No More Mr. Nice Chef

Kristine Heykants

Zander Café
525 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 222-5224

"When I got to the Twin Cities I was one of the youngest chefs in any kitchen, but now I look back and I'm one of the old dogs," reflects Zander Café owner Alexander Dixon, his voice an even, stately measure of just how calm confidence can make you. Dixon has a lot to be confident about. He started his career in 1980 as the New French Café wunderkind fresh from the Culinary Institute of America, moved on to cook at well-known places like Faegre's and the Rosewood Room in the (then extraordinary) Crowne Plaza Northstar Hotel, and has proved time and again that he can take--or leave--the fickle world of restaurateuring.

His newest project, the Zander Café, follows a period when Dixon thought he would give up cooking in favor of the wine business; a previous non-restaurant episode had him living in Nantucket and building ships. In fact, if you like the elegant chairs and funky light fixtures that fill Zander's spare, modern space, you should know that Dixon made them from scratch.

Since opening the café three months ago, Dixon seems to have settled into what many would consider an ideal life: He lives five blocks from his bistro in the Selby-Dale neighborhood, he works exclusively with friends and others with a like set of goals and habits, he surrounds himself with art--the café also functions as a simple gallery for some local artists. Perhaps most importantly, he's stopped compromising. "I'm fed up with contrived dishes that have thirty different things going on at the same time," he says. "When I was in the heat of it at the New French Café I was probably as guilty as anyone of doing that, but as a chef when you get older you just begin to know better. You get more confident with what you like and what's good. You don't feel like you have to stretch out there to get the long ball every time you get the opportunity, and you feel comfortable doing the simple, direct thing."

That simple, direct thing means not catering to every Joe with an opinion: "I'm not trying to please the whole world anymore, I'm just trying to please the people who appreciate what I do. I don't compromise a whole lot now: If I make something hot, I make it hot. If I put garlic in it, I put garlic in it. But I'm not going to compromise down to appeal to the lowest common denominator to draw the largest crowd. That's why the restaurant is as small as it is." While the restaurant may be physically limited, it has resonated widely around town and packs in diners hungry for well-spiced, straightforward food.

Dixon changes the menu every few weeks, so many of the following dishes may be gone by the time you come by, but on my visits chipotle satay pork skewers ($6) were crowd-pleasers, scorching morsels that hearkened to the real meaning of the word "appetizer": With their brief fire and quick intensity, they really did awaken the appetite. The bruschetta ($6) was the simplest combination of grilled bread and sweet, ripe tomatoes with a scattering of olives, a dish so vibrant with color and deceptively simple in its composition that it looked like a photo from some glossy magazine. Dixon's only apparent bow to public demand, the Caesar salad ($5), was delicious, vibrating under a muscular dressing full of garlic, anchovies, and parmesan. Crab cakes ($6) with a jalapeño remoulade were plump and nicely meaty with a jazzy counterpoint in the sting of the traditional mustard mayonnaise.

My only complaint with any of the starters involved the cream of garlic soup ($3 cup, $4 bowl), which was deliciously deep and roasty, but so buttery and rich in texture that I found it ultimately cloying. I encountered a similar problem one night with a special of pan-fried scallops on a bed of creamed spinach; the scallops were tender as ripe pears, the spinach fresh and un-mushy, but it was as decadently creamy as any expense-account steakhouse's token vegetable, and I couldn't bring myself to eat much of it.

Zander Café's entrées are all $15, and each is powerfully flavored. The bouillabaisse was laced with a fierce rouille (a mixture of hot chilies, garlic, fresh bread crumbs, and olive oil pounded into a paste and mixed with seafood stock) which made the stew--full of big shrimp, lots of fish, and a handful of mussels--delicious. In fact, the bouillabaisse boasted a broth so potent, so vibrant with garlic, it virtually could have stood alone as an entrée. It was peasant food in the most traditional sense: robust, hearty, generously apportioned, and candid in its flavors. (I should mention that while the scads of garlic sat fine with me and my dining companions, I bet there's a substantial number of garlic-phobes who would have just wilted before them.)  

A pepper-crusted pork tenderloin served with mashed potatoes and a Madeira mushroom sauce was also very good, the meat cooked to a lushly tender texture, the buttery mashed potatoes and the slightly sweet, refined sauce comforting in their tasty familiarity. Perhaps my favorite was the seared ahi tuna, served crusted with black sesame seeds and perched on a sauté of gingery cabbage in a plate decorated with pools of wasabi vinaigrette. It was a simple dish, well-centered on a few essential culinary pairings, emphasizing the strength of the flavors without any unnecessary glitz. Nice.

Desserts (all $5.50) were accomplished treats, though not the euphoria-inducing confections I'm always on the lookout for. The crème brûlée was fresh, eggy, milky, and topped with a thick caramelized-sugar lid; a chocolate espresso tart was silky and beautifully bittersweet, featuring a house-made caramel sauce. I should mention that Zander also finesses all the details, from competent servers to scrupulously filled water glasses. The noise level can get to be a bit overwhelming at times, especially when live music is playing, but Dixon is putting in sound-absorbing panels to fix that.

The wine list also deserves note, since it's that rarest of creatures, a tidy, low-priced collection with a bottle to match nearly every dish offered. It was put together by Dixon and his friend Sam Haislett, a Zander waiter and former New French Café manager; among the mid-priced offerings you can find a bold wine to stand up to the fiercest garlic, like the high-acid 1995 Montevina Sangiovese ($25); a perky Gewürztraminer to complement a cloud of wasabi; and even a lusciously thick, peach-scented dessert wine--like the Pierre Bisé 1996 Coteaux du Layon Villages ($28)--to gracefully accompany your cheesecake with blueberry sauce ($5.50). Bottle prices range from $16 to $50. The café also offers a selection of food-friendly beer.

Three months isn't a lot of time for a restaurant to work out opening kinks, but the Zander already seems as comforting and well-known as a place you've been going since childhood. Part of the reason may be that Dixon has surrounded himself with his most competent and restaurant-savvy friends--like chef Michael Hart, formerly of Giorgio's on Hennepin, and Thomas Mullikin, a longtime waiter who helped build the space. "It feels like it's been here a long time because we've all known each other for so long," says Dixon. "We are all fairly familiar with each other and the staff is small enough that we don't have a lot of decisions to make, we're not trying to reinvent any wheels. The staff has contributed greatly to everything--it's a fairly cooperative, socialist thing we've got going here. Also, you have to remember, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we're trying to make a name. But when we're more secure, it lets who we are come out more easily."


YOU SHOULDA BEEN THERE: Actually, I should have been there. It was a rich and romantic moment in Twin Cities history--the day last winter when they installed the studio apartment-sized copper brewing vessels into the skeleton of the new Summit Brewery. Jon Lindberg, Summit's brewmaster, described it to me the other day: Each of the gleaming copper pods wobbling like one of those tops on a string as the crane operator tried to compensate for the icy winds ripping in off the Mississippi.

You see, the Summit folk had to lower these precious vessels--to me they look just like Barbara Eden's bottle home from I Dream of Jeannie--into their new 58,000-square-foot brewery on the bluffs of the Mississippi because the containers are way, way too big to carry in through any kind of door. Thus, Summit had to dig the brewery's foundation, build the skeleton of the space the vessels were to be in and then construct the rest of the building around the copper giants. To accommodate construction schedules, this delicate act had to be performed in the middle of winter, and I can just picture them, the gray sun gleaming on their ruddy bellies, the windborne snow scouring the barren construction site, the worried faces of the Summit employees who got to witness this tricky feat.

Summit had already had one brush with construction-travel tragedy: After traveling to Ansbach, a little German town southwest of Nuremberg, to claim the vessels; after ending up on the front page of the Ansbach newspaper as the Americans come to dismantle the beloved brewery (it had long ago been bought and closed); after shipping the vessels and the accompanying antique glass control panel across Germany, across the Atlantic, through the Great Lakes and all the way to the port in Milwaukee; after all that, they lost the control panel--made primarily of engraved glass, and full of dials and gauges and brass wheels that looked like they belonged on a ship's bridge--when it got dropped and dashed to pieces. (The brewery uses a computerized control system, so the old panel's purpose would have been primarily decorative, but that didn't make its loss any less significant.)  

The vessels are all cemented into place now, and by Thanksgiving every drop of Summit you taste will have been made in their bellies. Still, I wish I could have seen them, high in the windy sky over the bluffs. Well, there's no use crying over spilled ale. From now on we'll all have to content ourselves with the knowledge that we can tour the new brewery and visit those vessels--if only we call 265-7800 for more information.

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