Big Chef, Little Treasure

Chef Alexander Dixon of Zander Café fame fries eggs, makes toast

Z Café
518 Selby Ave., St. Paul

The Manhattan high school I went to was so overcrowded that there were no rooms to have any kind of study hall in, and so official policy dictated that any time there was a gap in your schedule you were to go outside and sit on a parked car, or sneak into a nearby hospital waiting room. Unless the weather was bad enough, in which case you were encouraged to find some bit of unused hallway floor and make the best of it. One term I had "study hall" with a kid who was the Puccini and Count Basie of all whistlers. We would occupy a little square of floor space in an auditorium balcony doorway, and I would furiously copy things into my chemistry lab book while this kid would lie with his head on his jacket and whistle, thrillingly. I don't remember any of the songs specifically, just the general aura of low-vibrating whistling, like a flute heard far off through a breeze, and the way I felt like I could sit there all day, enchanted. More, more, more. Please?

More than shocking, because ordinarily I have no patience for anything either so happy or so go-lucky. The other day I noticed the person driving the next car animatedly rocking his elbows in the air and playing the harmonica at traffic lights, and so I nearly, on general principles, got out of the car to challenge him to a duel. I think that people attempting to whistle or to play harmonica in public should first ask themselves the following questions: Am I in prison? Am I an animatronic hillbilly bear? Am I looking for a beating? If the answer to one of those is yes, indeed, then I say proceed. But only then.

Details, details: Chef Alexander Dixon's personal attention makes all the difference
Bill Kelley
Details, details: Chef Alexander Dixon's personal attention makes all the difference

And yet there was that kid in high school. A whistler of such breathtaking melody, glory, and trill that he, if the world had any justice, would be given a large lifetime salary by the state and dispatched to sit in doorways every day, whistling. For the greater good.

I thought of all this recently, when I realized that with this review researched and ready to write I had no more good reason to sit in the front of Z Café and bask in the glow of the cooking of Alexander Dixon, a chef of such talent and confidence that to be in his restaurant is soothing in a bone-deep way, like listening to a perfect whistler.

You see it on nearly every inch of every plate. At the legendary Sunday brunch (which is back! but reservations-only now), eggs in one of the several eggs Benedict variations come perfectly poached, shaky as balloons in a breeze. And these eggs rest in posh lagoons of complex sauces, such as the "Cajun" béarnaise--a rich version loaded with spicy chunks of sausage that further cloaks seared, salty Tasso ham and toasted English muffins. (Brunches run about $9.95, with a complimentary glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a mimosa, or a glass of sparkling wine.) Every ingredient is the perfect ingredient, every sauce is the highest vision of what that sauce could be, every little detail of toasting and poaching is done so attentively, it feels like it was done just for you. Look into the open kitchen and all the perfection makes sense: There's Alexander "Zander" Dixon, plating eggs.

Dixon, the very owner of Zander Café--the beloved, chef-driven American bistro that serves things like bison tenderloin and pours things like vintage Rhône wines, and is the very restaurant that many people consider to be the best in St. Paul, and one of the best in the metro. Dixon took Zander Café from a smallish, plainish box to a vastly expanded, nationally well-regarded restaurant with jazz space. Over the years, he even led the reshaping of the quiet block he started on into a thoughtful gourmet's shopping destination, with a related coffee-shop and breakfast spot across the street, and a friends-of-Zander wine shop next door, Solo Vino, part owned by Zander's sommelier. Over time, Dixon gave up the coffee shop, and it was replaced by an inexplicably expensive Greek restaurant called Medusa. But now, since December, Dixon has reclaimed the old space, formerly known as Z's Café, and renamed it--pay attention!--Z Café. But it is not just back, it is new and improved, because Z now has a grand selection of TeaSource teas and a beer and wine license that allows a modestly priced and very interesting little wine list. Which is how we got to have Dixon, chef of name and note, arranging strips of bacon on toast points, in preparation for drenching with a cheddar cheese sauce as rich as a savory buttercream, for Z's version of Welsh rarebit.

"I just happen to really love a good eggs Benedict," says Dixon. "Once we made it reservations-only that cut down on the manic attack of the brunch diners, and now I enjoy doing it again. As I've gotten older I've got less the kind of ego that's Oooh, look what I can do and I'm more interested in just making people happy. I can have as much fun in executing precisely as I can have in doing something flashy. Anyone can conceive and create a dish that has shock value, but it's another thing to have it taste good. I think when you consider yourself and what you want to do before you consider your diners, you're not doing them any good. And you're not creating a place where you can continue to practice what you want to practice. If you can take pride in doing the simplest thing, then the pride in doing the exotic thing is equally satisfying."

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