Lush Life

The Vintage

579 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 222-7000

BEING AFFLICTED WITH dead batteries, frostbitten extremities, transportation tragedies, and other symptoms of chronic winter fatigue is no fun. The well-heeled take refuge in highbrow flop houses, and The Vintage, a recently restored 19th-century mansion that looms impressively out over Selby Avenue, fits that description to a T. The restoration was nicely done, though I wouldn't have contracted anyone to sponge that fuchsia paint all over the walls downstairs. Still, there's nothing like dining in a mansion, even if it is someone else's and you would have chosen different wall paint. Look around the dining room and everywhere you see wilted, languid hands holding cigars, cigarettes, and long-stemmed glasses. I feel slightly out of place in my nasty rubber boots and sweat jacket, but the lighting is so dim that I could be wearing a plastic bag and no one would raise an eyebrow.

With scads of fireplaces, candles, cozy corners, and over 30 menu items and 300 wines to try, The Vintage is a good place to find yourself when your day is through, especially if someone else is footing the bill. A caveat: drinking and dim lighting can sap your willpower. You might find it easy to order that second glass/bottle of wine, but the fiscally responsible will do their math first. This isn't the kind of place where they fill you up to the rim in a chunky glass. It's pricey, fine wine, and the glasses resound with silvery notes when you flit your nails across them. Even the cheapest wine by the glass (Laurel Glen Reds, 1994/$4.25) costs as much as you might pay for a bottle, so hopefully you'll not be downing those $13.99 glasses of Gebert Vosne Romanee, from 1993, too heedlessly. And note: this is the kind of place where you shouldn't forget to smell your wine (if it's the red kind) before you drink it. At least that's what everyone around me was doing; I for one am not so clever about smelling wine, but when in Rome...

Appetizers are many splendored here, and there's bound to be something new for everyone, whether you venture for the sweetbread terrine with grappa marinated currents and mesclun served with the house bread, or for the wild mushroom torte served over a jicama mirliton salad and a chicken stock reduction ($7.95). We started with "spreads 'n' breads," eight triangles of The Vintage's house bread ($4.85) served with three spreads, including a bland white-bean purée, simple smashed avocado, and a heated tomato chutney that more than made up for its plain companions. The chutney was so good that we took to dipping the garnish, some fancy greens, after the bread disappeared.

The escargot tortellini was a vision, beautifully turned pieces of hollowed-out zucchini stuffed with escargot, topped with bread crumbs and gorgonzola, and sitting in garlic beurre blanc sauce ($6.35). After the immediate delight wore off, a sad thought clawed its way to my head; the zucchini was too overpowering for the escargot. After all, why bother to pay to eat a delicacy when it's crammed deep in the murky depths of a slightly bitter vegetable? But people will batter-fry shrimp and oysters, so there you are.

Entrees are in the $15-$20 range. But if you are going to blow cash on a meal, The Vintage is highly recommended. When our main dishes arrived, it was difficult to decide whether or not to fixate on my friend's plate or my own, as they were both so stunning. My friend ordered an imposing plate of salmon on crayfish potatoes with Dungeness crab, a tower of delicacy starting with a healthy scoop of Tobiko roe, a plush layer of crab, and finally the salmon resting on a crib of potatoes ($18.50).

For myself, there was a beastly, decadent filet mignon in a pool of demi-glaze, capped with pine nuts and served with wilted spinach and a chilled portion of the same tomato chutney we had fallen in love with earlier ($21.50). There's nothing like a rich, virulent steak, and this was served rare as could be. My friend was a bit squeamish about it, something about the slab of blood-red meat didn't sit right with him, but after venturing a bite or two and then digging in, I daresay he enjoyed it as much as I did.

Desserts are equally opulent, favoring both sweetness and sophistication. We split a piece of toffee torte ($4.50), comprised of lush layers of cake, chocolate ganache, butter cream, and caramelized pecans. Completely delicious, and we polished off every last bite. I didn't feel like smoking a giant cigar or drinking any 10-year-old Scotch, but it's on the menu in spades.

In these frozen days of midwinter, it's nice to think that someone somewhere is having a good time, and so very pleasant to picture them in the light of a window, tilting their heads back and laughing at the slightest provocation. These someone-somewhere people are at The Vintage, laughing away. They know a good thing when they're in the middle of it.

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