French Revolution

With French food and Belgian beers, St. Paul's new Margaux puts a little spring in the city's step

After returning to the States, Doran ran a restaurant outside Chicago called Dylan's, and later moved to Minnesota, running another version of Margaux in White Bear Lake from 1998 through 2003. The first Margaux was where Doran perfected her appealing vision of French food for casual American lives. "I like old-world recipes," she explains, "but to present them in a way that's not fussy, or pretentious."

To that end the restaurant serves that least pretentious of restaurant calling cards: an excellent cheeseburger ($10.95, with a great pile of fries). That burger is made with tender beef; gouda cheese; a sweet, grilled, light bun; marinated strips of zucchini, finely chopped onions, and a secret sauce in which I detected a bit of good whole-grain mustard before I wolfed the perky, robust delight down. The restaurant's salad Nicoise ($14.95) is nicely done, with slices of rare seared tuna and crisp, poached haricots vert.

My favorite dish was the restaurant's chicken under a brick ($15.95), which is the meat of half a chicken, mostly deboned, and cooked pressed flat so that the skin develops the kind of crispy crust you commonly only see in roadside fried-chicken shacks. It's incredibly delicious stuff—salty, tender, crisp—and the bright parsley sauce that finishes the bird only serves to accent how fine chicken is when it's done well. An entree of seared halibut ($24.95) was tender and delicate, the filet seared with good crust and flavor, the crawfish sauce and decorations of fried calamari rings none too intrusive.

My few encounters with dishes that were less than ideal at Margaux tended to be disappointing in very French ways. The duck two ways ($21.95) offered a lovely, tender, medium-rare duck breast, but it was served in slices layered with a stuffed duck leg that was terrifically dry. A sort of rabbit fricassee ($16.95) was made with lots of onions, carrots, white wine, and fresh thyme, but the rabbit must have been practically whole before it was stewed, and the thyme branches were thrown in whole, making the dish treacherous with tiny hard things.

Desserts can be simple and good, such as a fine, creamy, sized-to-share crème brulee; or simple and bad, such as an overly sweet rhubarb crumble or terribly stale cream puffs. (Our server insisted they were profiteroles, which are filled with ice cream, but in the end it wasn't the custard inside the elderly pastry I objected to; the things could have been filled with bearer bonds and they still would have been unwelcome.)

Perhaps the only question left to answer is exactly where Margaux is. It's in the Rossmore building, which is not exactly downtown St. Paul, as it's a block east of where the skyways end. (If you know your skyways, you can park for free on the street near Margaux, have drinks or dinner, and scoot indoors all the way to the Xcel.) Margaux isn't exactly in Lowertown either, as it lies a few blocks north, up the hill.

Doran told me that people are starting to call the area, with all of its new lofts, condos, and construction, Uppertown. "This neighborhood was such a cement oasis for such a long time," says Doran. "It felt like a desert town even two years ago. But now with all the new residential property and the nice weather, the area is just coming to life."

When the brasserie puts out its summer tables, there will be even more street life in this sudden neighborhood, in this reviving city long mocked for its spooky, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop night streets. And while there may be many ways to improve the world, surely none is more worth the energy than restoring vibrancy to the nights of St. Paul.

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