A Vocabulary of Culinary Bliss

Table of Contents

1648 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 699-6595

Milkweed just published a collection of poetry called Night Out: Poems About Hotels, Motels, Restaurants and Bars, and it's filled with what poets think about life in places where strangers congregate and coffee is served. It makes sense that poets dwell on what goes on in restaurants, since it seems that the same part of the brain that likes lyric poetry likes chocolate-covered strawberries and strangers in aprons. My favorite poem in the book is by Charles Simic, titled "The Partial Explanation":

Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order.
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.
Seems like it has grown darker
Since I last heard the kitchen door
Behind my back
Since I last noticed
Anyone pass on the street.
A glass of ice water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
Upon entering.
And a longing,
Incredible longing
To eavesdrop
On the conversation
Of cooks.

I like this poem because anonymity and solitude are two of the great pleasures of dining out, and because in a restaurant you insert yourself in someone else's vision and business, which is enlightening. I chose it because I think Table of Contents loyalists would appreciate it, because they're a thoughtful group.

Table of Contents is the bookiest of restaurants. Not only is it joined at the hip with the Hungry Mind bookstore, not only was it founded by two Macalester rebel English majors, not only is it the premier place in town to eavesdrop on famous authors as they dine before their readings, not only do they sprinkle their menus with literate quips ("We accept cash, checks, [all major credit cards] and, reluctantly, our own human limitations.") but each menu item is a thoughtful, harmonious little poem on the topics of the earth's bounty and joy.

The menu changes twice a month--or, in the case of soups, specials, and pastas, every day--and is based on owners Jim Dunn and Sam Ernst's philosophy that eating should be a process of discovery and pleasure, created by giving an inventive chef freedom with the best ingredients. They work diligently to acquire these ingredients. An Alaskan fisherman daily air-freights his catch to Table of Contents, so that you can eat never-frozen fish that was swimming only a day before. Beef comes from a small butcher in Plymouth, and ducks and rabbits arrive fresh from local farms. Small wineries are culled for distinctive offerings. Produce, herbs, and fruits are commissioned from local farmers whenever possible. "I'm on a little bit of a mission here," confesses Sam Ernst. "No restaurant has a higher standard for their ingredients."

The proof of that is in the pudding, or, in this instance, in the risotto appetizer ($6.95). The creamy rice was sweet and musty with roasted garlic and smoked tomato, brightened with opal basil, and laced with spring's best pea pods and asparagus: The pea pods were little inches of vivid, crisp sweetness, cooked to their lively best, and in perfect contrast with the creamy rice; the asparagus was pencil-thin, or, in this case, pencil-plump, and grassy and meaty in the way that only new asparagus can be. This dish was like a little happy song to spring.

The grilled tiger shrimp were a revelation--as big as small bananas, grilled to an inside-luminous/outside-crisp perfection, lightly smoky and tangy from the marinade. They were served on a portion of rice that was equally delicious. This rice was a "rice-cake," if you can believe it, but not of the dry, packing-peanut variety--it was a low, wide cylinder made of fat sushi rice speckled with Thai basil and crisped to a brown nuttiness, and was delicious in every possible way--and then made even more delicious by the presence of a handful of light shiitake mushroom pickles. My heart quickened with that odd blend of happiness and anxiety that this splendid appetizer ($9.75) would end--and that's an experience I've only had in conjunction with a very few chocolate mousses.

Salads were also well done, the dressings simple and distinct, the mixed calamata olives pitted, the honey-roasted red onions still crisp, the cheese high-quality and neither scant nor overwhelming, but reasonably apportioned. (I have a pet peeve about over-cheesy salads.) Entree standouts, like the grilled Ahi tuna on spicy rice noodles ($16.95) and the beef tenderloin ($21.95) finished with a lime-leaf demi-glace, had all the qualities you'd want in either a dinner or a road-trip companion--smart, original, and complex without being at all fussy or tiresome with their originality.

The St. Paul Table of Contents' chef Nathan Beauchamp is something of a whiz kid (according to Sam Ernst, he writes all the menus, "limited by nothing, he has no limitations--he tells us what he wants, and we get it"). Yet, with all that freedom, the young recent grad of the Culinary Institute of America never goes overboard or over-trendy with his menus, and even manages to keep vegan dishes--like penne with baby artichokes, olives, rosemary, and a garlic-chive puree--fresh and jazzy. I had lunch at Table of Contents while Nathan was out of town on a tasting trip around New York, and he was sorely missed. A mushroom and prosciutto pasta ($9.95) was mushy and indistinct, and the wasabi mayonnaise served with the cold poached-salmon salad ($8.95) lacked kick.

Desserts, by Italian pastry chef Dina Collins, are playful and lush, and also change frequently. The "Inescapable French-Toast Poundcake Thing" ($4.95) is a St. Paul Table of Contents specialty, and it's a marvel: triangular slices of orange-zest pound cake sautéed in clarified butter, surrounded by a citrus sauce and a vanilla crème anglaise, and served around a piped tower of mascarpone. This Poundcake Thing is to lemon pound cake what gold bars are to lacquered brass, and while it's certainly not for those who are slimming, it is exquisite. Other recent offerings included a nice rhubarb-frangipane tart, and a chocolate brûlé enlivened by an habañero pepper and port wine sauce--the pepper simply gives a little zing to the wine sauce. Dina also makes funky, fresh-fruit sorbets in season--with flavors like plum ginger, pineapple habañero, and mango Thai basil.

Both Dina and Nathan joined the Table of Contents staff eight months ago, and owner Sam Ernst says the restaurant's never been better. I'd have to agree. The waiters are all helpful, friendly, and discreet, the wine list is interesting and affordable, the food has hit a nice stride as both creative and reliable, and the airy, white-walled setting is entirely comfortable. On Sundays through Thursdays there's also a prix fixe--a three-course menu that will change daily for $16 or $18 per person. With a kitchen like this one I can only imagine that these menus will be wonderful.

When Table of Contents opened seven years ago (this is their birthday month) they planned to do readings in the restaurant, but soon found that diners found it difficult to give equal attention to their plates and the stories. This summer will see the addition of an outdoor patio, which will be open between lunch and dinner, and promises to be the perfect place for a late-night Poundcake Thing and a glass of port. It could also be the perfect confluence of dish and word. If readings really do fly here, hopefully someone will read from Night Out, perhaps from Bruce Berger's "Dining Late," which begins: "There are no burnt croutons in the restaurants of Heaven... " There are never any here either.


Tiny Bubbles: I think I just had as much fun as anyone has ever had in a chair. The scene was the Polynesian supper club Bali Hai (corner of Hwy. 36 and White Bear Avenue, 777-5500). The players were a trio of hula girls, an emcee who was half Don Ho, half late-stage Jake Lamotta, and a band with a rocking surf guitarist. Props included the Volcano ($8.95), a potent drink for two served in an enormous, goldfish-bowl sized container with a flaming sterno platform in the middle and two straws as long as your arm; and the only tasty Zombie ($4.75) that I've ever had. There's no cover charge, but there is a fountain and lots of masks, and the second show (the nondinner one) starts at 10 p.m. and is perfect for big groups. If you're really on top of your game you'll come up with a couple of requests to get you dancing (don't request "Tiny Bubbles," they'll play that anyway), so you can have fun both in and out of your chair.

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