Bring the Spring

Mill City Cafe

791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul


THE POST-WINTER thaw brings out the worst in a city. Everything looks dirty and murky, every storefront offers something you've seen before. In a week like this, your oppressed senses need a shot of spring. I got mine at the Mill City Cafe.

The interior is as immaculate as any I've ever set eyes on: white walls decorated simply with veins of metal sculpted to hold handmade pottery stuffed with dried flowers, tables decorated with stray tulips in blue mineral water bottles. Though small, the tables and chairs are arranged for maximum capacity; drop your fork and you may not be able to pick it up without brushing up against various persons at the neighboring table. What the cafe lacks in physical dimensions, it more than makes up for with its expansive menu.

Most everything served here is made on the premises, served fresh and with a generous hand on big, hand-crafted plates. The bill of fare ranges from the simple (there's an open-faced hot meatloaf sandwich, served with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, for $5.95) to the more exotic (the sun-dried pesto penne, at $6.95). Appetizers feature soup and salad for the most part, give or take the garlic cheese bread ($3.95) and bruschetta ($3.95). The Caesar salad we tried ($5.75) was fresh and crisp, and finished with a creamy parmesan dressing and loads of fresh lemon. Soups are brewed daily ($2.25/$3.95); the vegetable-turkey combo we tried was a delightful elixir stuffed with carrots, celery, barley, and wild rice.

The main courses are for the most part simple and well-executed. Walnut lovers will find a plentiful stash in the walnut pesto pasta, featuring linguini tossed with a fresh basil cream pesto ($6.25). My most critical friend could gripe only that he found the seasoning a bit too subtle. The roasted red pepper fettucini was tossed with a veritable garden of lightly sautéed vegetables and cooked with a light garlic and white wine sauce ($6.95). A yeoman's meatloaf dinner ($7.25), beans and rice with homemade salsa and corn bread ($5.25), and honey dijon chicken ($6.95) round out the menu.

The children at the table next to us seemed crestfallen when the waitress gently broke it to them that the Dutch apple pie ($2.75) had, unfortunately, not made it out of the oven without suffering some burns. Not one to allow anyone to leave feeling bleak, she improvised with various plates filled with malted vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce ($1.95, courtesy of Sebastian Joe's) and honey-soaked baklava (95¢). The pie, needless to say, was quickly forgotten. Other desserts, if you are curious, include an old-fashioned banana bread pudding ($2.95), turtle cake ($2.25), and spiced apple and pecan pie with raisins ($2.95).

Mill City's Sunday brunch bypasses the standards, and seems to assume that you've already put in a full day's work. The turkey dinner plate bulges with homemade cornbread stuffing, gobs of lumpy mashed potatoes stuck with flecks of skin, and seasoned cuts of bird, all sauced over with savory gravy ($7.95). Cow chasers will delight largely in the cowboy steak ($10.95), a 10-oz. cut of New York sirloin cooked to your specifications and sided with a pair of eggs. My friend wolfed down the brunch special, chicken piccata ($7.95), barely pausing to revel properly in the delicate caper and lemon herb sauce that lay over the plump chicken breast, or to marvel over the lightly cooked fresh vegetable succotash and rice pilaf. All brunches are served with freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee; if you need extra reenforcement before the working week starts, you can always treat your self to a mimosa ($3.25).

Which reminds me--the Mill City Cafe recently got its beer and wine license; as yet the wine selection is still pretty meager. But this time of year you ought to be stopping in for a lemonade or iced tea, anyway: something to get the last traces of a particularly nasty winter out of your mouth.

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