Muddled and Slightly Bitter
380 St. Peter St., St. Paul; (651) 602-9000
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.; Saturday 4:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.; Sunday 4:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; bar hours vary.
Were it the winter of 1940, chances are good that you'd be humming "Make it Another Old-Fashioned, Please," one of the hit songs from the latest Cole Porter musical to hit Broadway, Panama Hattie. Maybe you'd sidle into your favorite watering hole and order the cocktail: bourbon and a splash of soda added to a base of sugar muddled with bitters, segments of fresh orange and lemon peel, and a maraschino cherry or two. According to the 1999 book Vintage Cocktail, there's a good chance the drink would have been served to you with your own personal muddler--a very small pestle that would have sat in your glass like a swizzle stick, allowing you to muddle as you drank.
Were it the summer of 1999, chances are equally good that if you sidled into your favorite bar humming Cole Porter and ordered an old-fashioned, you'd get a glass of something that would make you spit: a bourbon soda with a cherry if you were lucky, a sugared whisky if you were not. Bartending, we all know, has become a degraded art, and any drink requiring an actual recipe--much less one that asks the maker to counterbalance bitters and sugar--has had to fend for itself.
Thankfully, it's the summer of 2000, and now Kincaid's has arrived to rescue the old-fashioned ($5.50). Order one, and you'll get a squat, cold glass holding a perfect blend of the brisk taste of Maker's Mark and the sweetness of the add-ins, the colorful pieces of fruit lurking at the bottom of the glass in a sweet murky stew. Kincaid's, which opened its St. Paul location last winter, also makes a top-flight margarita ($4.95). Order that and you get an entire cocktail shaker of gorgeous liquid green, zesty with fresh lime juice. It's smooth and incredibly lively, a real boon to the margarita quality of the state. And the Bloody Mary! Made with more fresh lime juice and garnished with a big whole cold skewered shrimp, this sweet and spicy Bloody Mary ($4.95) is a joy to receive.
Only thing though, were you to start your meal with a few of these bar-born beauties, you might be hard-pressed to hold your tongue about the lackluster meal that follows. Medallions of pork marinated in honey, soy and hoisin--grilled and served on skewers sticking out of a large wedge of grilled pineapple--are bizarrely tasteless. Under-ripe slabs of tomato served in a bath of achingly sugary French dressing garnished with a peculiar spoonful of deep-fried onion rings ($4.50) are unappetizing. Greasy prime rib (from $19.95) is mysterious: It looks like a prime rib, but tastes like fleshy cotton.
Then again, have enough cocktails and maybe you won't notice too much until you get to the very good desserts. I imagine that would be quite possible: The servers are so good, the dining experience so well-oiled that if you were cocktail-saturated you might never notice how mediocre the food is.
And the food really is endlessly run-of-the-mill: The signature "garlic-herb pan bread" is barely cafeteria-level garlic bread; the squishy bread itself lacks any real character, and the garlic butter that dresses it is, well, garlic butter. You could spread it on cardboard and it would find fans. The clam chowder ($4.95) is creamy and bland, missing any seafood taste. A salad of wilted greens ($5.50) that was supposed to be served in a warm bacon-leek vinaigrette arrived ice-cold, salty from blue cheese, and bearing the most strangely tasteless spiced pecans I've ever had. The lack of flavor in this restaurant is absolutely mystifying: Crab cakes ($10.95 as an appetizer, $13.95 at lunch as an entrée, $17.95 for dinner) were loaded with visible strings of crabmeat, but had none of the sweet, oceany taste of crab. A special of grilled marlin with sticky rice and wild-mushroom ragout ($20.95) featured dry fish surrounded by a brown, salty gravy that tasted like steam-table aged beef stroganoff. One who receives it can only sit and wonder: What did we ever do to them?
Over the course of four visits, I found only a handful of dishes to even half-heartedly recommend. The oven-roasted garlic shrimp ($17.95) are butterflied and slathered with garlic butter, and rest upon their shells. Yum--hooray for garlic butter! The caesar salad ($5.95) is fine. A special of grilled salmon with an orange-and-tomato salsa was fine, the fish tender, the sauce not obtrusive. Frankly, I could bore you with a play-by-play of everything that was wrong with the food here--and pray tell, why is the house-made au jus served with the prime rib so very metallic-tasting and salty?--but the crux of the matter is this: One sad, flavorless lunch, when we weren't seated for a full hour after our reservation, the management comped us their crab-and-artichoke dip--forgettable, but one of the house specialties--and my dining companion sat there pushing around an order of incredibly crisp fish and chips ($10.95) that had none of the taste of great fried fish, while I picked at a pot-roast sandwich ($6.95) that had a piece of white cheddar cheese on it that tasted like nothing whatsoever and was smooshed into a toasted hoagie that was in desperate need of a crust, and our server became worried. After all, we hadn't made much of a dent into the pork lollipops ($7.95) either. Is everything okay? she asked brightly, setting down another round of truly delicious strawberry lemonades ($2.75). "Ask the chef to turn off the de-flavorizing magnets, turn them off," instructed my friend, completely seriously, which cracked up our server but didn't inspire them to turn off the magnets. Or rays. Or whatever infernal device they're using.
She took it all away, and we were glad, not least because we had plenty of room for desserts, which, like I said, are awfully good. The burnt crème ($4.50) tasted fresh, eggy and full of vanilla. I didn't love the Key lime pie ($4.50), but it tasted just-made and was a good effort. The tall tower of chocolate bread pudding ($5.95), however, is a joy to behold: Layers of warm chocolate bread chunks that taste so rich they're almost like a brownie are topped with a layer of chocolate shredded phyllo and still further with fresh whipped cream. The whole thing rests beside a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream. I was so entranced with the stuff, which comes dressed with contrasting sauces, I ended up ordering it on three separate occasions.
So am I saying come for the cocktails (not the wine list, which is solid enough, but uninspiring), stay for the desserts, and in between lie back and think of England? Almost, but a good watering hole in downtown St. Paul is not to be underestimated. The bar itself has comfortable, cushy chairs, some attractive artwork, and a good ventilation system. Factor in that the staff is first-rate, the view out the front windows is undeniably attractive (and, I bet, will be even more so in the winter with caps of snow on the Landmark Center's spires). Next time I'm downtown and in need of a drink, I know what tune I'll be singing.
BIFURCATED NO MORE: Love fine dining at The Local? Well, make your reservations now: Sometime between now and Thanksgiving that fine-dining experience will disappear. "With all of the changes downtown right on our couple blocks the time is right for us to refine what we're doing," says owner Kieran Foillard. Local fans can expect "more of a uniform vision throughout" the pub and restaurant. While details weren't yet clear when we spoke, expect the addition of one of The Local's beautiful, signature hand-carved bars in the dining room, and a single menu for the restaurant. "It's basically an amalgamation of some things we did in the dining room, and some things we did in the pub," says head chef Stephen Brown. "It's a perfect example of art versus commerce: We had a vision of what we wanted, but the hard truth is, we've got to get bodies in chairs, so out goes the expensive wine list, out goes the expensive food. It's a little frustrating, but my dad always said, 'If you're going to dig a ditch, dig the best ditch you can.' There's a big difference between good fish and chips and bad fish and chips, and now the common purpose of the restaurant will be more clear."
DOWNTOWN BREAKFAST ALERT:
Meanwhile, across the street, Zinc is getting ready to open. Another Foillard project, Zinc takes the place of the not-at-all lamented Merchants steak house. General manager Edmund Burke, formerly of Manny's, explains that the restaurant is to be "a sun-drenched, French-Mediterranean brasserie." Think herbs like lavender and rosemary, roast chicken, bouillabaisse, steak au poivre, salade niçoise, frites, fruits de mer, the seafood of the Côte d'Azur, a little Spanish influence, and an ever-available raw bar. "We realized it was no longer the case that people have this ironclad association between 'French' and 'fancy'," he says. "There are casual concepts within French cuisine that people are comfortable with. A brasserie is a meeting place, a place where you go after work to meet up with friends and have some drinks, have some dinner, socialize. This is that place." Burke says the decor will feature an extended bar running the length of the Tenth Street side of the restaurant. There will be live music on weekends, and dinner prices will be in the teens and twenties--think of it as more like Buca than café un deux trois, but not very much like Buca. Penny pinchers will be drawn to the large, family style dinner platters, and carafes of French table wine. Burke also promises what sounds like it could be the best French-based wine list in the state. "I wrote the list, I put a lot of thought into every choice," says Burke. "The main list has 200 wines, of which the lion's share is French and European. It highlights the south of France, the Rhone valley, Provence, and the Languedoc. The idea is to create a completely user-friendly list; on the main list there's not a bottle [priced] over $50, and most are in the $20s. I've got some of the best wine values on the planet." There's also a reserve list of another 50 wines. "That's where we've got all the token big boys," says Burke. "The Barolos, Barbarescos, American Cabernets, and Châteauneuf-du-Papes." Also, filling a great void in the center of downtown, Zinc will serve a full breakfast Monday through Friday, starting at 7:00 a.m. Can Zinc simultaneously, single-handedly make Minneapolitans act French and take breakfast meetings? Stay tuned for the target opening date of September 11, and watch the doors at 1010 Nicollet
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