Louis Ristorante aims to revive St. Paul
Louis serves straightforward Italian classics like pollo Florentine
E. Katie Holm for City Pages
It seems like every few years or so you hear about a task force assembling or a council forming whose chief objective is to "revive downtown St. Paul." The mission is "bringing the old city back to its former glory."
When I catch wind of the latest effort, I always wonder a few things, usually aloud to other people over beers at Great Waters or the most perfect Manhattan at the St. Paul Hotel. First, which era of former glory is this community supergroup trying to recapture? Is it just a decade back, when we could still properly refer to an annual event as the Dayton's flower show? Or way back to the days of gloved ladies and streetcar rides? Second, I wonder if any of these squads has ever felt like it completed the task at hand, because if it's a non-Xcel, non-Ordway, non-Winter Carnival event night, downtown St. Paul is still usually dead as a doornail after 5 p.m., and plenty of people don't mind that one bit. Why? They're protective. They don't want the lid blown off the mini-Minneapolis they have going in Lowertown, what with the Bulldog outpost, a less crowded and less obnoxious Barrio (with equally good tacos), free street parking in many locations after 4:30, and perhaps the most successful establishment for bringing nightlife to the area in at least 10 years, Amsterdam.
But I digress. The important question regarding the revamping and revivification of downtown St. Paul is: Have any of these councils ever proposed that simply expanding an existing popular institution might work like epinephrine on the entire downtown zone? Because if anyone needs an example of how well this works, look no further than the massive, $15 million overhaul of Cossetta's, with its new full-service fine-dining restaurant, Louis.
As you ride the elevator (or take the stairs, if you are trying to prove you are better than everyone else) up to Louis, you might get a few glimpses of what now exists on each floor of this ever-evolving 100-year-old business. It still houses the alimentari, the freshly polished cafeteria-style eatery with the familiar fare that made Cossetta's so successful (tri-color tortellini salad, pizza by the slice, mostaccioli, fist-sized meatballs, and homemade gelato). But Cossetta's is now a towering hub of commerce, where you can do everything from holiday shopping to pantry stocking (the huge market is open but still under construction) to fast family dinner (to eat in or to go). You'll soon be able to pick up bread and Italian sweets from the pasticceria, and a wine cellar is in the works. Add in the helpful parking attendants who make this corner somewhat less of a headache and you can already feel the new life buzzing along West Seventh all the way to the Fitzgerald.
It's an ambitious and impressive remodel, but we were there to see how Cossetta's would perform in a fine-dining context. At Louis, we were promptly greeted and seated at each visit, ushered past the surprisingly rowdy crowd at the bar. Though the dining room is quite stately, the tables were set simply — no elaborate place settings or white linen tablecloths. In fact, the primary element that cultivated an air of sophistication at Louis was the style of service: formal without being stiff, old-fashioned without being overwrought. You get the feeling that recommendations from your server are genuine and not just a sales technique, and that while they don't mind if you just go for the cheapest bottle of red, the staff know their stuff when it comes to the wine list. Louis also has a full bar.
Executive chef Tom Hommes designed a menu of straightforward Italian classics, heavy on the veal and not shy with the guanciale. In the antipasti section, the selection is far from exciting, but it gets the job done: Italian cheeses with fig jam and honey; a textbook carpaccio in terms of texture but a little lacking in acid; and a plate of prosciutto, mortadella, sopressata, and burrata with olives and roasted peppers. The lovingly cooked dish of fritto misto with scallops, cod, calamari, pearl onions, and fennel had a good squeeze of lemon and could have used just a touch more salt, but it was texturally on the money and one of the most enjoyable dishes we sampled. The beet salad was a welcome addition to the table, especially alongside the light and crisp fritto misto, but the black truffles in the vinaigrette were almost undetectable, and that's usually anything but a subtle flavor.
Disappointingly, pastas were hit and miss. A dish of orecchiette alla barese — ear-shaped pasta with broccoli rabe, sheep's milk ricotta, anchovy, and Italian sausage — delivered a nice juxtaposition of flavors with the mild cheese, salty fish, and bitter greens, but it was all for naught because the orecchiette was overcooked to the point of being gummy. In complete contrast in the primi course, the linguine alla vongole, a simple dish of pasta with delicate Manila clams, loads of garlic, white wine, and a flicker of basil, was so sprightly and pleasing to the tooth it was as though the pasta had been flash-cooked, taken out just before it was done, and finished cooking as it was brought to the table. These small things make a world of difference.
Similarly well treated in terms of timing was the classic take on cioppino, a rustic Italian seafood stew that Louis takes up a notch by adding sweet lobster tail to the shrimp, squid, cod, and scallops, with a big piece of cheesy crostini for sopping up the rich, tomatoey broth. It's a tricky dish because of the different levels of desired doneness for the proteins. Louis did an admirable job.
That wasn't always the case with dishes in the secondi course. Veal saltimbocca imparted a wonderful, cleansing breath of sage, but the pounded-thin medallions of meat were perhaps too thin and came out chewy and overcooked — a particular shame because the velvety sauce and balsamic glazed carrots that accompanied them were superb.
Both the pollo Florentine (chicken scallopini cooked with spinach and mozzarella cheese) and the pollo Marsala (with gorgeous beech mushrooms and all the husky resonance of that iconic sweet wine) inspired no complaints, with the Marsala ultimately winning the round.
But then it was on to desserts, which ranged from the abysmal to the sublime. Working from the bottom up, the frutta di bosco was a fruit tart in which every component was an utter failure. Out-of-season, hard, sour berries? Check. Cold, undercooked, flavorless crust that remains as malleable as a piece of fondant? For sure. Custard that tastes closer to a bad version of pastry cream? Unfortunately, yes. Somewhere in the middle was the tiramisu — not too sweet, but also not quite light or complex enough. Finally, the saving grace (and maybe others are yet to be discovered) was the chocolate chip cannoli. The endlessly edible mingling of shatteringly crisp fried pastry, lightly sweet and abundant cream, bits of tucked-away chocolate, and just a dusting of confectioner's sugar was executed perfectly, and about an hour later I wished I had gotten five or six to take home.
In sum, it's family dining that's less kitschy and more authentic than Buca di Beppo, more homegrown than Pazzaluna, more thoughtful than Yarusso Bros., but definitely less sophisticated than something like Bar La Grassa. It's the exact kind of restaurant my grandparents would feel is "fancy" but wouldn't in any way be intimidated by. True to its new slogan, it's "a piece of the levee" indeed, and the post-remodel Cossetta's, including Louie, has firmly established itself as one of the enduring centerpieces of downtown St. Paul.
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