Rat Pack Revelry

Afton House Inn


3291 S. St. Croix Trail, Afton


You know your Gimlets from your Rickeys, your Old Fashioneds from your Sidecars, and your Frisco from your Bronx. You've got your white-fox stole, your diamondante cat's-eye glasses, and your pink New Look tulle straight from the cleaners. Darling, you're stunning. Or maybe it's your silver sharkskin and Italian leather moccasins. I don't know. Yet the question arises: what are you going to do with yourself now? Pace in the hall while Dean Martin booms on the hi-fi? Rent a rat-pack flick like Ocean's Eleven and dribble popcorn down your Dior? Hardly. You need to go where the food's as show-biz as you, where the salad's got flash, the steak's got pizazz, and the ice-cream sauce scorches the ceiling.

That's why you're going to spritz on that final layer of Aqua Net, hop in the El Dorado and zoom off to the Afton House Inn, where the clapboard exterior says Pig's Eye Parrant, the looping wreaths say Martha Stewart, and the signature dishes are pure perfect Frank Sinatra, the Sands, 1966.

Start with the Caesar Salad. Your waitperson, or, preferably, the confident and wry maître d' Al Kiehl, will pilot an immense cart over to your table. Out comes the parmesan, the lemon juice, the Worcestershire sauce, the egg, the tabasco, the anchovies, and the romaine--and they fly into a big wooden bowl like just so many martinied partygoers leaping into a fountain. ($5.95 per person, minimum two people.) As your Caesar is made the whole dining room will be looking at you, which is why this is the perfect time to throw off your stole, to reveal the bejeweled tops of your opera-length gloves. It's time to shine. I'd say that either a vodka martini or a scotch and soda goes well with a Caesar--though of course you can order off the rather pricey wine list. If you're there late enough you can gaze at your own lovely reflection in the giant picture windows that look out on a marina on the St. Croix, otherwise you simply see the marina. (Is that Sammy Davis, Jr. pulling up anchor?)

After your Caesar you must, you simply must, order the Afton House Steak Diane--another dish prepared tableside. First, someone, let's say it's Al, wheels out the cart. All eyes swivel toward you. Al flips on the table-top burner. Blue flames leap. He takes two thinly pounded tenderloin fillets, heretofore discreetly hidden, and slathers them with mustard. He spoons herb butter out of a ramekin and into a shiny copper frying pan. It sizzles. It pops. He dashingly tosses the meat into the pan. He adds Worcestershire sauce and sliced button mushrooms. Sizzle! Pop! The Diane vapors course through the room, whetting all appetites. The dramatic tension is high. Suddenly Al flings brandy in the pan. A bright ball of flame flies up, up, up toward the rafters. Al doesn't even flinch. Once the flames subside, Al adds a generous portion of veal demi-glace to the pan. And you poo-pooed dinner theater.

Best yet, the Steak Diane ($22.50) is pretty darn spectacular: The meat is terrifically tender, the sauce is rich as all get out--this is as melt-in-your-mouth creamy as steak gets. Be sure to order a baked potato on the side, because the potato comes with this very mod sour-cream relish tray. The other steaks-- Filet Mignon with Bordelaise sauce ($20.95), New York Strip Steak with Café de Paris butter ($18.95)--are safe bets, as are the appropriately casino-luxe dishes like Chicken à la Crab ($16.95), a chicken breast stuffed with crab meat and served with homemade hollandaise, or Veal Scallopini ($20.95), pounded fillets in a port and gorgonzola sauce.

Sadly, more contemporary dishes, like the Dungeness Crab Cakes appetizer ($8.50), don't have the verve of a flaming Diane. The crab cakes were goopy and the ancho-sauce was dull as dirt. The Cajun Blackened Swordfish ($18.95) was accompanied by a salsa-fresca--a chopped tomato pile that tasted like nothing but mealy old winter tomatoes. Just because it's hard to get good tomatoes in winter doesn't mean you're obligated to serve the bad ones. Other lapses in Afton House judgment include the lousy cafeteria-quality rolls, the icky garlic mashed potatoes, and the pesto bow ties. The mashed potatoes tasted as though they'd been cooking for days, and the pasta was lukewarm and so wet with pasta water it seemed like a prank--was that Sammy Davis, Jr. slipping the bus boy a sawbuck?

For dessert, again, demand the cart. Sure, there's a dessert tray of cakes and pies, but they're not homemade. What you want are the leaping plumes of flame occasioned by Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Strawberries Victoria, or Crepes Elaine. (All are $4.95 per person, minimum two people.) They all operate on the same principle: sugar, butter, fruit, heat, and the flame of a liqueur--Bananas Foster with a banana liqueur; Cherries Jubilee with the juice of half an orange and half a lemon, and kirsch; Strawberries Victoria with strawberry schnapps; and Crepes Elaine with chocolate and Grand Marnier--and they all end beside ice cream.  

Another reason to have these flaming treats here is because chances are high that you'll never be able to do it at home--even Al, who flames dozens of dishes every week, admits it: "I just can't do it at home." Al thinks that home fires just don't get hot enough, and he should know, since he's been flaming tableside for nearly 20 years. "If you tried to do this at home they'd probably be calling the fire department," he says. "I wish I could glamorize this for you, but it's not like I'm performing magic out there. It's just a matter of practice makes perfect, having everything ready to go, and knowing when the pan is nice and hot."

But has Al ever lost an eyebrow? "Never," he says definitively. "I've been burned in the business, but never flamed. It's the nature of the beast that you're going to get burned in kitchens, but flaming is something else." What's his secret? "It's amazing how fast your head can move if you've got to move it."

Al, to quote a 1955 Marlon Brando telegram to Sammy Davis, Jr.: "Never dug you before. Dug you last night. You the man."


SECRETARIES AND HOLLANDAISE: When I first got out of college I temped for a big, miserable bank while I tried to get my writing career off the ground. I'll never forget my shock when I came to work and found my chair decorated with mylar balloons announcing "Happy Secretaries Day!" The balloons were decorated with drawings of paper clips, staplers, and yellow post-its. (As fire-hats are the symbol of firemen, presumably paper clips are the visual sign for secretaries, and not enforced smiles or glass ceilings.) My temp agency, to my utter mortification, published my name in a newspaper ad saying "Thanks!" Then my three (yes, three) bosses took me out for lunch to a Hennepin Avenue restaurant. I sat there, enduring the most uncomfortable conversation of my life, looking out the window to the street and wishing I was lying in it.

I think Secretaries Day could be easily renamed "Celebrating Permanent Inequalities Day." So to all you restaurants hosting special secretaries' meals today, I say fie. To all you secretaries I say: You are wholly unappreciated, and the world would grind to a halt without you. Celebrate your day by staying home. Turn off the ringer on your phone, kick your slippers up on the coffee table, and get a pal to make you these super-fancy Eggs Benedict. The recipe is from the latest book in the Williams & Sonoma Kitchen Library series, Breakfasts & Brunches.

Citrus Hollandaise

* 1 cup [2 sticks] unsalted butter,
cut into pieces

* 4 egg yolks

* 1 tsp. grated orange zest

* 1 tsp. grated lemon zest

* 2 tsp. fresh orange juice

* 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

* 1/2 tsp. salt

* 1/4 tsp. dry mustard

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Remove from heat. Put everything except the butter in a blender or in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the butter. The sauce will gradually emulsify to a thick, smooth, creamy consistency. Once the butter is incorporated and the correct consistency is achieved (thick, not runny), stop the machine and transfer the sauce to a small metal or glass bowl.

Set the bowl over (but not touching) hot water in a larger bowl or pan to keep the sauce warm. Cover and keep warm until ready to use, up to about 30 minutes.

Poached Eggs Neptune

Frankly, there's no room to give you the full recipe, so here's the gist of it. Poach as many eggs as you want. Toast as many english muffins as you want. Take a cooked pound of shrimp (the little ones are good for this), and warm it gently in a pan with 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of fresh dill. Put a spoon of shrimp on an english muffin, put an egg on top of that, and top with the citrus hollandaise.

Voilà! You are living like a queen. Your boss is forced to reckon with the fact that after all these years s/he still can't figure out the copier. Can s/he not get into the computer calendar without you? Is his/her day a shambles? Too bad. Appreciation is all well and good--but never underestimate the persuasive powers of good old fashioned fear. You have nothing to lose but your mylar balloons.

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Afton House Inn

3291 S. St. Croix Trail
Afton, MN 55001



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