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First look: At just/us, St. Paul’s affordable new prix-fixe, imaginations run wild

A show-stopping confit chicken thigh with black radish and habanero crema comes sandwiched between masa cakes darkened with mole.

A show-stopping confit chicken thigh with black radish and habanero crema comes sandwiched between masa cakes darkened with mole. Sarah Chandler

Sometimes I daydream about a particular dinner I enjoyed in Berlin back in 2012, when the city’s legendary urban renaissance was already speeding along at full-throttle.

The restaurant didn’t ascribe lofty phrases like “chef-driven” to itself -- or if it did, my rudimentary German didn’t catch it -- but the meal nonetheless felt like a four-course glimpse into someone’s wild imagination, all for around 20 euros. (Back then I was living in Amsterdam, one of Europe’s most expensive dining cities, where a multi-course meal for 20 euros, or about 25 bucks, was virtually nonexistent.)

I don’t remember exactly what I ate. A couple of courses were very good, at least one was excellent, and another was interesting but not something I’d necessarily order again. There’s a magical quality to Berlin that’s at once rough-edged and lavishly sensual, and the restaurant’s ambiance harnessed that contradiction: a well-lit corner space with wide windows, simple wooden tables, and a few candles throwing incandescent light on the faces of the eclectic crowd. The chef ran out every few minutes to deliver the next course, pour wine, and flash a humble smile before disappearing into the kitchen.

By this point, you’re wondering why I’m waxing rhapsodic about some dinner I ate in Berlin half a decade ago. I’ll get to the point: Has St. Paul ever reminded you, or anyone, of Berlin? I’m guessing the answer is no, unless you happened to be slinging gin with F. Scott Fitzgerald back the 1920s. In fact, despite St. Paul’s compact downtown, complete with laudable old architecture and a jewel-like central green space that veritably whispers “walkable, European-style city center,” most nights it feels like a mausoleum past 8 p.m. unless you’re standing in smack in front of the Ordway Music Center as “La Boheme” is letting out.

Dear reader, I am here to tell you something extraordinary. The other night, while eating a six-course meandering culinary journey inspired by the color black -- a delectible chili-infused mole gordita, a lovely dark chocolate cake -- I had the peculiar experience of being transported to Berlin. That explosively creative city where young artists and chefs and gallery owners, thanks to cheap(ish) rents and a fierce DIY ethos, have created a culture that is surprising and weird and unexpected and full of joy.

The new just/us, which celebrated its grand opening on March 14, is the brainchild of owner/chef Nate Docken, A native son of east St. Paul, he's never been to Berlin, for the record -- although you’d never guess. “I’m Italian, so it was a choice between working in restaurants or working for the mafia,” he quips.

Tamarind and piloncillo lacquered sweet potatoes, with black sesame and charred scallion yogurt

Tamarind and piloncillo lacquered sweet potatoes, with black sesame and charred scallion yogurt Sarah Chandler

Under Docken’s leadership, chefs Samantha Roiland and Jesse Hedman co-conduct this culinary trio: Each dish is “signed” on the menu by the chef who conceived it. For Docken, this is an intentional departure from the kind of so-called chef-driven restaurant where the chef may not actually be a consistent presence in the kitchen. “I want each chef to get credit for the dishes they create,” Docken says.

At just/us, prix fixe dinner service is fun and irreverent and funky and at moments lovably weird, not unlike Berlin. For example, I’d never eaten charcoal-infused pasta before, and I’m not entirely sure I want to do it again, but I feel the same way about having once raced down the Pacific Coast Highway on the back of a motorcycle: no regrets. At six courses for $45, you don’t feel cheated when one isn’t your thing, and instead a little thrilled when four or five are. While you can expect the wine and beer service to kick off in another week or two, the mocktails -- currently a refreshing black hibiscus-citrus concoction -- are worth trying in the meantime.

The old Red Lantern storefront space near the Fitzgerald Theatre provides an airy, well-lit canvas for the artistry within. Themes rotate monthly, and allow individual chefs to experiment with their personal obsessions. On the current menu, Roiland’s affinity for Mexico shines through in a fat, flaky empanada filled with a savory mix of beef and cured olives. Earthy and buttery, enlivened by a coconut ash-infused chimichurri, it was the best empanada I’d eaten in years. The table next to mine raved about the confit chicken thigh with black radish and habanero crema, sandwiched between masa cakes darkened with mole. It was spicy enough that the black rice horchata shot was a welcome chaser.

By the time dessert arrived, with its glossy dark chocolate ganache, chestnut buttercream, and molasses marshmallows singed with a thrilling trace of campfire smoke -- was there an actual campfire in the back, or was my imagination running wild -- I was smitten.

All without setting foot on Lufthansa.