Big Chef, Little Treasure

Details, details: Chef Alexander Dixon's personal attention makes all the difference
Bill Kelley
Z Café
518 Selby Ave., St. Paul

The Manhattan high school I went to was so overcrowded that there were no rooms to have any kind of study hall in, and so official policy dictated that any time there was a gap in your schedule you were to go outside and sit on a parked car, or sneak into a nearby hospital waiting room. Unless the weather was bad enough, in which case you were encouraged to find some bit of unused hallway floor and make the best of it. One term I had "study hall" with a kid who was the Puccini and Count Basie of all whistlers. We would occupy a little square of floor space in an auditorium balcony doorway, and I would furiously copy things into my chemistry lab book while this kid would lie with his head on his jacket and whistle, thrillingly. I don't remember any of the songs specifically, just the general aura of low-vibrating whistling, like a flute heard far off through a breeze, and the way I felt like I could sit there all day, enchanted. More, more, more. Please?

More than shocking, because ordinarily I have no patience for anything either so happy or so go-lucky. The other day I noticed the person driving the next car animatedly rocking his elbows in the air and playing the harmonica at traffic lights, and so I nearly, on general principles, got out of the car to challenge him to a duel. I think that people attempting to whistle or to play harmonica in public should first ask themselves the following questions: Am I in prison? Am I an animatronic hillbilly bear? Am I looking for a beating? If the answer to one of those is yes, indeed, then I say proceed. But only then.

And yet there was that kid in high school. A whistler of such breathtaking melody, glory, and trill that he, if the world had any justice, would be given a large lifetime salary by the state and dispatched to sit in doorways every day, whistling. For the greater good.

I thought of all this recently, when I realized that with this review researched and ready to write I had no more good reason to sit in the front of Z Café and bask in the glow of the cooking of Alexander Dixon, a chef of such talent and confidence that to be in his restaurant is soothing in a bone-deep way, like listening to a perfect whistler.

You see it on nearly every inch of every plate. At the legendary Sunday brunch (which is back! but reservations-only now), eggs in one of the several eggs Benedict variations come perfectly poached, shaky as balloons in a breeze. And these eggs rest in posh lagoons of complex sauces, such as the "Cajun" béarnaise--a rich version loaded with spicy chunks of sausage that further cloaks seared, salty Tasso ham and toasted English muffins. (Brunches run about $9.95, with a complimentary glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a mimosa, or a glass of sparkling wine.) Every ingredient is the perfect ingredient, every sauce is the highest vision of what that sauce could be, every little detail of toasting and poaching is done so attentively, it feels like it was done just for you. Look into the open kitchen and all the perfection makes sense: There's Alexander "Zander" Dixon, plating eggs.

Dixon, the very owner of Zander Café--the beloved, chef-driven American bistro that serves things like bison tenderloin and pours things like vintage Rhône wines, and is the very restaurant that many people consider to be the best in St. Paul, and one of the best in the metro. Dixon took Zander Café from a smallish, plainish box to a vastly expanded, nationally well-regarded restaurant with jazz space. Over the years, he even led the reshaping of the quiet block he started on into a thoughtful gourmet's shopping destination, with a related coffee-shop and breakfast spot across the street, and a friends-of-Zander wine shop next door, Solo Vino, part owned by Zander's sommelier. Over time, Dixon gave up the coffee shop, and it was replaced by an inexplicably expensive Greek restaurant called Medusa. But now, since December, Dixon has reclaimed the old space, formerly known as Z's Café, and renamed it--pay attention!--Z Café. But it is not just back, it is new and improved, because Z now has a grand selection of TeaSource teas and a beer and wine license that allows a modestly priced and very interesting little wine list. Which is how we got to have Dixon, chef of name and note, arranging strips of bacon on toast points, in preparation for drenching with a cheddar cheese sauce as rich as a savory buttercream, for Z's version of Welsh rarebit.  

"I just happen to really love a good eggs Benedict," says Dixon. "Once we made it reservations-only that cut down on the manic attack of the brunch diners, and now I enjoy doing it again. As I've gotten older I've got less the kind of ego that's Oooh, look what I can do and I'm more interested in just making people happy. I can have as much fun in executing precisely as I can have in doing something flashy. Anyone can conceive and create a dish that has shock value, but it's another thing to have it taste good. I think when you consider yourself and what you want to do before you consider your diners, you're not doing them any good. And you're not creating a place where you can continue to practice what you want to practice. If you can take pride in doing the simplest thing, then the pride in doing the exotic thing is equally satisfying."

At breakfast those simplest things are eggs, Florentine sauce bright with spinach, and fresh-baked caramel rolls with glassy-looking corners, like praline lace. At lunch the simplest things might be an Italian pot roast sandwich, meat tender and simmered all day in a brew of Nebbiolo wine, garlic, and rosemary, the whole thing served with a little pot of jus that's rich, beefy, and homemade. Or the simplest thing might be a curried-chicken-salad sandwich, so light and flavorful you feel like Jackie O. on her yacht. On Thursdays during the high tea, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m., finger sandwiches, strawberries and cream, and a thoroughly charming selection of simple scones and complicated bite-size pastries come out. Even though the service is a simple modified counter service, even though there's little evidence of the dizzying heights that Dixon is capable of achieving, I can't imagine how I could have been any more charmed. Lately I feel like I've been inundated with dishes in other restaurants that I could only wince at. Meals marked by artichokes served in vats of oil, fish stinking of spoilage, paella with the consistency of canned ravioli, basic botches, proud mistakes, and bad guesses. At some point if a critic keeps pointing these things out, a critic starts to feel schoolmarmish and cramped of spirit. But at Z Café, whenever Dixon was back there, I nearly wanted to purr: Everything's just right! It's right and practiced and genius and talent and...[sigh].

That feeling even sustained me through my one dinner there that was otherwise a disaster, largely owing to temperature. When you go into the place for lunch or brunch you enter through the sweet flower shop next door, but at dinner a large door opens directly on the street and so, the night that I was there, it was about five degrees outside, and about six degrees inside. A server managed to take 40 minutes to bring a glass of wine and an hour to bring an appetizer, raising questions that no restaurateur wants his customers asking themselves, such as: What is the difference between this and being locked out of the house? And: Am I in prison? Am I an animatronic bear?

Yet Dixon freely admits that dinner at Z thus far is a time slot looking for an identity: "I'm still kind of feeling around in the dark on dinner; I've got to find something that strikes a chord with people. It'll be something along the comfort-food vein--meat loaf, pot roast--but I don't have it yet." I couldn't agree more. When I had that dinner, Dixon wasn't at the stoves, and his absence was palpable--not just in the too-salty everything and teeth-chatteringly cold fried chicken ($12.95). But it was one of those things that again made me appreciate the stamp a talented chef puts on every little everything in his purview: When Dixon is cooking, everything is lovely. When he is not, it is not. Why? His innate palate? His 20 years experience standing behind the line, putting plates together, and making them right? What makes that critical difference between the chef being in the house, and nobody's home?

The issue of chefs has been on my mind a lot lately, and specifically ideas about gifts and talent. Mostly because I've been fretting about several little places that look like they're about to go under because of talentless chefs. Also because while I've never said in print that a chef was talentless, I've thought it often enough, and now, when I see these men taking other people's fortunes and dreams down with them, I wonder whether it would have been kinder to have been more cruel.

I asked Dixon this, and he ventured that I probably wasn't understanding the complex symbiosis between restaurant and chef: "There's definitely a certain amount of born ability, and then there's a certain amount that can be taught," he says. "It's easier to tell the people who absolutely don't have talent. But there are a lot of cooks who just sit on the wall, and the wall sitters are hard to figure out. People that don't necessarily appear to have talent will often, at some point, if they're interested in what they're doing, have an 'aha!' experience and their abilities will change, because they've been driven to a new level by their restaurant or colleagues.  

"Yet working in a place that just hammers out the same thing all the time will eventually defeat a person. If all you're doing is flipping steaks, it gets boring after a while. Good cooks can be driven into the ground by bad restaurants," says Dixon. "When you work in a bad restaurant, the food may always end up being bad. And if that's the case, you're not going to get any gratification from your audience. Then, if you know you're making a product that's less than what you can do, you're not going to feel good about yourself. And if you stay in that hellhole, it could ruin you."

These ideas--of getting gratification from your audience and making a product that's at the ultimate of your abilities--are core to Dixon's philosophy about being a chef, and about being a businessman. To this end, he is embarking on what seems like the most ambitious restaurant project of his career, if it is not entirely the most ambitious restaurant in the history of St. Paul. This project, which is just in its planning stages, involves transforming the old Head House on the Mississippi waterfront into a destination restaurant, replete with river views, jazz bands anchored on barges, and far-reaching but not too expensive American cuisine. When I spoke to him, Dixon said that he and his partners hadn't even gotten to go into the building to see how difficult the renovations would be, which could easily result in the whole project being scuttled, but still. (But still, if it were in Minneapolis they'd probably just hand the thing to Red Lobster with a hundred-million-dollar check to ensure quicker demolition. I must say, the powers-that-be in downtown St. Paul are doing a marvelous job in terms of realizing a cohesive, purposeful, attractive vision for their downtown, and using local talent to do it. Unlike some cities I could name.)

Which leads most thinking people to wonder: What the hell is a Head House? Glad you asked. In the 19th century, the Head House marked the northernmost navigable place on the Mississippi, the head of the river for shipping purposes, and the site where barges, trains, and grain elevators made their various exchanges. Perhaps in the 21st century it will connote something less about navigation of ships, and more about navigation of thoughts, integrity, and talent to a single point, with chef.

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