Acqua Restaurant, Margaux's Table give foodies reason to visit White Bear Lake

Rustic elegance: Margaret Doran makes her own bread at Margaux's Table

Rustic elegance: Margaret Doran makes her own bread at Margaux's Table

Chef Margaret Doran's new restaurant, the tiny, lunch-service-only Margaux's Table, has just three components: an open kitchen, a communal farmer's table, and Doran, who takes the orders, cooks the food, and washes the dishes. (One of her friends jokes that she should have called the place "Just Me.") If Doran weren't wearing a white chef's coat, you'd swear you'd stumbled into her home kitchen—and please, feel free to call her Peggy.

Margaux's Table is the third incarnation of Margaux restaurants owned by Doran. The new restaurant has returned to its original location, on the back side of a quaint retail strip in downtown White Bear Lake. (If you enter from the side of the building that faces Highway 61, a small sign is the only clue that you'll find the eatery at the end of a narrow, unmarked corridor.) Since opening the first Margaux in 1998, Doran expanded the restaurant in 2000, and moved it to Lowertown St. Paul in 2006. But as her operation grew, she spent a lot more time managing employees than handling food. In opening Margaux's Table, Doran dispensed with the former location's white tablecloths and crystal—the new place doesn't even have a credit card machine. But Doran is happy to have scaled back, finding that she now has more control over her restaurant and more time for her family. "Right now, what I'm doing is where I want to be," she says. "It's very liberating, and I get to focus on what I like to do, which is the food."

Doran's menu is tiny: soup du jour, a few salads, sandwiches, and desserts. She works with a farm-to-table, scratch-cooking philosophy, using local, seasonal ingredients when possible, plucking some right from the nearby farmers' market. And when homemade bread and mayonnaise are paired with good-quality bacon, lettuce, and tomato, even something as simple as a BLT sandwich tastes special.

Doran's dishes have a wholesome, rustic elegance. One afternoon I lucked into a paella-style soup served in a cute white tureen; the smoky, spicy tomato sauce was studded with rice, chorizo, carrots, and chickpeas. I also loved a salad Doran composed with organic greens, candied nuts, Gorgonzola, and braised endive whose bitterness added complexity to the familiar salad combination. It's tough to pick between Doran's roast pork loin sandwich and her ham-and-cheese croque monsieur. The loin is tucked into a tomato-and-scallion-flecked focaccia, slathered with pesto mayonnaise, and topped with lettuce and tomato. The ham slices, which are laced with a peppery edge, are paired with melted Gruyère and speckled mustard, then grilled between two slices of yeasty-tasting, fresh-baked bread. After sampling both, I hardly had room for dessert: a handmade crostata stuffed with peaches and strawberries.

The Margaux experience puts a unique twist on the standard chef's table—as guests help themselves to silverware and water carafes, it feels more like the chef's farmhouse kitchen. Doran estimates that she knows close to 90 percent of her customers—it's not the sort of place that visitors would just stumble upon—and many of them live and work in the area. Between cooking orders, Doran chats with guests and introduces them to one another, playing the role of dinner party hostess. After one of Doran's customers saw several diners bus their own dishes—including one who came behind the counter and washed his—she marveled at the way everybody felt right at home. (The dishwasher, as it turns out, was Doran's father, who also built the communal table. Still, the fact that the gesture seemed natural gives a good sense of the place.)

In addition to serving weekday lunches, Doran uses her space to offer prix fixe dinners several times a month, plus wine tastings, bread-baking workshops, and cooking classes. She also does catering, holds private parties in the restaurant, and will even pack picnic baskets. So no matter what motivates your visit to Margaux's Table, by the time you make a second visit, you'll likely enter and leave through the back door, friend style.

THOSE MOURNING THE LOSS of Uptown's Campiello will be happy to know that its former general manager, Daron Close, and executive chef, Chris Whalen, have opened their own spot, Acqua Restaurant—water, in Italian—on the shores of White Bear Lake. The old Wolfgang's Waterfront Bistro still feels rather like a bed and breakfast, with two dining rooms containing just nine tables. The front dining area and bar offer a nice view of the lake, but the secondary dining room seems awkward by comparison, an annex-like space next to the kitchen with a rumpled curtain on one wall and a window air-conditioning unit on another. In fact, the best seats in the house are those outside it, at the tables on the front porch and on the lakeside patio that overlooks the marina. Consider Acqua the East Side's low-key version of Lord Fletcher's Wharf—I'd rank it among the top half-dozen outdoor dining destinations in the Twin Cities.

The restaurant is small enough that you may very well be waited on by Close himself, or by one of the knowledgeable servers he recruited, many of whom are former co-workers. Close designed the wine and beer lists to be as varied as they are affordable, and he enjoys sharing them with diners. One moment he might be introducing his guests to the virtues of aerated wine, the next he'll be describing one of the unusual ales he stocks—ever heard of a brew called Scottish Kelpie Seaweed?

Whalen's menu tends toward simple but flavorful Italian dishes. For appetizers, he offers mussels, bruschetta, and several pizzas. I tried one pizza topped with chicken, artichokes, and Gorgonzola, but found that the cheese overpowered the other ingredients. Some of Whalen's other dishes, such as the baked halibut with macerated berry sauce and cheesy mashed potatoes, are decidedly less traditional. When he introduced the unusual pairing to the rest of the staff, Whalen says he "kind of freaked everybody out." Yet the halibut, which was slightly overcooked when I had it, acts as a fairly neutral canvas, absorbing the flavors of a paprika-cayenne rub and the sweet-tart notes of raspberries, blueberries, and champagne vinegar.

Whalen's hearty, slow-cooked dishes may feel a bit heavy for summer, but they're tasty nonetheless. His Ragu alla Bolognese simmers for four hours on the stove, and is served atop a pile of wide, pliable pappardelle noodles. The rich, heavily seasoned sauce hits an umami-laden triad of ground meat, tomato, and Parmesan cheese. Whalen braises short ribs in red wine spiked with parsley and thyme, then lets them rest in their braising liquid for an entire day. The meat falls apart with a touch of the fork, and the tar-thick sauce is deep with flavor: Each bite has hints of Guinness, walnuts, cherry, and rosemary. The ribs are served with sautéed kale and roasted baby potatoes, served standing on their ends and stuffed with herb-flecked Boursin cheese. They'd rival deviled eggs as a tasty picnic snack.

The only dish I tried that missed the mark was the piercingly sweet double chocolate brownie with crème anglaise. (If I don't finish something chocolate, it's not a good sign.) Fortunately, I'd also ordered the passion fruit panna cotta, which tasted a bit like a grownup Creamsicle. Overall, Acqua should be a boon for the east metro, with Uptown's loss being White Bear's gain.