Really Fine Dining

St. Paul's newest fine dining restaurant, a rebours, blends the art of bakery on Grand with a finesse all its own

A Rebours
410 St. Peter St., St. Paul
651.665.0656

Fine dining and St. Paul have been mighty skeptical of one another over the years. For one thing, people in St. Paul don't like the idea that people are going to make them get dressed up fancy and then coo the money right out of their pockets. For another, St. Paul is principally concerned with education and the careful raising of children--two activities notorious for inhibiting splashing out for foie gras. Finally, no matter how great their fear of being tarred and feathered by the neighbors, any true fine dining aficionado can't help but notice that Minneapolis and St. Paul got connected a few years back by bridge. Meanwhile, most restaurateurs looked at St. Paul and concluded, I need that like I need a hole in the head. And thus, as late as a mere decade ago, fine dining in St. Paul could best be described as what you did when you wanted to receive your church-basement- mush on fancy plates.

I say this all largely to situate the landmark that is the new restaurant A Rebours: Not only is it a truly fine fine-dining restaurant, not only does it have wonderful chefs, prime ingredients, expert sourcing, grown-up, focused service, a real wine list, and romantic lighting. No, not only does it have all of that, it also both refers to a tradition of dining, namely French Bistro, and extends it into the present, just like a real living, breathing restaurant. Heavens, not only does it do all of that, but A Rebours is now by my count fully the tenth great restaurant in St. Paul, joining W.A. Frost, Zander Cafe, Chet's Taverna, Muffuletta Café, the St. Paul Grill, Mai Village, Ristorante Luci, Punch, and Heartland. The tenth! Ten great restaurants in the last city of the East.

A Rebours: Deliciously against the grain
Jana Freiband
A Rebours: Deliciously against the grain

This would be a landmark in any town, but for St. Paul I feel like it's about more than dining--much, much more. I mean, think about it: Could it be possible that the idea of imminent financial doom has finally released its clench from the throat of hardworking St. Paul? Is it possible that the specter of the Great Depression is actually, finally, now, in the post-silicon, Pinot Noir- tinged present, lifting? And while we're at it, has anyone noted lately how essential to St. Paul F. Scott Fitzgerald is, he who above all equated glitter with doom, high flying with crashing, and splurging with divine fury?

Well, consider this your invitation to just toss history on the compost heap with last week's bananas because this is now, and splurging is currently equated with great value and satisfaction. I mean, now you can make a reservation at A Rebours and live in that glittering moment that the Great Gatsby should have been able to enjoy, if he could only have been a little less St. Paul and a little more ah...well, I don't want to say California here, and I don't want to say Monaco, exactly, but since A Rebours means, roughly, against the grain, perhaps what I mean to say is, a little less old St. Paul, and a little more A Rebours.

So what's so great about A Rebours? Nearly everything. The room itself is lovely, it feels like a grand old bistro--many thanks to designer Terry Chance, who found the period lighting and cut each and every stick of wood in such a way that the room looks like it's been there for 100 years. Chance and co-owner Doug Anderson designed a space that feels as solid as the grand old Hamm building it's tucked into: Everywhere you glance, the eye lights on the polish of dark wood, the glow of recessed mirrors, the 19th-century touch point of hygienic tile work, the grace of white tablecloths. The room quickly telegraphs that sturdy elegance that has defined the classic French restaurant for 100 years.

A Rebours is co-owned by Doug and Jessica Anderson and Roger Johnsson, the former chef de cuisine at the Minneapolis Aquavit, a restaurant that was stratospherically ambitious in its cooking, but ultimately failed to bond with the city. The Andersons are the couple behind Bakery on Grand, the establishment that opened almost two years ago in south Minneapolis and gained an immediate reputation as a place of brilliant baking and odd restaurant habits. Michael Morse is the general manager; he is the man that owned and ran Minneapolis's late lamented caf& eacute; un deux trois, and is famous for his gruff, articulate charm--he's something like Oscar Madison from the Odd Couple, but with a more poetic, Brooklyn aspect. Looking at this crew of folks who always seem to be just on the wrong side of the glass from complete success, a restaurant critic had to ask--is there just too much personality in this little crew? Nope. Think of it as the Bad News Bears effect--they're in the championship now.

I knew the place was in a league of its own the very first time I dropped in for a simple lunch. I ordered the modest $8 omelette du jour, which arrived as plump as a hen, sitting high and proud on its plate, a bit of Gruy& egrave;re from the Gruyère and mushroom filling peeking out coyly from one corner, threading toward a pile of crisp potatoes. My friend devoured a plate of mussels ($8)--and everything in the breadbasket alongside it.

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