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BEST RESTAURANT (ST. PAUL) Minneapolis 2003 - Zander Cafe

There are little Zs all over the Zander Café wine list, annotations that indicate selections from chef Alexander "Zander" Dixon's personal collection. One would do well to look to the little Zs, for with each one comes an unusual, wonderful little treat. In fact, sometimes it seems like everything at Zander is stamped with some kind of Z, visible or invisible, indicating some personal bit of Zander's good taste--which is given generously to his dining public. Little Zs might as well mark most of the selections on the wine list, from the grad-student-friendly bottles that start at $16 to the choices that cause a collector's heart to flutter. Little Zs might as well hover over the new jazz stage, because Zander, no matter what anyone else thinks, is dedicated to the easy conviviality that always seems to arrive as live musicians heat up a room. Little Zs might as well sit next to every menu price, because even in these trying times Zander's soups cost merely $4--even the famous three-soup-mosaic, where three brightly colored soups, (black bean, roasted sweet corn, and yam and red pepper) sit like wedges of pie, next to one another, but not mixing too much. All the appetizers and salads are just $7.50, except the two that are just $5; all the entrées cost $17, except the vegetarian nightly special, which costs $12.50. Those entrées are dazzling to behold, each embodying the pillars of Zander's cooking we have come most to admire: the bold spicing, the good ingredients, the conviction that no dish should ever be muddy or unattended. For example, a tamarind-glazed duck breast with wilted spinach and glazed turnips combined the sweetness of duck with the puckery spice of tamarind in a forthright and delicious way. Meanwhile, little Zs might as well sit on the shoulders of the engaging and intelligent servers, in the rustic but pleasant desserts, and really, not merely on everything within this artsy, cozy joint, but on all of St. Paul--which we think of as having a little invisible Z in its skies, indicating a very intelligent and delightful dinner.

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