Mattie's on Main takes a leaf from the past

Back in the bad old days of the late 1800s, the Minneapolis riverfront was a rougher place than it is now. Prostitution was largely tolerated in the red-light district, and among the madams running the show there was Mattie St. Clair, a notorious figure whose adventures were chronicled in the local papers. She is the namesake for the new Mattie's on Main (full name: Mattie St. Clair's House of Spirits on Main Street), a new bar, restaurant, and venue just across the river from the old houses of ill repute that's looking to bring an element of dangerous fun back to this part of town — in a cleaned-up 21st-century way, of course.

The owners, who also run the adjacent Wilde Roast Café, have taken over the home of the old Kikugawa in Riverplace. Black and red decor gives the space a gothic brothel-saloon feel, with paisley wall designs and intricately adorned chandeliers and framed mirrors catching the eye. Also prominently featured is Mattie's logo, an homage to the top-hatted, cigar-smoking madam in silhouette form, and guests are implored in writing to "Leave Satisfied." A bar and a stage dominate the main room, with tables and booths in between; more tables and bar seating are lined along the glass-walled atrium area, which offers scenic river views (Mattie's doesn't have an outdoor patio, but in winter this will be the next best thing).

The kitchen is turning out dishes with a wide range of influences, mostly along the lines of elevated bar food with some fine-dining flourishes. Flavors drawn from East Asia, Scandinavia, Greece, and elsewhere coexist mostly happily, though there were a couple of clunkers in the bunch. It seems you can't go wrong here, though, with appetizers. Lefse nachos provided a welcome twist on that dish's basic idea. Having never encountered deep-fried lefse, our party expected the dish to be a bit soft as well as cold, but it turns out the potato-based flatbread crisps up at least as well as any tortilla or pita. These chips were used to scoop up a nutty and rich pistachio guacamole along with diced cucumbers, sliced radishes, smoked salmon, and crème fraîche, and the result was a fresh, crunchy, creamy, summery delight. Wontons were not quite as perfectly crisp, but the pickles and jalapeños added to the cream cheese filling made them perfectly mid-level spicy and a bit tart, and they were served with a complementary sweet peach jam.

The Twin Cities' new best State Fair dish not served at the State Fair has to be Mattie's Monte Cristo dippers: Sliced ham and Gruyere are encased in batter, fried, and speared on a stick. The batter is lightly applied but just thick enough to have a fluffy interior in addition to the very thin, crackling outer layer. A powdered-sugar dusting renders these something like a hot ham- and cheese-filled mini doughnut — crazy delicious, and though they come with the same peach jam, it's wholly unnecessary here. Homemade pizza rolls were another success: They didn't consist of tongue-burning filling tucked in a crust, but rather a rolled pastry topped with perfectly browned mozzarella and finely chopped Italian sausage, served with a zippy house-made pizza sauce.

The Butcher's Plate is generously portioned at $14: four large hunks of hard salami, a whole warm bratwurst (made especially for Mattie's), smoked salmon, cheese curds (not fried), house-made crackers that were pillowy and paprika-sprinkled, and pickled beets, cucumbers, and mustard seeds. All worked together nicely.

The rest of the food menu consists of salads, pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches, plus four entrée plates. The items in the last category felt a bit out of season: Both the chicken osso buco (which came with excellently salty, crisp, creamy Pecorino polenta cakes) and the coriander-encrusted sea bass (served with pearl onions, carrot and potato matchsticks, and creamy vermouth white sauce) had terrific flavors and were well executed; we'll order them again in the fall.

A house salad had a light, citrusy dressing on mixed lettuces and baby button mushrooms, but there was too much fig-syrup glaze on and around the pecans, making some bites cloyingly sweet. The Mama-San pizza, topped with hoisin-marinated pulled pork, scallions, and chuck fu slaw (cabbage with a rice vinegar dressing), had all the taste notes right but the pieces just didn't hold together on a crust. A better option is the Far East BBQ sandwich with all the same things on it (either version is improved with sriracha, available on the side). Other sandwiches include the Gobbler, a turkey burger that was, bite by bite, either too bland or too spicy, and the Balsamic Blueberry Manchego, a fruit-and-cheese number that provides a more interesting than usual vegetarian sandwich and was quite tasty, if a bit dry and perhaps closer to a dessert than a meal.

Burgers were well seasoned and perfectly cooked to medium, and though at times they proved too juicy to be contained by the bottom half of a bun, they were enjoyable. The Morning After is made with bloody Mary mix and topped with a fried egg and pickled celery. It's also spread with a Spanish olive tapenade, the flavor of which did not dominate the burger as feared. Its hangover-curing abilities weren't put to the test this time, but their existence seems likely. The rosemary whipped goat cheese topping the Paregoric burger gave it a smooth richness and added an herbal note that made this the best sandwich we tried. The house-made chips on the side are a bit thick but very crunchy, and so lightly seasoned they actually taste like potato. An upgrade to sauteed cauliflower paid off too, but French fries were hit-or-miss, soggy on one visit and crispy on another (the tangy house-made ketchup was always excellent, though).

But that just covers the food offerings. Mattie's also offers several menu pages' worth of specialty drinks, an all-local craft tap beer selection, and a long list of bottled beers as well as a shorter wine list. And even their regular drinks can be special: An order of a bloody Mary brought the offer of a house-infused dill and horseradish vodka to complement the house mix (and it was great). In a weird bit of branding, one whole category of drinks is dedicated to beverages based on Gentleman Jack (the higher-end version of Jack Daniel's whiskey), and that moniker shows up elsewhere on the menu too, as in the aforementioned peach jam. These "Gentleman Choice" cocktails are named after other madams of St. Clair's era, like the highly recommended Lillian "Apple-Cider Flake" Snow, a crisp combination of First Press Cider Ale, Goldschlager liqueur, and white cranberry juice. The Mona "Mule" Moore was a bit overly fruity and sweet, and wasn't made with the ginger beer that the "mule" name implies. Elsewhere, a Flirtini on the Corner of Main was a lighter, fruity rum-based concoction with two pastel layers of yellow and pink in a martini glass topped with a beautiful, edible purple orchid. The Greek God tasted mostly of sour mix, without the herbal, anise flavors of the Skinos liqueur coming through, but the Dancing in the Rain was wonderfully gingery. Almost all the specialty cocktails are priced under 10 bucks, and there is also a thoughtful selection of mocktails for those who want all the drinks' flavor combinations but not the booze.

The adult milkshakes need be mentioned too, with the Pink Squirrel emerging as the front-runner favorite but the Mudslide and Brandy Alexander getting no complaints either. (Does it go without saying that these are more dessert than beverage? Delicious, intoxicating dessert.) These also play into the lighthearted party vibe that Mattie's is cultivating. The bar's calendar is full of activities: karaoke, Blingo, live music played on a great-sounding system. An attempt is underway to get a cabaret license and add burlesque performances, which would fit in perfectly and bring the wink-nudge sexual undertone to the forefront. And with all of Mattie's classy touches — great service, cloth hand towels by the sinks of the gender-neutral restrooms — it's bound to draw a clientele more desirable than that of the old red-light district.