Exceptional Vintage

A Stillwater wine bar reveals the real reason wine is good for you

Anyhow, over the years, the four got to fantasizing about the elements that would go into the ideal wine bar, and one day, says Richard Lay, the phone rang and it was Leslie Alexander asking if he remembered those conversations, and did he want to see a building? That began, says Lay, "the 100-day march. I started drawing up plans that night, then we did all the building and work ourselves, except for some mechanicals, and then we opened." If that seems to violate all the laws you know about buildings and building, please know that Lay, conveniently enough, is an architect, while Robert Alexander is, conveniently again, a cabinetmaker. Leslie Alexander has a background as a pastry chef, and anyone who knows about restaurants and restaurant building can only presume that Kirsten Lysne's day job as a psychologist came into play as well. By fall of 2002, Cesare's was born--and however you think that word is pronounced, you're likely wrong. It's pronounced in the most counter-intuitive way possible: Chezz-a-ray's.

The first time I visited the restaurant was last winter, and I never wrote about it because all of the foods that required more than simple assembly on the plate were truly a mess. I mean, we're talking gnocchi that tasted and looked like lumps of school craft paste. And yet, I kept going back, because the wine list is so utterly captivating, the service so friendly and well educated in that most Stillwater of ways, and the warm, well polished wood of the restaurant space is so soothing to be around. When I went, though, I mostly stuck with the excellent olive, wine, and cheese plates. The Cesare's gang works closely with Scott Pikovsky of Great Ciao, whom I've written about before, and consequently showcase some of the best salamis, freshest olives, and more interesting cheeses around. You really can't go wrong with the wine-lovers' plate, a $15 assortment of all of the above. A big plate of warm bread comes with your wine order, along with a fruity little bowl of top-flight olive oil, which is nice.

Lately though, I have been delighted--and I am not kidding you, absolutely delighted, with the kind of delight that won't fit into any tablet or gel-cap--to find the kitchen catching up to the wine list. Last week, for instance, I had one of the best salads of the year, a collection of mixed greens featuring both lettuces and a biting-but-sweet green the likes of which I have never seen before--and I've seen a lot of greens in my day. It was an exotic, thick-stemmed little plant with purplish stalks and nodding yellow flower-heads, and it just about jumped from the plate, saying, Different things are afoot here!

Richard Fleischman

Turns out those fascinating greens come from local Twin Pines farm, and they paired nicely with a few slices of local apple and a not-too-sweet scattering of fat candied pecans. An enormous plate of risotto cakes ($8) followed: charming fellows brown on the outside, glossy inside with good olive oil, topped with a dark cloak of long-cooked tomatoes, olives, figs, and balsamic vinegar that combined to taste like the end of fall itself, with all the concentration and salt you need to get through the winter. A couple of entrées were plain, good cooking of the most comforting kind: A pistachio-crusted chicken breast ($19) was a quarter chicken de-boned, marinated with preserved lemons and rosemary, coated in a thick mosaic of chopped pistachios, and cooked till it was absolutely tender. The meat was sweet and simple and the pistachio crust plain the way good bread is plain, which is to say, just as it should be. The bird was served with a breathtakingly rich Castilla olive-risotto in which piquant, chubby, purple olives swam with good olive oil among the plump grains of risotto. Plain, sautéed pattypans made themselves friendly on another side of the plate. It was a dish to please the most jaded epicure or the most restaurant-timid Marine-on-St. Croix grandma, which is quite a feat.

A seared piece of beef tenderloin ($25) was adeptly cooked, perfectly seared around the edges and well seasoned, and while the square of thinly sliced, layered potatoes that came alongside were under-cooked, the place is definitely on the right track. Okay, admittedly, desserts were still lackluster (a too-thick, too-dry blueberry tart on a macadamia crust, $6, tasted mostly like a packaged cereal bar), but ever since the restaurant hired young chef Per Carver to head the kitchen and dropped lunch service, the food at Cesare's has gotten better and better. If they keep this up, they'll be one of the prime destinations in the St. Croix Valley.

Of course, the meal I had was made terrifically more fun because of Cesare's excellent wine. For our meal we ordered exclusively from the 21-item by-the-glass list, and tried a mushroomy Jaume Llopart Alemany Cava ($8), a wine with the distinct nose of leaf-raking on a dry day; the vegetal, acidic, salad-perfect Grüner Veltliner from Llois ($6); and the Ridge Zinfandel flight, for which you get half-glasses of three different Ridge Zinfandels, namely the Three Valleys, Sonoma Station, and Lytton Springs bottlings ($15), along with an incredibly detailed placemat explaining the difference between the wines--it's like a free 20-minute wine course.

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