7th Street Social is hit or miss
Let's begin by clearing up one significant detail: Though 7th Street Social has a similar moniker, the new St. Paul restaurant is not associated with Northeast Social or Eat Street Social. Rather, as a server informed us, the term "social" refers to the design of their menu, which is composed of dishes large and small that are meant to be shared.
These two little nuggets of knowledge are good to keep in mind when ordering, first because the portions are absolutely colossal, and second because the bar program at 7th Street doesn't take the same approach as the other unrelated Socials. Though somewhat adventurous in flavor and ingredient combinations, the cocktails here aren't made with designer bitters or topped with a frothy cap of whipped egg white. Drinks may be devilishly strong — like the St. Paul Sour, which was indeed mouth-puckering, with Bulleit rye, lemon juice, simple syrup, and a float of red wine — and other times so gentle you might wonder if there's any alcohol in them at all, like the Dirty Boy, a Jameson, ginger, and grapefruit drink that went down like breakfast-bar juice. This uneven treatment applies to the overall experience at 7th Street Social, which was marked by inconsistency and a stark range of highs and lows that left us wondering what the average visit was really like.
West Seventh Street, particularly the blocks more removed from the busy downtown area, is peppered with under-appreciated dive bars, longstanding family-run restaurants that haven't changed so much as the wallpaper since they opened, and some hidden gems that regulars prefer to keep that way. While the area is not entirely devoid of dining options, the residents just up the hill at the edge of Highland Park and across the river in Mendota Heights are hungry for a new go-to neighborhood eatery that's fresh yet familiar. In so many ways, 7th Street Social ticks those boxes. It's roomy and well divided, with a mix of intimate two-tops, space to accommodate large groups, and spots at the bar where you can dine alone or watch the game with a buddy. The menu has enough meat-and-potatoes-type dishes to make your grandparents comfortable, a few dishes that will intrigue your foodie friends, and a simple Margherita flatbread or plain griddled cheeseburger for the kiddos. But the restaurant's blind spots are significant and tend to cluster around the two big S's: service and seasoning.
Imagine a Venn diagram where circle A represents food with good flavor, circle B represents food with proper texture, and the intersection, C, represents food that has both. There were only three things we ate at 7th Street Social that fell squarely into the C category: the house-cured and cold-smoked salmon served with crostini, chopped hard-boiled eggs, creme fraiche, whole capers, and minced red onion; the lean and subtly salted, house-brined pastrami that comes on the otherwise average Reuben; and the smoky, ultra-tender prime rib, which was gorgeous and blushing when served as a carnal slab, but also lovely piled generously on a crusty roll for a French dip sandwich. The style of their prime rib may be a little different, but we'll go out on a limb and say that 7th Street's rivaled the famous cut at Kincaid's and for a fraction of the price.
A handful of small plates passed muster, including the crispy hand-cut parsley fries topped with bubbling, broiled Ellsworth cheese curds, and the pickled beets punctuated playfully by a jalapeño vinaigrette.
Less successful items included the pot roast, which was presented with three monoliths of meat, each tender enough but lacking in salt; carrot rounds bigger than a silver dollar; and a mountain of skin-on mashed potatoes that were stodgy and almost sweet. While the fried chicken did have a lot of herb and salt seasoning on the very browned exterior, there was not a lot of flavor or juiciness upon biting through to the meat. The texture of the accompanying biscuit was just sublime — layer upon soft, flaky layer of dough — but it was without the buttery, salty taste you expect from a biscuit, especially one that promises to be chock full of the sharp flavor of cheddar cheese.
The most disappointing of all dishes was also the most expensive thing on the menu. In the $20-plus range for entrees, people don't necessarily prepare themselves for a life-changing moment, but it's only natural that their expectations start to increase as prices go up. 7th Street's lobster skillet pot pie with cream gravy, bell peppers, and peas hinted at having a rustic, New England fisherman's-lunch type charm to it, but unfortunately the herbed biscuit top suffered the same problems as the one that came with the fried chicken, only this time the texture was off, too. Moreover, the topping creates an airtight seal on the bowl, trapping steam in and cooking the chunks of lobster until they're tough and chewy.
One of the most interesting things about 7th Street Social is how intentional the owners are in their collaborations, all of which are with St. Paul-based companies. The beer batter for the beautifully bronzed onion rings is made with Summit; there's a gigantic Kro-Nut stuffed with sweet, peanutty, maple-laced pastry cream and crushed Nut Goodies — a nod to neighbor Pearson's Candy; and the pot roast is braised with Flat Earth's Cygnus X-1. These are nice touches, but the execution needs polishing.
The same can be said for the service at 7th Street. On one visit we felt we were being rushed through ordering, entrees came out just minutes after appetizers were delivered, questions were answered with "I'm not sure," and — a personal pet peeve — there was no offer of coffee with dessert. On the next occasion, the meal was much better paced and service was almost overly attentive.
The dining experience here seems to be based very much on the luck of the draw with your server and the exact combination of things you order, which can turn the whole menu into a minefield. As a rule of thumb, the simplest things are what this place seems to do best. For the ideal meal, take a tour of the house-prepared proteins: Share the cured salmon plate, split the beautifully lean pastrami Reuben but ask for extra pink sauce on the side, and go crazy on the prime rib.
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