Mildred Pierce Café
786 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; (651) 222-7430
Hours: Monday-Friday breakfast 7:00 a.m.-10:45 a.m., lunch 11:15 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; dinner 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch 8:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m. No reservations.
Mildred Pierce, the 1945 movie character, starts off as a housewife who drinks highballs made "harmless" with water, and hauls her little daughters, Veda and Kay, from French class to ballet lesson. But Mildred wants much, much more for her children than she can get in her marriage to a workaday real estate guy, so she dumps him and--through waitressing, baking pies, and taking up with a feckless heir named Monte--becomes a wealthy owner of five restaurants.
Mildred learns to drink her whiskey straight. Spoiled rotten, daughter Veda drops the French lessons, and next thing you know she's a teenager who has tricked some vulnerable young heir into asking for her hand, whereupon his family offers her $10,000 to break the engagement, whereupon she runs off with her mother's husband just to "get away from you...you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease." Because while Mildred has sacrificed everything in order to make Veda happy, Veda has come to despise Mildred. It's a black, black world, and by the end of the movie someone's in jail, someone's dead, someone is vindicated, and someone has to face the fact that she's ruined several lives.
So don't even ask me what I expected when I ventured into Mildred Pierce, the café. Impeccably tailored people slapping each other around, flinging back glasses of whiskey, complaining about the stench of labor, and maybe, just maybe breaking long enough to sass back at cheap dicks in threadbare fedoras.
But it's not like that at all. Mildred Pierce is just one big, museum-clean, white room with high ceilings and an open kitchen. In it, people who seem to have no designs on heirs or fortunes happily eat basic American fare--eggs and waffles in the morning, burgers and salads at lunch, and burgers, salads, and fancy American bistro dishes at dinner. So why did owner-chef Shelagh Connolly name her place after such a noir film? Connolly, who has worked in various kitchens in town including the Dakota, the New French Cafe, and Bobino, says she picked the Joan Crawford movie (and James Cain novel) not to summon the Sturm und Drang of the characters' lives,' but out of a much sunnier impulse: "Basically, I've often thought: I just want to go out to dinner somewhere where it's not painfully expensive or a big dog-and-pony show. It seems like places with quality food have lost their simplicity. So I wanted to emphasize that nostalgia, that warm and inviting simplicity and quality. In the movie it just seemed like ladies wearing gloves, that beautiful black and white; it was all stylized, oversized, bold, and dark. Style, style, style--but not style over substance."
Style, style, style indeed: In fact Connolly's restaurant exhibits three distinct styles, one for each meal it serves. The place is most dinerlike in the mornings, when butter-fried eggs, thick, apple-smoked Nueskes bacon, and airy, crisp waffles wing their way to the tables. Those waffles ($4.50) are fantastic, light, dewy in the centers and perfectly brittle at the crowns. Add raspberries or strawberry or blueberry sauce for a dollar, crème fraîche or whipped cream for 75 cents.
Eggs Benedict are delicious ($8.25) and reflect well on Connolly's fine-dining background: She lays thin, savory slices of Spanish serrano ham on English muffins, adds a few leaves of still-crisp spinach, sets down some greaseless poached eggs and tops it all with a house-made, gossamer-light hollandaise sauce dabbed with a spot of chipotle sauce. The result is as unlike the average eggs Benedict as Joan Crawford is unlike W.C. Fields. With the sun streaming in through the wide windows and tall glasses of latte on the tables, Mildred Pierce feels like a St. Paul New French Cafe--though the baked goods don't quite compare.
At lunch, the restaurant is both diner and bistro. Standouts include a house-roasted turkey club sandwich ($6.75) made with that Nueskes bacon and a zesty white-truffle aioli, and an excellent hamburger ($7.95). The soft patty of freshly ground Black Angus beef is cooked perfectly to temperature and served on a sweet, firm bun alongside a pile of thin, extra-crisp potato chips. I'd easily count this among the metro's Top 10 burgers--and topping it with high-quality cheddar, Swiss, American, or Monterey Jack cheese doesn't hurt.
I wasn't particularly happy with any of the salads I tried: The organic mixed greens tossed with an orangey vinaigrette and sweet, yummy spiced pecans ($4.25) were too mild, and some of the leaves had yellowed. The spinach salad ($5.95), topped with sautéed button mushrooms and dressed in an exceptionally mild walnut-oil vinaigrette, was terribly plain. Caesar salad ($5.25) with a very creamy dressing seemed to lack a backbone. I'd say that I'm just jaded from a few years of those pre-bagged salad mixes--but then again, there are plain green salads, like those at Auriga or Lucia's, that I still find exciting.
So I was sort of on the fence about Mildred Pierce until I went for dinner, at which point I fell in love with the place. At first glance, the wine list (17 bottles priced from $20 to $26) had struck me as a sort of uninspired corral for the best-known bargains of the last several years. But when I showed up on Saturday night and saw a bottle on nearly every table, I thought: France. We've finally got France in St. Paul. This is how you demystify wine.
While much of the menu will be familiar to regular lunch guests--salads, burgers, etc.--some dinner-only specials are truly great. I loved the fish cakes ($6.95), three big, plump patties of cod united with the lightest possible batter, inset with a shrimp or two, and seared to create a ridge of caramelized crust around the perimeter. (I didn't know, though, what to make of the dabs of caramelized onions that sat on the mixed greens accompanying the dish.) The accompanying crème fraîche was the perfect accent, sour and plain like tartar sauce stripped of its gewgaws.
The hanger steak ($14.95) was perhaps the best piece of beef I've had in a year, an exquisitely tender and well-marbled cut cooked perfectly to temperature and seared so the edge was crispy and chewy. (Why do I keep mentioning this temperature thing? I guess I've had so many pieces of meat violently overdone, I often feel like I'm just making idle wishes when I order: Yes, I'd like that medium rare, yes, medium rare, and I'd also like a Tuscan villa and peace in the Middle East.)
The sauce that went with the steak, a delicate combination of lightly hot and smoky poblano peppers touched with sweet cardamom, was excellent, and the braised chard the beef rested on was fresh and gorgeously simple. My only question about the dish had to do with the very bland cubes of fried polenta that accompanied it: Connolly says she has been trying to jazz them up, but there are so many flavors on the plate already--well, perhaps she'll have perfected a recipe and the point will be moot by the time you read this. Connolly also hastened to remind me how rare the hanger steak is: Since it is cut from the diaphragm--the breathing muscle--there's only one per cow, and only the most careful butchers know where to find it.
Connolly's roasted pork loin ($13.50) is nearly as wonderful as her steak: The meat is slit and stuffed with figs, blue cheese, serrano ham, and fresh sage in a potent blend of strong flavors that complement each other surprisingly well. And it's all topped with a bit of warmed cheese and dressed in a pan sauce with orange and grapes, so each bite offers a slightly different taste. Accompaniments are appropriately plain--rich mashed potatoes and a simple combination of cut vegetables.
The menu, which Connolly says will change with the seasons, also includes a vegan cassoulet made with white beans, crimini mushrooms, tomatoes, leeks, and herbs ($10.95). Desserts were fine, but not special. I thought the chocolate génoise cake ($4) held the most promise; the mousse-like filling was delicious, even if the cake itself didn't have much nuance to it.
Aside from the scarcity of stunning desserts, the main problems with this simple restaurant have to do with service. I always had long waits for my food--at one lunch it took nearly 40 minutes for the dishes to arrive, and then appetizers and entrées were all served at once. Some of the servers seem extraordinarily young and make lots of beginner's mistakes (forgetting to serve bread, neglecting to clear dirty plates, not thinking to bring extra plates when dishes are shared, and generally overlooking the finer points of service).
None of these flaws is particularly awful, but when combined with another couple of minor annoyances, like the ample ambient noise, they give Mildred Pierce the feel of a neighborhood joint with some marvelous extras, as opposed to a destination restaurant you'd travel to for a special meal. I voice these reservations only because, based on that amazing hanger steak and stuffed pork loin, I get the sense that this modest storefront could be a real force to be reckoned with. Then again, maybe I should be satisfied with the restaurant's humble horizons--because it was hot ambition that got Mildred Pierce, the character, into so much trouble. So I just wish this bright spot well, and hope no evil Veda ever knocks it off its hard-working feet.
Actually, you could say the dangerous beauty has given her blessing to her mother's namesake. Look in the corner near the doorway, and you'll see a framed, autographed picture of Ann Blyth, the actress who breathed fire into Veda in 1945. Blyth is alive and well and living in Arizona; friends of hers dined at Mildred Pierce a few months ago, mentioned that friendship to Connolly, and voilà, there was evil Veda, far less threatening after 54 years, smiling happily into a world of chickens, pies, and kitchens.
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