380 Jackson St., St. Paul
Last night I experienced the most marvelous restaurant. It was the everyday-priced concept of some famous chef, and all the guests were seated at a dozen sharing tables. The entire menu was arranged around the concept, or gimmick, or whatever you want to call it, of toast--yes, I said toast. Culinarily suspicious, certainly, but what a marvelous innovation for keeping food costs down! The signature ingredient thrives on being kept, slightly stale, in the refrigerator. The most renowned dish the chef served was some sort of ricotta-risotto, dolloped onto toasted fruit bread and topped with some sort of nearly candied goose liver tossed with apricots and nuts. When I ordered it, I could nearly taste it.
I left my table to get a copy of the lunch menu for my notes, and they were out of paper copies inside but happily I found a stash right in front of the restaurant, in an acrylic holder. As I returned to my table, I was delighted to find that my date had ordered a deep and inky Côtes-du-Rhône, to complement the goose liver. Unfortunately, my cat took that moment to walk across my legs, and I opened my eyes to contemplate a distinctly Côtes-du-Rhône free Minnesota morning, with frost on the windowpanes and work to be done.
Toast, I muttered to myself, as I staggered from my bed. I'm dreaming about a restaurant that serves toast. Some people have a dream life that would make Freud blush. I, however, have a dream life that would make Betty Crocker yawn. And now everyone knows it. Now, you might ask yourself, do I tell you this because I intend to sic my attorneys on you, so that you might pay for some portion of my much-needed psychiatric care? I do not. Do I tell you this because I think toast is a marvelous concept for a five-star restaurant? Again, certainly, no. Do I tell you this to prove once and for all that androids do dream of electric sheep? Why must you bedevil me with these pointless questions? Of course not.
I tell you this simply to prove that I spend far, far too much time thinking about restaurants--so much time, in fact, thinking about restaurants that when confronted with a restaurant like LoTo I simply don't know what to think.
LoTo is the newest restaurant in the David Fhima empire, sister to St. Paul's Fhima, Edina's Louis XIII, and, next spring, an as-yet unnamed Minneapolis restaurant that will replace David Fhima's now-shuttered Mpls Café. However, LoTo, on the eastern edge of Galtier Plaza, overlooking lovely Mears Park, isn't really a restaurant at all, it's a coffee shop, bakery, and bar where you can also get a pretty good steak.
Let me explain. LoTo essentially has five components, spread along the side of Mears Park: At the southern edge there's a bakery, where you can get a very good baguette, nice dense challah, or counter-service pizzas, salads, sandwiches, and such, which you might choose to enjoy at the bakery's self-service tables. On the northern edge there is a coffee shop, where you can get very good lattes and the rest of the coffee-shop gang, as well as scones. Here again there are self-service tables. In the very middle there is a bar. And now that I think about it, if you sit at a bar, that's essentially on the counter-service model, now isn't it?
Finally, separating the three components are two traditional, nice-chair, cloth-napkin dining spaces, and if you sit at a table in them, a very nice server will scurry between the various nodes and bring you, say, a latte from one, a pizza from another, and a beer from the third. So you give him 20 percent for his trouble, and there you are.
If your expectations and needs are at that basic level, you will really enjoy LoTo. They make a very good flourless chocolate torte--rich, silky, and black as coal. The marzipan tart is cakey, creamy, crumbly, and memorable. The burger ($8.25) is tender and good; the club sandwich ($6.25) is fine. The pizzas could use a little work, as the crust that emerges from the restaurant's showpiece, open, fiery oven, is strangely underdeveloped, lacking any good bready flavor. But even with that said, the pizzas are essentially fine. The pretty bar with its pretty view is beyond reproach--and the wine list is entirely successful, offering a few bottles at every price point, including an impressive array priced below $20. Add together the standup bar and coffee offerings, the nice desserts, the warm-weather patio, the pretty views, and the light-filled interior architecture, and it becomes clear that LoTo is one of the nicest places for a quick drink or after-theater dessert on the east side of downtown St. Paul.
What is equally clear is the restaurant's lack of accomplishment as a bona fide restaurant, the kind of place you would go, on purpose, for dinner. First, there is only one legitimately desirable appetizer, the adorable mini-burger ($1.50), a sweet, bite-sized individual hamburger that comes on a tiny, eggy bun along with a slice of tomato and a green leaf of lettuce. Cute! Aside from that, your choices are flabby individual tempura shrimp ($2 each), sweet, undistinguished chicken wings ($1.50 each), or an assortment of items that seem to be things that the kitchen would have on hand for other reasons, such as the meatballs ($1 each, also seen in the meatball sandwich), french fries ($3.50), or frittata ($4). The pizzas can be pressed into service as appetizers to share, as can some of the entree-sized salads, but either of these options leaves something to be desired, not least because at dinner most of the entrees come with a dinner salad.
Whatever you do, do not order the soup: One night my table had both the lobster bisque and the tomato basil (both $3.50 a cup, $5.75 a bowl) and they were nearly indistinguishable: Both were dark brick-red, salty as Campbell's, and offered neither the taste of lobster nor the tang of tomato--they might as well have come from the same can.
The entrees generally fall into two camps. Half are plain and perfectly fine, such as the steak (both good quality and cooked to temperature when I tried it, at $12 for a six-ounce portion or $18.50 for nine ounces), and the cappellini Caprese ($12.50), angel-hair pasta topped with chopped fresh tomatoes, squares of buffalo mozzarella, and a chiffonade of fresh basil.
The other half are more ambitious and, when I had them, absolutely incompetently done. I tried the potato-crusted walleye ($15.50) twice: The first time I received a fish fillet topped with a bundle of shredded hash browns so oily that the oil ran down off the fish and pooled as you looked at it; stick a fork in the potatoes, and they slid right off the fish. The second time the potatoes were cut more thickly, and did in fact adhere to the fish, but they were still very oily, and the treatment made the fish taste thick and sodden. The ahi tuna steak ($18.50) was thin, seared beige, and profoundly salty; it was served on a bed of black beans garnished with a sort of corn salsa, which contributed nothing. I attempted to order both the lemon-roasted chicken and the lamb shank on different visits, but each time the kitchen had run out of them. If you order the "teriyaki linguini," you're on your own.
Finally, relievedly, your nice server will finally clear away your strange dinner entrees, and you find yourself safe again in the realm of desserts, drinks, and coffee.
If you are the kind of person who is given to thinking too much about restaurants, you might wonder: Why would you design a menu like this? Why would you sabotage your profit-heavy appetizer section like this, all but guaranteeing a lower than possible average check? Why would you design a menu that's going to be incredibly difficult for the staff to prepare? The complex entrees, such as the walleye, require a skilled, and therefore expensive, chef on hand, yet a talented chef is unlikely to stick around if the majority of her year is spent making club sandwiches. Why would you have contiguous counter-service and fine-dining areas that serve the exact same food, so that at two adjoining tables you might have, say, a business lunch with someone trying to impress clients beside a table-squatter with three newspapers and a long-drained cup of coffee?
Now who's bedeviling who with pointless questions, sucker!
In the end, perhaps none of that really matters. LoTo certainly isn't the restaurant of anyone's dreams, but if you find yourself on the east side of downtown St. Paul when there's work to be done, it works quite well.
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