter sliced off samples and held them up to me on the point of her long knife, which made me feel so tough it was all I could do to proceed with my picnic plans and not go start a rumble with some inferior salami vendors.

I eventually settled on the Gypsy and Bear brands, both peppery, garlicky, chewy salamis that will stay in my memory forever (and that kept me out of the kissing booth for the rest of the night). Salami sandwiches at Kiev cost $4.99 each, come between slices of sour, chewy rye bread, and are filled out with creamy havarti cheese, slices of tomato, onion, lettuce, and your choice of mayo, butter, or very, very hot mustard.

Other picnic options at Kiev include a terrifically good smoked salmon sandwich ($4.99) made with butter and pieces of a not-too-salty cold smoked salmon; a red-caviar sandwich that I didn't try ($5.99); and somewhat lackluster turkey ($3.59) and "Black Forest ham" ($3.99). The deli also sells incredibly beautiful Russian candies folded in jewel-toned wrappers. My favorite is on a wafer the size of a single Almond Joy bar: It features a polar bear standing on ice floes, beneath a green and navy sky, pointing into the distance--is he smelling a sandwich? Sadly, the candy itself, a couple of wafer layers dipped in chocolate, tasted chalky. Still, I'm giving these to all my friends for their birthdays because of the fantastic wrappers, and if they don't like it they can kiss my salami.

The polar bear came from a candy section that cost $2.99 per half-pound; if you mix and match, you can have a fairly amusing taste test on the quick drive to Hidden Falls. Kiev is in a strip mall on the north side of West Seventh Street; to get to the river, go southwest on West Seventh, hang a left on Davern St., and turn right on Shepard Road, which will turn into Mississippi Boulevard. You'll see the park entrance to your left.

Further upstream the river's aspect is craggier and tougher, but just as sexy--the Clark Gable to Hidden Falls' softer-edged Carole Lombard. I've always relished those perfect 80-degree days when one can clamber down the bluff paths beneath the Stone Arch Bridge and picnic with a view of silos and skyscrapers. My picnic season this year has been notably enhanced by the jambon sandwich from the Aster Café in St. Anthony Main--a crusty baguette slathered with cold butter and filled with ham, much like the ones they sell on French streets. Chewy, buttery, and salty, it has all the texture and flavor variations a good sandwich depends on. Aster's other baguette sandwiches are decent, too, and at $3.95 each they will leave you with enough pennies to return to the pretty outdoor patio for a tap beer or latte. The restaurant has counter service during the week, and table service Friday and Saturday evenings.

I must emphasize again, though, how much the landscape enhances the experience of picnic food. Every time I sat down on a blanket beneath that turquoise-milkshake sky I felt like I had just dropped out of a Merchant-Ivory picture--and me without a shred of lace to call my own. Case in point: I've always liked Strudel & Nudel--the modest, spic-and-span coffee shop that is the Black Forest's sober kid sister--well enough; it's air-conditioned and inexpensive, and it often comes through with a great soup or a darn good muffin. But I fell in love with the Nudel when I took the food into Washburn Fair Oaks park. A blanket, a hillock, the Minnesota Institute of Arts peeking up to the south, the Gale mansion glowing all chateaulike to the northwest, and me with a thick, sweet, and meaty ham sandwich, chips, a pickle, and a rich, rich chocolate brownie--all in the Nudel's whole-sandwich box lunch, which runs $5.25. (Get your box lunch with both fruit and sweet, and a soup or salad, for $6.75; or opt for half a sandwich with chips, pickle, and fruit for $3.65.) Sawing into my perfect stack of house-baked bread, I had to ask: What did George Washington ever have that I don't have right here? I posed this question to Big W himself--he conveniently stands (in statue form) near the southwest corner of the park. Georgie was speechless with agreement, confirming once again what splendor we've got in these here grasses.

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