Forepaugh's gets tres sexy menu makeover

The grande dame of French dining in St. Paul gives its fabulous fare a new look

The kitchen made up for skimping on the gravy by offering late-season tomatoes in abundance: pureed into a sweet, cheerful slurry of cherry tomato soup; cut into wedges in a BLT salad that was enhanced with blue cheese, avocado, and pickled shallots; sliced into slabs and served with toast and tapenade (both of which were better than the accompanying house-rolled mozzarella, which had a somewhat rubbery texture).

While Taher encourages his chefs to use local produce, he also fosters the incorporation of global flavors by regularly taking a group of employees on international dining trips. While the tropical touches on Forepaugh's menu at first seemed as out of place as a sarong-clad wait staff might have, the dishes I tried pulled them off with aplomb. Halibut bathed in a coconut curry sauce had the same delicate, spicy depth you find in authentic Thai restaurants. Spiced mango chicken wasn't very spicy, and the skin could have been crisper, but the meat stayed moist and married well with the flavors of fresh cilantro, basil, mango, and lime. Gonzales says he loves the intensity equatorial flavors bring to New American cuisine, and he likes to punch up dishes as much as possible. "Just when you think they've had enough," he says, "give 'em a little more."

Gonzales wisely reprised a former Forepaugh's favorite, the beef Wellington, after giving it an elegant makeover. The tenderloin portions are cooked individually, wrapped in rainbow chard, and covered in pastry that's cut like a lattice-top pie. The resulting steak is infused with deep, earthy notes of mushroom and red wine that's tasty enough to justify its $38 price tag. The lamb loin was another dish that might have fit in on previous menus, given a modern spin. Gonzales serves it with a rich braised lamb shank sauce and a remarkable layer cake of polenta, ratatouille, spinach, and cheese soufflé that could stand alone as a vegetarian dish.

New American by way of the South Seas: Bacon shrimp appetizer with pineapple
Fred Petters
New American by way of the South Seas: Bacon shrimp appetizer with pineapple

The other Continental dishes I tried fell a bit short of their ambitions. The cranberry-bean agnolotti was an interesting idea—little pasta balloons filled with a cheesy bean puree—but their delicate flavor was smothered by a Parmesan broth and excessive fresh dill. Worse, though, was the striped bass pistou (the French variation of pesto) served in a fish fume that smelled like a bachelor's refrigerator and tasted like dirty bath water.

When I overheard a young man at the next table ordering the dish, it created an ethical dilemma: Was I obligated to intervene and protect him from culinary suffering, or should I mind my own business? Was he aware that he was about to pay $27 for something that blasted one's senses like walking into an Asian grocery—a pungent, funky, multilayered mix of overripe perishables? I decided, perhaps wrongly, not to meddle. And as we watched the server bring the man his dish—which was, as ours had been, topped with a blackened slice of bread—it seemed a bad omen that the kitchen had trouble making toast without burning it.

At the end of the evening, I noticed the guy who'd ordered the bass had covered his mostly full bowl with his napkin while his tablemates continued to enjoy their meals. It was a Sunday night, so maybe the misstep could be chalked up to the fact that the B team was in the kitchen.

Nevertheless, the old Forepaugh's had years to fine-tune its menu, while Gonzales has had just a few months. Things may not be perfect yet, but they're certainly interesting—and no longer petrified. 

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