Cafe Un Deux Huit
128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul; 645-4128
Restaurant dishwashing is a singularly rewarding activity: You receive all the cruddy remains of people's passionate work and festive moments and, through ablutions, suds, and muscles, render them clean. You're the linchpin of the kitchen--without clean plates nothing can progress. Yet you're also eminently replaceable and eminently employable; dishwashing, more than perhaps any other job, is purely an at-will situation. Just as you can tell the quality of a society by the circumstances of its most vulnerable members, you can tell the quality of a restaurant by the happiness of its dishwashers. Just ask Brock Obee, co-chef and co-owner with his wife Natalie of Miriam Park's 128 Cafe--he got his start scrubbing up at the St. Paul Table of Contents.
He cleaned, sanitized, swept, and scoured his way through college, ending every night moist, dirty, and exhausted. "But it's a great vantage point to see the kitchen from," says Brock, "and I got to sample a lot of incredible food." The experience lit a fire within him, and upon graduating from Macalester he traded in his scrubee for a spatula, and eventually worked his way up to sous-chef at Table of Contents. Meanwhile, he got to dreaming of how he would do things on his own. "Once you've learned all the rules all you want to do is go out and break them," Brock says now. His dreams involved a friendly little family place with a twist: He wanted to feature global flavors and American favorites at reasonable prices. He has succeeded admirably.
The first thing you notice on entering 128 is what a cozy place it is. Virtually hidden away in the ground floor of an apartment building across the street from St. Thomas, the modest door reveals waiters bustling from the open kitchen to the white draped tables, the day's specials scrawled on a chalkboard. It seems less like a restaurant and more like you've arrived at someone's dinner party. In most restaurants you're greeted by a professional host who eyes you as at best a challenge and at worst a problem--but here waitstaff seem genuinely delighted that you've arrived.
It's the sort of restaurant where the food is subordinate to the whole dining experience, where standouts like the magnificent barbecued baby-back ribs ($16.95) seem to be there for the pure enjoyment of the customers, not to impress anybody with the originality or haute interpretations. They're exceptionally moist and lean, tender within and dry-crisped without, apportioned to the point where they arrive in a Flintstones-styled arc bigger than your plate. They're rubbed in a spice mix that Brock says contains more than 50 elements, braised for several hours, and then grilled to a perfect finish. You tend to get goopy tearing the rack apart and gnawing on it, and the surprising thing is not how delicious it is, but how comfortable you feel doing this in well-heeled public, how natural it seems to get your wine glass all greasy.
Other menu standards, like the grilled vegetables on couscous ($8.95), seem like dishes crafted specifically to help the dieter participate fully in life. This makes it a perfect restaurant for multigenerational, any-gendered dining. The kitchen gladly accommodates special dining requests--such as for no oil whatsoever in a dish or altering items to make them vegetarian, replacing meat stock with mushroom stock. It's rare that you can find virtuously healthy items coexisting with fancy indulgences, but at 128 elegant menu items receive plenty of attention. A favorite on a recent visit (the menu changes seasonally) was medallions of rosemary-encrusted pork tenderloin arranged like flower petals around a center of horseradish-mashed potatoes. The meat was exquisitely tender, and with the reduction of the bacon, molasses, and balsamic vinegar it was served with, the flavor was intense, salty, and smoky, like the best au jus you've ever had ($12.95).
Fresh fish specials change every day and are often the most unusual items on the menu. A recent Blue Marlin steak was coated in black sesame seeds, grilled and served with a delicious side of pickled plums and a strange nest of easily avoided bean sprouts. Everyday standards like the Caesar salad also receive the chef's attention: The Caesar has a fresh, pungent dressing and is sprinkled with crisp homemade croutons and just-grated Parmesan, and is an excellent version of the salad ($3.50 small, $7.50 large with grilled chicken breast).
The wine list is chosen with an eye toward crowd-pleasing: Sweet whites like the Le Droissy Vouvray ($4.95 a glass, $21 a bottle) go nicely with the ribs or ice cream; reds like the Buena Vista Pinot Noir ($5.95/$28) make the field-green salad ($3.50) feel indulgent; and even the ubiquitous White Zinfandel (this one by Round Hill, $3.50/$15) isn't the condescending wine-cooler-like stuff we've come to expect, but a juicy, inoffensive wine that pairs nicely with food. When you consider that they also serve Coke, Surge, and white-chocolate caffè lattes, it's clear that they're making a thoughtful effort to make everyone--even finicky teenagers--feel welcome.
The desserts are likewise pleasantly diverse: three demure scoops of sorbet drizzled with a tangy red-wine sauce for the lite-minded ($3.95); the espresso crème brûlée is a delicious grown-up pudding with a kick ($3.95); the chocolate brownie with ice cream and a yummy garnish of chocolate-pecan brittle is a soothing treat for the rowdy child in us all ($4.50); and my favorite, a lemon poppy-seed pound cake with a strawberry coulis that is a perfect blend of comfort food and nouveau innovation ($4.25). The pound cake is immeasurably improved by tart, fresh-lemon glaze, and alternating bites of cake with ice cream or strawberry sauce make a lively finale to the dinner.
Just like the best plays make you forget you're watching a play, at 128 you sometimes forget you're at a restaurant. The service is attentive and friendly without being intrusive, and the food is interesting without being aggressive, tasty without being persnickety. Through your bubble of comfort you can catch glimpses of Brock and his wife Natalie in the kitchen: grating parmesan, decorating plates, firing the crème brûlée with a blow torch. Back behind the scenes the cycle carries on: Brock says he's gotten the dishwashers to love penne in a sauce made of local chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms.
STILL EATING UNSEASONED WILDLIFE: Everyone knows that wildlife tastes best coated in prepackaged, mass-produced seasonings hawked by aging rock stars, which is why you should call 1-800-343-HUNT and order Ted Nugent's "Wildlife Seasonings" for $3.95 a bottle--in original, lemon dill, cajun style, and lemon-pepper flavors. According to Ted's latest catalog, "They are ready to rock straight out of the bottle & you won't believe how wonderful they taste!" Ted also supplies "Ted's Own Fish Recipe" (all spelling and grammar irregularities authentic to the original): "Get up early. Wake up loved one. Hit the lake. Embrace sunrize together. Wallow in the Spirit of the Wild. Catch fish of choice. Keep alive & cold. Kill. Scale & filet pure flesh from skeleton. Wash thoroughly in cold water. Pat dry with paper towel. Soak in butter milk for 30 minutes. Drag filets thru WILDLIFE SEASONING batter mix of choice, coating completely. Place in cast iron skillet with one inch of sizzling hot oil. Fry till golden brown. Prepare thinly sliced potatoes in same manner. Serve with fresh fruit &/or veggies. Try to contain your smiling face. Thank God for the glorious bounty of the land & waters. Wallow."
Non-wildlife-eating wuss-bags can still participate in the aging-rocker experience. (Or as Ted puts it: "The physical connection with mother earth is undeniable & our spirit is fulfilled everytime before we fill our gamebag. Go not quietly into that night, but do not go silently into our Wild, flexing the pureness of our God given predator instincts.") How? By ponying up the cash for "I'd rather be huntin'" mouse pads ($11.95), "The Right to Bare Arms" sleeveless Ts ($16.95), or camouflage outfits for newborn babies ($19.95).
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