For proof that the Twin Cities restaurant scene is not only growing exponentially, but in its own Minnesotan way, look no further than our lakeside park pavilions.
If we have 10,000 lakes, that means 10,000 places to become hungry and thirsty. And now you're not limited to guys passing Bomb Pops or B-grade hamburgers through a window while your bikini bottom drips on the sidewalk.
At Minnehaha Park's Sea Salt, trained chefs have grabbed the old shanties and given us great icy towers of East Coast oysters accompanied by svelte wedges of lemon. Doug Flicker's Nokomis Sandcastle presents Native fry bread tacos and all-beef hot dogs piled with locally fermented kimchee made by neighbor Mrs. Yon.
Meanwhile, Kim Bartmann's Bread and Pickle at Lake Harriet chooses not to stray too far from the classics. A good grilled cheese, a brat, a ham and cheese with thick rivulets of mayo, and some ice cream is all you need.
But nobody's doing it as grand as Como Dockside, the pillared citadel flanking the west side of St. Paul's prettiest lake. The two fit together like a pair of fraternal twins, precisely contrasting.
Imposing chandeliers hang from echo chamber ceilings, stately upholstered chairs hunch resolutely on the wood floors, and white-shirted staff hustle and bustle. It has to be the prettiest waterside concession this side of Europe.
Bonus: A gleaming embankment of bottles promises libations untold. (Only in St. Paul can you get strong hooch at the lake. The nanny Minneapolis park system relegates imbibers to beer and wine.)
But it's still a lake pavilion. Now that you've entered all of this grandeur, know that no server will come to you, you must order from the bar, and so begins a bit of cognitive dissonance that can become maddening despite the aesthetic pleasures.
The decision to do Creole food outside of New Orleans always flummoxes. Unless they've spent more than a week in that city, or have a cookbook shelf that groans with more than two Emeril Lagasse books, the average eater doesn't have a strong pull toward pimento cheese, pickled shrimp, or chicken-fried steak.
Even takes on gumbo, seafood boils, and po boys seem more delicious in the imagination than they manifest themselves on the plate, unless you're walking through the French Quarter.
So there are hits and misses on Dockside's very ambitious menu of 40 or so items that practically make up the compendium of Creole cooking. The simplest are the best: nibbles like fried green tomatoes with a lacy batter and rich, spicy remoulade. Or pimento cheese spread over rustic garlic toasts. Or hush Puppies toasty brown on the outside, plush and tender within.
The gumbo has profound layers of smoke and is clearly launched with a skillful and imposingly dark roux.
But other dishes that should have worked didn't, and often it was for simple, overlooked details like not toasting the bread on a po' boy, serving bitter, under-ripe green tomatoes in a "seasonal tomato salad" — smack in the middle of bumper tomato crop season — or a broken béchamel on a mac and cheese. A Bibb lettuce salad was soggy and clearly pre-prepared.
On busy nights, waits for food can be outrageously long, so use caution if hungry kids are in tow. On quiet visits, service can still be disjointed and strange. Ordering from the overwhelmed bar staff, who are simultaneously washing glassware, mixing cocktails, and taking food orders, almost always means lengthy waits and disjointed flow.
If you choose the patio to take advantage of the twinkling autumn waters and live music, you're utterly on your own when it comes to a forgotten fork, a refill on your PBR, or a much-needed bottle of Tabasco.
Do yourself a favor and take inventory of these all at once, or you'll be up and down from your seat enough to make for a game of musical chairs. Even if you do flag down a white shirt, chances are they're going to be of limited assistance. This is not a full-service deal.
But you're at a park, remember? It's the cognitive dissonance that's got you all twisted up, and nobody promised excellence just because you can get a dirty martini, five different kinds of Bloody Marys, or a Chicory Blend French Press.
The mind behind all of this cacophony is Jon Oulmann, music promoter and owner and restaurateur of the 331 and Amsterdam bars. Oh, he's a hairdresser and salon owner too, and a quite noted one at that. His partnership with the city has allowed St. Paul to rake in over a million bucks in Dockside's four short months in business.
So perhaps it's no surprise that on any given night, you can listen to a jug band on the big stage, jump on a paddleboat, eat a fried catfish on a sweet corn cake, pop a $375 bottle of Dom Perignon, order up some beignets, toss a penny in the wishing well, rent a two-person Surrey bike, and finish it all with a Cuban cortado. It's strange. It's beautiful. It's wonderful, frustrating, and great.
It's also indicative of the state of culinary affairs in these parts, a few stumbling blocks mixed with big triumphs. Or sometimes the other way around.
But it's ambitious, not the tedious same ol'. In a way, the Creole theme is apropos: a coming together, a rising up, a Minnesota melting pot.
Not too shabby for a St. Paul snack shack.
Pro tip: Future plans for Como Dockside property include a farmers market and a pumpkin patch.