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

And that breadbasket is a delight, full of the chewy, substantial hearties and light, sweet fancies that they whip up at Bakery on Grand every day. My server at that first lunch kept my coffee cup hot, my water glass full, and every need met, while maintaining a respectful distance. At that moment I knew that A Rebours wasn't like its artsy sister Bakery on Grand--which had opened like cats stampeding onto tar.

You will think so, too, if you try those mussels. At lunch, at dinner, or in the mid- afternoon, if you like, A Rebours serves those black, shiny mussels in a wide, well- warmed bowl where they sit glistening in a warm, salty sea of herbed butter and white wine broth. Inside each shell a lump of sea- trembling flesh offers a plump taste of ocean fruit, tinged with mineral and iodine. It's everything you remember about that magical dinner that summer in Belgium, but so much more convenient if you have tickets for the Ordway.

Whether you have tickets for the Ordway or not, at dinner A Rebours will meet you on whatever level you need it to--if you want a quick after-work stop for a bowl of squash soup with a bacon fritter ($8) and some sturdy bread to sop in it before running to your French class, that's an option. If you need to impress a client before you stuff him onto the red-eye, you can do that too, with a steak au poivre with cognac sauce ($28) and a bottle of wine with bragging rights (how about the 2001 Terra Valentine Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, $58?) along with chocolate cake and scotch. And if you want to relax with pals over a multicourse meal that will delight your senses and not break the bank, you can do that here, too.

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

A Rebours's executive chef is Roger Johnsson, but, since Johnsson currently lives in Stockholm, where he is executive chef at another restaurant, the day-to-day cooking at A Rebours is headed by Don Saunders, who formerly cooked at both Vincent and La Belle Vie. The A Rebours team excels at those dishes that make up the core of the Parisian bistro repertoire, here presented with a twist.

A gravlax appetizer ($8.50) has varied over the course of my visits; once it was served with a peppy slaw of fennel and carrot, and the sweet anise tinge of the vegetables gave a lively energy to the sweet salmon. Pair slaw and fish on one of the warm, accompanying pumpernickel toast points, and you experience a springtime breeze of silk and prickle. On a later visit the gravlax was paired with thin ribbons of cucumber dressed in a subtle vinaigrette seasoned with the essence of violets, and the plate was scattered with pithless sections of orange; now a bite of gravlax, toast, and accompaniments was about the fruitiness of fish, and vice versa. I suspect one could spend all year pursuing this theme, and never tire of it--impressive.

A fried soft-shell crab one evening was delightful: The two halves of the wee beast each rested upright in a bowl of a light, foamy sauce that was something very fresh that dwelt in a magical halfway point between vanilla and crème fra& icirc;che, and around them were three little mounds of a freshly chopped tomato salad. The texture of the dish was simply beautiful-- the crisp crab, the tongue-clinging cream, the gelatinous, tenuous tomato uniting into a cheery little song of sweet and light. Overall, it was both charmingly original (vanilla with crab and tomato--eek!) but also nicely understated and unified--a treat.

The charcuterie is the same wonderful stuff showcased at Bakery on Grand. Mild, comforting sweetbreads are another house specialty, though I must confess I sometimes found them mild to the point of dullness.

The good entrées at A Rebours tend to be either rather conservative, like an attractively simple cassoulet ($18) in which a tender lamb shank sat in a good stew of well-cooked beans decorated with a confetti of bacon pieces. It was a straightforward dish, and good. More fanciful dishes, I found, have less of a chance of success. I had the strangest variation on paella one evening, in which unyieldingly stiff planks of chorizo did war with chewy shrimp and undercooked squid while being smothered in a ridiculously buttery orange sauce. A cocoa-dusted duck breast ($24) was utterly puzzling. It was just gorgeously tender, as soft as silk, and red as wine, the skin crisp and chewy. And yet it was undeniably both cooked to utter perfection and also nearly inedible, as the bitter, salty cocoa coating tasted like something made by scraping the finish off an antique desk.

The best of the entrées I tried here was thin fillets of skate wing, fried until they were beautifully crisp and russety brown. They were arranged in a bow on one side of the plate, and presented with a rich, creamy, lemony sauce and a second rich, creamy concoction that might well have been another sauce, but was in fact mashed potatoes. There were also slick, slightly irony sautéed greens and pale enoki mushrooms that were crunchily watery in that way that those mushrooms are. In any event, each bite of the crisp and tender skate, the rich and buttery things beside, the silky and crispy things beside that, each bite such that one is compelled to chase forkful with forkful, hunting the various textural riches.

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