Really Fine Dining

A Rebours: Deliciously against the grain
Jana Freiband
A Rebours
410 St. Peter St., St. Paul

Fine dining and St. Paul have been mighty skeptical of one another over the years. For one thing, people in St. Paul don't like the idea that people are going to make them get dressed up fancy and then coo the money right out of their pockets. For another, St. Paul is principally concerned with education and the careful raising of children--two activities notorious for inhibiting splashing out for foie gras. Finally, no matter how great their fear of being tarred and feathered by the neighbors, any true fine dining aficionado can't help but notice that Minneapolis and St. Paul got connected a few years back by bridge. Meanwhile, most restaurateurs looked at St. Paul and concluded, I need that like I need a hole in the head. And thus, as late as a mere decade ago, fine dining in St. Paul could best be described as what you did when you wanted to receive your church-basement- mush on fancy plates.

I say this all largely to situate the landmark that is the new restaurant A Rebours: Not only is it a truly fine fine-dining restaurant, not only does it have wonderful chefs, prime ingredients, expert sourcing, grown-up, focused service, a real wine list, and romantic lighting. No, not only does it have all of that, it also both refers to a tradition of dining, namely French Bistro, and extends it into the present, just like a real living, breathing restaurant. Heavens, not only does it do all of that, but A Rebours is now by my count fully the tenth great restaurant in St. Paul, joining W.A. Frost, Zander Cafe, Chet's Taverna, Muffuletta Café, the St. Paul Grill, Mai Village, Ristorante Luci, Punch, and Heartland. The tenth! Ten great restaurants in the last city of the East.

This would be a landmark in any town, but for St. Paul I feel like it's about more than dining--much, much more. I mean, think about it: Could it be possible that the idea of imminent financial doom has finally released its clench from the throat of hardworking St. Paul? Is it possible that the specter of the Great Depression is actually, finally, now, in the post-silicon, Pinot Noir- tinged present, lifting? And while we're at it, has anyone noted lately how essential to St. Paul F. Scott Fitzgerald is, he who above all equated glitter with doom, high flying with crashing, and splurging with divine fury?

Well, consider this your invitation to just toss history on the compost heap with last week's bananas because this is now, and splurging is currently equated with great value and satisfaction. I mean, now you can make a reservation at A Rebours and live in that glittering moment that the Great Gatsby should have been able to enjoy, if he could only have been a little less St. Paul and a little more ah...well, I don't want to say California here, and I don't want to say Monaco, exactly, but since A Rebours means, roughly, against the grain, perhaps what I mean to say is, a little less old St. Paul, and a little more A Rebours.

So what's so great about A Rebours? Nearly everything. The room itself is lovely, it feels like a grand old bistro--many thanks to designer Terry Chance, who found the period lighting and cut each and every stick of wood in such a way that the room looks like it's been there for 100 years. Chance and co-owner Doug Anderson designed a space that feels as solid as the grand old Hamm building it's tucked into: Everywhere you glance, the eye lights on the polish of dark wood, the glow of recessed mirrors, the 19th-century touch point of hygienic tile work, the grace of white tablecloths. The room quickly telegraphs that sturdy elegance that has defined the classic French restaurant for 100 years.

A Rebours is co-owned by Doug and Jessica Anderson and Roger Johnsson, the former chef de cuisine at the Minneapolis Aquavit, a restaurant that was stratospherically ambitious in its cooking, but ultimately failed to bond with the city. The Andersons are the couple behind Bakery on Grand, the establishment that opened almost two years ago in south Minneapolis and gained an immediate reputation as a place of brilliant baking and odd restaurant habits. Michael Morse is the general manager; he is the man that owned and ran Minneapolis's late lamented caf& eacute; un deux trois, and is famous for his gruff, articulate charm--he's something like Oscar Madison from the Odd Couple, but with a more poetic, Brooklyn aspect. Looking at this crew of folks who always seem to be just on the wrong side of the glass from complete success, a restaurant critic had to ask--is there just too much personality in this little crew? Nope. Think of it as the Bad News Bears effect--they're in the championship now.  

I knew the place was in a league of its own the very first time I dropped in for a simple lunch. I ordered the modest $8 omelette du jour, which arrived as plump as a hen, sitting high and proud on its plate, a bit of Gruy& egrave;re from the Gruyère and mushroom filling peeking out coyly from one corner, threading toward a pile of crisp potatoes. My friend devoured a plate of mussels ($8)--and everything in the breadbasket alongside it.

And that breadbasket is a delight, full of the chewy, substantial hearties and light, sweet fancies that they whip up at Bakery on Grand every day. My server at that first lunch kept my coffee cup hot, my water glass full, and every need met, while maintaining a respectful distance. At that moment I knew that A Rebours wasn't like its artsy sister Bakery on Grand--which had opened like cats stampeding onto tar.

You will think so, too, if you try those mussels. At lunch, at dinner, or in the mid- afternoon, if you like, A Rebours serves those black, shiny mussels in a wide, well- warmed bowl where they sit glistening in a warm, salty sea of herbed butter and white wine broth. Inside each shell a lump of sea- trembling flesh offers a plump taste of ocean fruit, tinged with mineral and iodine. It's everything you remember about that magical dinner that summer in Belgium, but so much more convenient if you have tickets for the Ordway.

Whether you have tickets for the Ordway or not, at dinner A Rebours will meet you on whatever level you need it to--if you want a quick after-work stop for a bowl of squash soup with a bacon fritter ($8) and some sturdy bread to sop in it before running to your French class, that's an option. If you need to impress a client before you stuff him onto the red-eye, you can do that too, with a steak au poivre with cognac sauce ($28) and a bottle of wine with bragging rights (how about the 2001 Terra Valentine Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, $58?) along with chocolate cake and scotch. And if you want to relax with pals over a multicourse meal that will delight your senses and not break the bank, you can do that here, too.

A Rebours's executive chef is Roger Johnsson, but, since Johnsson currently lives in Stockholm, where he is executive chef at another restaurant, the day-to-day cooking at A Rebours is headed by Don Saunders, who formerly cooked at both Vincent and La Belle Vie. The A Rebours team excels at those dishes that make up the core of the Parisian bistro repertoire, here presented with a twist.

A gravlax appetizer ($8.50) has varied over the course of my visits; once it was served with a peppy slaw of fennel and carrot, and the sweet anise tinge of the vegetables gave a lively energy to the sweet salmon. Pair slaw and fish on one of the warm, accompanying pumpernickel toast points, and you experience a springtime breeze of silk and prickle. On a later visit the gravlax was paired with thin ribbons of cucumber dressed in a subtle vinaigrette seasoned with the essence of violets, and the plate was scattered with pithless sections of orange; now a bite of gravlax, toast, and accompaniments was about the fruitiness of fish, and vice versa. I suspect one could spend all year pursuing this theme, and never tire of it--impressive.

A fried soft-shell crab one evening was delightful: The two halves of the wee beast each rested upright in a bowl of a light, foamy sauce that was something very fresh that dwelt in a magical halfway point between vanilla and crème fra& icirc;che, and around them were three little mounds of a freshly chopped tomato salad. The texture of the dish was simply beautiful-- the crisp crab, the tongue-clinging cream, the gelatinous, tenuous tomato uniting into a cheery little song of sweet and light. Overall, it was both charmingly original (vanilla with crab and tomato--eek!) but also nicely understated and unified--a treat.

The charcuterie is the same wonderful stuff showcased at Bakery on Grand. Mild, comforting sweetbreads are another house specialty, though I must confess I sometimes found them mild to the point of dullness.

The good entrées at A Rebours tend to be either rather conservative, like an attractively simple cassoulet ($18) in which a tender lamb shank sat in a good stew of well-cooked beans decorated with a confetti of bacon pieces. It was a straightforward dish, and good. More fanciful dishes, I found, have less of a chance of success. I had the strangest variation on paella one evening, in which unyieldingly stiff planks of chorizo did war with chewy shrimp and undercooked squid while being smothered in a ridiculously buttery orange sauce. A cocoa-dusted duck breast ($24) was utterly puzzling. It was just gorgeously tender, as soft as silk, and red as wine, the skin crisp and chewy. And yet it was undeniably both cooked to utter perfection and also nearly inedible, as the bitter, salty cocoa coating tasted like something made by scraping the finish off an antique desk.  

The best of the entrées I tried here was thin fillets of skate wing, fried until they were beautifully crisp and russety brown. They were arranged in a bow on one side of the plate, and presented with a rich, creamy, lemony sauce and a second rich, creamy concoction that might well have been another sauce, but was in fact mashed potatoes. There were also slick, slightly irony sautéed greens and pale enoki mushrooms that were crunchily watery in that way that those mushrooms are. In any event, each bite of the crisp and tender skate, the rich and buttery things beside, the silky and crispy things beside that, each bite such that one is compelled to chase forkful with forkful, hunting the various textural riches.

Careful, though--you should save room for dessert. I don't really know which to recommend first. One night I had a playful dacquoise, a concoction that looks just like a marshmallow stack of white clouds, but is actually broad disks of stiff meringue stacked to conceal fresh slices of strawberry resting on a platform of chocolate, the whole thing sitting in a brilliantly fresh raspberry sauce. Stab it with a fork and the dessert explodes in much the same way a sand castle does, but inspires a lot more glee because there are no sand castle makers weeping on their beach blankets. Each bite of this sweet, simple, irresistible thing makes you feel six years old. Wonderful.

In a more grown-up vein, I had a lovely, subtle thing that was a sort of pineapple upside-down cake, in an Asian-fusion style. You see, it was a disk of fresh pineapple, grilled until black in parts, resting on a little cake of rice that was seared and brown outside and as creamy as rice pudding inside. This thing, all roasty, fresh, and subtle, sat in a bowl of quiet, simple mint cream--each bite was so refreshing, so fleeting, and so harmonious that it caused near war at my table as my friend and I sparred over the last bites.

So how do I explain the dissonance between the mostly wonderful notes, and the few awful ones? I fear it's a hazard of having a chef with extravagant ideas, and then not having him on the premises. Me, I've had duck breasts coated with cocoa, with burnt coffee grounds, with espresso powder, with all of the sorts of things that chefs had lately liked to put on them, and so I know what they're supposed to taste like. But I can't imagine what it would be like to be a chef left with an avant-garde recipe and no one to correct the final result. Cooking is one of those things where you either have to delegate almost all of the power, or almost none of it.

But this is actually a very small problem that needs some adjusting. In everything that matters, from the user-friendly wine list (four dozen bottles, almost half priced under $30) to the utterly professional service, much of the credit should go to Michael Morse, who keeps the place humming like a party in its sweet spot.

Seriously, folks, without any hyperbole whatsoever I can say that the opening of A Rebours is the most exciting thing to happen in food in downtown St. Paul in a decade. A Rebours is not just an independently owned, chef-driven, value-conscious charmer, it might actually be the restaurant that gets people in Minneapolis to notice that, a few years back, St. Paul got linked up to them by bridge.

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Rebours - Closed

410 St. Peter St.
St Paul, MN 55102


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