W.A. Frost & Company
374 Selby Ave., St. Paul; (651) 224-5715
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday (Friday and Saturday till midnight);
Sunday 10:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m. (brunch till 2:00 p.m.; last seating 1:30 p.m.)
Bar hours: Sunday-Wednesday till midnight, Thursday-Saturday till 1:00 a.m.
It's summertime, and the air in the gardens of St. Paul is sweet. Not perfumed, as it is in those suspicious tropical climes where bougainvillea grows: just Midwestern sweet, drawn in from the prairies, stripped clean by sunshine, and filled up with dew from the hearts of elm trees.
You breathe that sweet air as you queue up for a table in W.A. Frost's ivy-crowned back patio (reservations are taken only for the inside dining rooms, those brick-walled, tin-ceilinged spaces straight out of Currier & Ives). As you sit on the park benches that separate the patio from the sidewalk, a server brings you cocktails. Perfect summer cocktails. Like a Pimm's Cup ($4.25) garnished with a cucumber slice. Classy margaritas. A Bellini, a flute of sparkling wine made silky with peach nectar ($4.25). Or maybe one of the beers from the brilliant beer list, or a bottle selected from some 800 wines.
You sip. The sky-scraping trees rustle above, back and forth, hypnotically, like rain on sand. Darkness descends, and the little lights threaded beneath the patio umbrellas and wound into trees come in like fireflies, while thick plumes of citronella-candle smoke wind around diners' ankles. In that air, under those lights, Frost's seems thoroughly heavenly--a piano sonata under the stars, each note gentle, soothing, perfect.
Then you finally do get your table, order from the nicely varied menu, and settle in for your daydream of a summer meal. And somewhere along the way, the music is marred by notes out of tune. Your eyelid quivers: Did anyone else notice? Do you ruin the reverie by calling attention to the error? Or do you sit, charmed into submission, like a cobra swaying lamely to the enchanter's flute?
The dishes least likely to create that kind of dilemma are Frost's salads and mussels. Both times I had the spinach and red chard salad ($5.95) the greens were astonishingly crisp, dressed in a delicious combination of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper, and topped with buttery shreds of an excellent Parmesan. Mussels ($9.95) were also reliably perfect: Once they came in a potent lemongrass-curry broth, a delightfully complex composition of bitter curry and bright lemon cut with fresh cilantro. A few weeks later they were served with a Pernod cream sauce whose licorice edge was nicely complemented by a grassy note of fresh tarragon.
Everything else I tried, however, was more out of tune than in. Sourdough crostini ($8.95) were the worst, a trio of stale disks covered with a salty tapénade, a mushy tomato salsa, and plain goat cheese. Deep-fried triangles of polenta rich with Parmesan cheese ($7.95) had a nice texture, but the accompanying ratatouille was indistinct, and the whole thing seemed more like a side dish than a plate unto itself.
Entrées were unpredictable: The pan-roasted halibut ($19.95) was perfectly cooked whenever I tried it, but the first time, the red-pepper coulis surrounding it tasted thin and acrid with unripe peppers. The second time, the coulis was nice and rich, but the fillet came, unexpectedly, nestled in a bowl of mixed salad greens, making for an ill-conceived hot-fish salad.
I had no more luck with the grilled pork T-bone ($15.95), which always came overcooked and flanked by oily grilled broccoli (as well as some good rosemary-flavored roast potatoes). The bouillabaisse was a complete mess--grainy, overcooked, lacking any garlic kick, and priced at an aggravatingly steep $23.95.
Desserts also impressed me predominantly with their costliness: A martini glass with a scoop of vanilla gelato and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar-chocolate sauce was quite good, but $6 for a few bites of relatively plain dessert seemed unreasonable. I rode a roller coaster with the almond gâteau ($6.25), a multilayered buttercream cake dressed up with sliced almonds: Once it arrived old, refrigerator-fume-polluted, and bare, but another time it was fresh and served in a pool of raspberry purée, garnished with scads of fresh blueberries.
Now, those who have long watched W.A. Frost & Co. know that Lenny Russo, a chef formerly with the New French Cafe, took the helm about a year ago and was supposed to rescue the restaurant from the country-club food doldrums it had long suffered. I've been carefully tracking Frost ever since, waiting for the menu to coalesce into the orchestral performance the venerable spot deserves. And once, last winter, I almost thought it had happened: Highlighted by an utterly luscious game-bird cassoulet ($16.95), my dinner was close to perfect--except for a couple of dud desserts and one lackluster appetizer. What I remember most vividly is the utter contentment of tucking in near one of Frost's many, many fireplaces for a few hours caressed by fine drinks. I figured then that by the time the summer crowds arrived on the patio, the joint would be perfect.
I'm beginning to think that those crowds are part of the problem. Between the inside and outside seating, Frost has room for some 350 diners, twice as many as can fit into either of the other two big St. Paul restaurants, Pazzaluna and the St. Paul Grill. And with guests stacked up for both lunch and dinner, the kitchen is expected to serve a thousand meals on a busy day. A thousand meals, an average of two courses per person--you do the math: Even if the kitchen does everything right 95 percent of the time, that's still 100 faulty dishes beelining out to the expectant diners.
What will you do when you get one? I guess you'll have to confront your inner responsibility meter: Is it your duty, to yourself and your dining companions, to leave the collective reverie as unchinked as possible--or do you bear a responsibility to be a pain in the neck, and thus do your part in raising the level of discourse in local grub-and-vittle circles?
ENTER THE PHOENIX: What's the longest you've ever waited for an elevator? How about five months? That's long enough for Dan Lessard, owner of Jitters, the Fifties-style coffee shop, and the Times Bar and Café, the eclectic jazz and fondue spot forcibly ejected last March when Dayton Hudson Corp. claimed their Nicollet Mall spot for a Target store. Lessard has spent his summer turning lemons into lemonade--or at least little neighborhood restaurants into full-blown destination extravaganzas. The Times and Jitters are finding a joint new home at 201 E. Hennepin (on the same block as Kramarczuk, across the street from Nye's Polonaise Room); the new Times should open within a month, with Jitters following a few weeks later.
Lessard says the new Times will blend the familiar and the unexpected: Veterans should be on the lookout for architectural and interior details salvaged from the Nicollet Mall location, and fondue hounds will be happy to know the menu has remained largely unchanged. New features will include a loungey couch area that can accommodate cigar smoking, a dining room in which both smoking and nonsmoking areas will have views of the music, and--next summer--50 seats under the stars. Most important, though, the new venue will be three times the size of the old, says Lessard, making room for, among other things, a band shell that on weekends will feature a 17-piece orchestra, the Wolverines.
Jitters, meanwhile, will be housed in the basement beneath the Times: "It will have a grotto feel," explains Lessard. "It's in an area with two-foot limestone walls; a six-foot grand staircase goes down into it. The first thing you see will be the deli--that's where people can get food to go, but there will [also] be a sit-down restaurant. Downstairs will also see the Twilight Lounge [for live music], a baby grand piano, and cabaret on weekends." The reason Jitters won't open till October? When Lessard started construction a couple of months ago, he learned that to get an elevator installed for wheelchair accessibility, he'd have to get on a 15-week waiting list. But Lessard is undaunted, as befits a man who survived a close encounter with Santabear. "We do everything against the grain," he laughs. "Everybody says you can't put a band on the dance floor and not charge a cover. Watch us."
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