Forepaugh's gets tres sexy menu makeover

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

For years, Forepaugh's restaurant, located in a Victorian mansion near downtown St. Paul, felt like an elegant shut-in who was quite a gal in bygone days. Her couture was frilly wallpaper and molded ceilings. Her fare was classic French. In her heyday, Forepaugh's possessed all the social indicators of good taste and class: opulent decor, Continental fare, and expensive checks. But in recent years the restaurant's traditionalism and formality started to seem as antiquated as corsets and hatpins.

This spring, when Forepaugh's shuttered, remodeled, and reopened with new management and a new menu, the news was as shocking as finding out that my 80-something grandmother had attended a 25-year-old's Halloween party dressed as a flapper and toting a flask (true story). The restaurant's new owner, Bruce Taher, heads a large food-service business that operates hundreds of high-volume kitchens in schools, corporations, and other large institutions. About two years ago, Taher dove into the restaurant business, opening the Wayzata, Alaska, and Nordeast Eateries in quick succession and, more recently, acquiring the financially troubled Timber Lodge Steakhouse chain.

Compared to the Eateries, which Taher says he launched as test kitchens for his cafeteria operations, Forepaugh's has several points of difference, most notably its existing reputation. Forepaugh's wouldn't really be Forepaugh's without its 1870 mansion digs. The home has three levels of dining rooms, with each floor divided into several smaller, semi-private rooms perfectly suited to groom's dinners or retirement parties (for which they are often used). In the summer, the restaurant's best seats are on the deck above the circular drive, which offer an alluring view of downtown St. Paul. In the winter, the first-floor library, with its dark wood walls and antique books, is perhaps the most appealing spot. Its only detraction is a periodic vibration that shimmies the floor like a coin-operated massage bed in a cheap motel.

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

A tour of the building led me to what I suspect is the tremor culprit: the climate-control system for the restaurant's new glass-encased wine cellar, which is tucked into the limestone-walled basement. But I also couldn't rule out the resident ghost. The mansion's original owner, a successful businessman named Joseph Forepaugh, shot himself in the park across the street, and his alleged lover (a maid named Molly who hanged herself from a chandelier shortly after Forepaugh's suicide) is said to haunt the place.

In any case, on a brighter—or at least sweeter—note, let's start with the meal's finale. Taher hired pastry whiz Carrie Summer (formerly of Cue and Spoonriver and now co-owner of the mobile concessions truck Chef Shack) to design Forepaugh's dessert list and oversee the company's sweet side. Under Summer's care, Forepaugh's $8 treats have soul and style to burn. A deconstructed banana cream pie maintains that dessert's benefits while avoiding its hazards of graying banana slices, leaden crusts, and bland, gloppy fillings. Slices of caramelized banana are drizzled with a mix of maple syrup and coffee liqueur and then paired with a dollop of vanilla custard and a scatter of delicate hazelnut praline. It has livelier flavors, a lighter touch, and more satisfying crunch than the original. For chocoholics, the marquise—a brownie base with a ganache top—marries cocoa with several of its favorite flavor partners: sea salt, cardamom, and a scoop of caramel espresso gelato, which makes the dessert taste like popping an entire box of truffles into your mouth. The coconut fruit soup may be Summer's most imaginative creation. Made from a shredded phyllo dough called kataifi, it looks like a little bird's nest served with thin-sliced grapes, fresh berries, and grapefruit sorbet. At the table, the server douses the nest with a fragrant tumbler of rose-scented coconut milk to create a dish that could double as the world's best-tasting bowl of cold cereal.

Forepaugh's savory side is headed by chef Donald Gonzales, who worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley before returning to his wife's home turf and taking a job at Chambers Kitchen. (I'm starting to think Minnesota-raised brides are one of the most decisive factors in the recent improvement of our local dining scene.) Gonzales's overhauled menu includes such fancy apps as bacon-wrapped shrimp with par-dried pineapple alongside the lowbrow Canadian bar snack poutine. I thought the gravy-topped French fries and cheese curds of the poutine might be a little out of place with cloth napkins and outsize stemware, but when the dish arrived, I found it had been gussied up to match its surroundings, tucked into a paper cone and served on a little silver tray. The fries were good, the curds were better, and the battered-and-fried pickled chiles completed the dish like an end-zone dance tops off a touchdown. If I don't see this at the state fair next year, I'm going to be disappointed. Surprisingly, the dish's signature gravy consisted of just half a teaspoon or so in the bottom of the cone. When I ate one of the two fries it touched, the experience reminded me of going to pour myself a glass of milk only to discover someone else had left one lowly swig in the container: If you're not going to leave a full glass, why not just finish it off? It violated Rule No. 1 of Food Portioning, which was enacted in response to those silly one-bite candy bars: Better to go without than receive an unsatisfying portion.

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.

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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