Daydream Believer

W.A. Frost & Company
374 Selby Ave., St. Paul; (651) 224-5715
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday (Friday and Saturday till midnight);
Sunday 10:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m. (brunch till 2:00 p.m.; last seating 1:30 p.m.)
Bar hours: Sunday-Wednesday till midnight, Thursday-Saturday till 1:00 a.m.

It's summertime, and the air in the gardens of St. Paul is sweet. Not perfumed, as it is in those suspicious tropical climes where bougainvillea grows: just Midwestern sweet, drawn in from the prairies, stripped clean by sunshine, and filled up with dew from the hearts of elm trees.

You breathe that sweet air as you queue up for a table in W.A. Frost's ivy-crowned back patio (reservations are taken only for the inside dining rooms, those brick-walled, tin-ceilinged spaces straight out of Currier & Ives). As you sit on the park benches that separate the patio from the sidewalk, a server brings you cocktails. Perfect summer cocktails. Like a Pimm's Cup ($4.25) garnished with a cucumber slice. Classy margaritas. A Bellini, a flute of sparkling wine made silky with peach nectar ($4.25). Or maybe one of the beers from the brilliant beer list, or a bottle selected from some 800 wines.

David Kern

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W.A. Frost and Company

374 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: St. Paul (Downtown)

You sip. The sky-scraping trees rustle above, back and forth, hypnotically, like rain on sand. Darkness descends, and the little lights threaded beneath the patio umbrellas and wound into trees come in like fireflies, while thick plumes of citronella-candle smoke wind around diners' ankles. In that air, under those lights, Frost's seems thoroughly heavenly--a piano sonata under the stars, each note gentle, soothing, perfect.

Then you finally do get your table, order from the nicely varied menu, and settle in for your daydream of a summer meal. And somewhere along the way, the music is marred by notes out of tune. Your eyelid quivers: Did anyone else notice? Do you ruin the reverie by calling attention to the error? Or do you sit, charmed into submission, like a cobra swaying lamely to the enchanter's flute?

The dishes least likely to create that kind of dilemma are Frost's salads and mussels. Both times I had the spinach and red chard salad ($5.95) the greens were astonishingly crisp, dressed in a delicious combination of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper, and topped with buttery shreds of an excellent Parmesan. Mussels ($9.95) were also reliably perfect: Once they came in a potent lemongrass-curry broth, a delightfully complex composition of bitter curry and bright lemon cut with fresh cilantro. A few weeks later they were served with a Pernod cream sauce whose licorice edge was nicely complemented by a grassy note of fresh tarragon.

Everything else I tried, however, was more out of tune than in. Sourdough crostini ($8.95) were the worst, a trio of stale disks covered with a salty tapénade, a mushy tomato salsa, and plain goat cheese. Deep-fried triangles of polenta rich with Parmesan cheese ($7.95) had a nice texture, but the accompanying ratatouille was indistinct, and the whole thing seemed more like a side dish than a plate unto itself.

Entrées were unpredictable: The pan-roasted halibut ($19.95) was perfectly cooked whenever I tried it, but the first time, the red-pepper coulis surrounding it tasted thin and acrid with unripe peppers. The second time, the coulis was nice and rich, but the fillet came, unexpectedly, nestled in a bowl of mixed salad greens, making for an ill-conceived hot-fish salad.

I had no more luck with the grilled pork T-bone ($15.95), which always came overcooked and flanked by oily grilled broccoli (as well as some good rosemary-flavored roast potatoes). The bouillabaisse was a complete mess--grainy, overcooked, lacking any garlic kick, and priced at an aggravatingly steep $23.95.

Desserts also impressed me predominantly with their costliness: A martini glass with a scoop of vanilla gelato and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar-chocolate sauce was quite good, but $6 for a few bites of relatively plain dessert seemed unreasonable. I rode a roller coaster with the almond gâteau ($6.25), a multilayered buttercream cake dressed up with sliced almonds: Once it arrived old, refrigerator-fume-polluted, and bare, but another time it was fresh and served in a pool of raspberry purée, garnished with scads of fresh blueberries.

Now, those who have long watched W.A. Frost & Co. know that Lenny Russo, a chef formerly with the New French Cafe, took the helm about a year ago and was supposed to rescue the restaurant from the country-club food doldrums it had long suffered. I've been carefully tracking Frost ever since, waiting for the menu to coalesce into the orchestral performance the venerable spot deserves. And once, last winter, I almost thought it had happened: Highlighted by an utterly luscious game-bird cassoulet ($16.95), my dinner was close to perfect--except for a couple of dud desserts and one lackluster appetizer. What I remember most vividly is the utter contentment of tucking in near one of Frost's many, many fireplaces for a few hours caressed by fine drinks. I figured then that by the time the summer crowds arrived on the patio, the joint would be perfect.

I'm beginning to think that those crowds are part of the problem. Between the inside and outside seating, Frost has room for some 350 diners, twice as many as can fit into either of the other two big St. Paul restaurants, Pazzaluna and the St. Paul Grill. And with guests stacked up for both lunch and dinner, the kitchen is expected to serve a thousand meals on a busy day. A thousand meals, an average of two courses per person--you do the math: Even if the kitchen does everything right 95 percent of the time, that's still 100 faulty dishes beelining out to the expectant diners.

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