Mildred Dearest

Mildred Pierce Café
786 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; (651) 222-7430
Hours: Monday-Friday breakfast 7:00 a.m.-10:45 a.m., lunch 11:15 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; dinner 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch 8:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m. No reservations.

Mildred Pierce, the 1945 movie character, starts off as a housewife who drinks highballs made "harmless" with water, and hauls her little daughters, Veda and Kay, from French class to ballet lesson. But Mildred wants much, much more for her children than she can get in her marriage to a workaday real estate guy, so she dumps him and--through waitressing, baking pies, and taking up with a feckless heir named Monte--becomes a wealthy owner of five restaurants.

Mildred learns to drink her whiskey straight. Spoiled rotten, daughter Veda drops the French lessons, and next thing you know she's a teenager who has tricked some vulnerable young heir into asking for her hand, whereupon his family offers her $10,000 to break the engagement, whereupon she runs off with her mother's husband just to "get away from you...you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease." Because while Mildred has sacrificed everything in order to make Veda happy, Veda has come to despise Mildred. It's a black, black world, and by the end of the movie someone's in jail, someone's dead, someone is vindicated, and someone has to face the fact that she's ruined several lives.

So don't even ask me what I expected when I ventured into Mildred Pierce, the café. Impeccably tailored people slapping each other around, flinging back glasses of whiskey, complaining about the stench of labor, and maybe, just maybe breaking long enough to sass back at cheap dicks in threadbare fedoras.

But it's not like that at all. Mildred Pierce is just one big, museum-clean, white room with high ceilings and an open kitchen. In it, people who seem to have no designs on heirs or fortunes happily eat basic American fare--eggs and waffles in the morning, burgers and salads at lunch, and burgers, salads, and fancy American bistro dishes at dinner. So why did owner-chef Shelagh Connolly name her place after such a noir film? Connolly, who has worked in various kitchens in town including the Dakota, the New French Cafe, and Bobino, says she picked the Joan Crawford movie (and James Cain novel) not to summon the Sturm und Drang of the characters' lives,' but out of a much sunnier impulse: "Basically, I've often thought: I just want to go out to dinner somewhere where it's not painfully expensive or a big dog-and-pony show. It seems like places with quality food have lost their simplicity. So I wanted to emphasize that nostalgia, that warm and inviting simplicity and quality. In the movie it just seemed like ladies wearing gloves, that beautiful black and white; it was all stylized, oversized, bold, and dark. Style, style, style--but not style over substance."

Style, style, style indeed: In fact Connolly's restaurant exhibits three distinct styles, one for each meal it serves. The place is most dinerlike in the mornings, when butter-fried eggs, thick, apple-smoked Nueskes bacon, and airy, crisp waffles wing their way to the tables. Those waffles ($4.50) are fantastic, light, dewy in the centers and perfectly brittle at the crowns. Add raspberries or strawberry or blueberry sauce for a dollar, crème fraîche or whipped cream for 75 cents.

Eggs Benedict are delicious ($8.25) and reflect well on Connolly's fine-dining background: She lays thin, savory slices of Spanish serrano ham on English muffins, adds a few leaves of still-crisp spinach, sets down some greaseless poached eggs and tops it all with a house-made, gossamer-light hollandaise sauce dabbed with a spot of chipotle sauce. The result is as unlike the average eggs Benedict as Joan Crawford is unlike W.C. Fields. With the sun streaming in through the wide windows and tall glasses of latte on the tables, Mildred Pierce feels like a St. Paul New French Cafe--though the baked goods don't quite compare.

At lunch, the restaurant is both diner and bistro. Standouts include a house-roasted turkey club sandwich ($6.75) made with that Nueskes bacon and a zesty white-truffle aioli, and an excellent hamburger ($7.95). The soft patty of freshly ground Black Angus beef is cooked perfectly to temperature and served on a sweet, firm bun alongside a pile of thin, extra-crisp potato chips. I'd easily count this among the metro's Top 10 burgers--and topping it with high-quality cheddar, Swiss, American, or Monterey Jack cheese doesn't hurt.

I wasn't particularly happy with any of the salads I tried: The organic mixed greens tossed with an orangey vinaigrette and sweet, yummy spiced pecans ($4.25) were too mild, and some of the leaves had yellowed. The spinach salad ($5.95), topped with sautéed button mushrooms and dressed in an exceptionally mild walnut-oil vinaigrette, was terribly plain. Caesar salad ($5.25) with a very creamy dressing seemed to lack a backbone. I'd say that I'm just jaded from a few years of those pre-bagged salad mixes--but then again, there are plain green salads, like those at Auriga or Lucia's, that I still find exciting.

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