128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul
BASEMENTS ARE NOTORIOUS for being vile places where the air is dank and the laundry is dirty. But imagine for a moment that your basement hid a trove of dedicated young chefs striving to attain their concept of a dream restaurant: inexpensive, well-prepared cuisine without the snobbery and self-consciousness that beleaguer most fine cafes. What delicious aromas would greet you hour by hour, beginning with the morning baking of desserts! The people who live in the apartment building above the 128 Cafe are lucky enough to be in such a predicament.
The decor here is a simple affair, with nothing gaudy or pretentious to distract from the food or conversation. It's just two small dining rooms decorated with a few bar stools, candles, a bit of wood paneling--a nice thing in this era of super-construction and marketing design. The menu is equally simple and refined, beginning with a trio of starters priced modestly enough that your table could feasibly indulge in all three. And why not? Not a clunker among them, we say. There are the guileless vine-ripened fresh tomatoes, surprisingly lush with flavor for this time of year: thick, beet-red slices treated with a healthy tonic of balsamic vinegar, red onions, and fresh basil sitting with lots of fresh mozzarella pieces ($3.95). The crab cakes are among the best we've had in these parts, studded with corn and a bit of red pepper, pan-sautéed to crisp, buttery perfection, and served with a tangy green chile relish on top of baby greens treated with lime vinaigrette ($4.50). But our favorite by far was the roasted garlic, which the 128 serves up with plenty of style, which is to say, with a warm apple, golden raisin chutney, creamy goat cheese, and buttered, grilled toast ($3.95), each flavor flattering the other shamelessly.
The entrée menu is also refreshingly simple, with seven choices ranging from a penne with oven-dried tomatoes, oregano, bacon, and romano ($6.50), to grilled beef tenderloin with blackened serrano butter, tobacco rings (gentrified onion rings I'm told), and horseradish mashed potatoes ($16.95), to grilled chicken breast with a charred tomato and basil salsa ($7.95). We couldn't resist the temptation of fresh pasta and of making a gigantic mess, so we opted for "The Other" pasta ($6.95) and an order of BBQ ribs ($15.95).
I've never cared for ribs very much--they remind me of certain unpleasant, macho relatives-- but these ribs had a sense of humor to them, literally spilling off the dainty dinner plate they were served on from both sides. We couldn't get through them, juicy and surprisingly non-fatty though they were, but had an enjoyable time trying. I might get in heaps of trouble for saying this, but the 128's homemade hot barbecue sauce is the best I've laid lips on. Add to this a bowl of freshly whipped potatoes, skins and all, heaped with horseradish (it was the only thing that I didn't love), and you've got a meal that can handle the hungriest of the hungry.
But my own heart remained with "The Other" pasta: fresh, hand-cut ribbon pasta tossed generously with a spring bounty of asparagus, tomatoes, garlic, and basil, each of them utterly smacking of freshness. Even the bread that accompanies these meals is consummate, a crusty baguette studded with bits of fresh garlic, baked fresh daily at Whole Foods down the road.
You will simply have to retaliate against your dietary regime (if you have one) when it comes to dessert. Order the chocolate chunk brownie, for instance, and feel your maturity and gloom plucked up and tossed away by your youthful love of sweets. The sculpture is littered at its base with gigantic chunks of fine chocolate, sprinkled on top with caramelized pecans (nothing better), topped with a gentle scoop of vanilla ice cream, and finely sauced-over with warm chocolate ($4.25). More sensible palates can opt for either the buttermilk apple tart with vanilla bean whipped cream and a dribbling of caramel sauce ($3.95 and simply wonderful) or the Danjou pear poached in red wine and cinnamon, topped with sorbet ($3.95, and no, we weren't that sensible so I can't remark on it). Make note: There's no liquor license yet (the 128 Cafe opened fairly recently), but you should find the fare plenty intoxicating without it.
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