486 N. Robert St., St. Paul
Obviously, the world could stand some improving. Like most people, I have many good ideas on this topic. For one thing, Americans, and even more egregiously, the Chinese and people from the Indian subcontinent, are notorious wasters of energy. Furthermore, no energy is wasted more than solar, as sunlight can be seen almost any day falling willy-nilly on drug addicts, predatory sex offenders, and even unattractive, elderly sheepdogs. Obviously, if solar energy were distributed by market forces, this waste would come to an end. Which is why I propose that Halliburton encase the world in a durable vinyl shell, and that a bipartisan subcommittee conduct an auction selling private companies rights to distribute our heretofore shamefully abused and wasted solar energy. (Just think of that classic Coppertone bikini child, flaunting her solar guzzling!) Not only will the proceeds from this auction pay for our war for a bit, it will assure a future that is as smoothly merit-based as it is free of skin cancer, unsightly sun visors offering free moustache rides, and mankind's most notorious enemy, dandelions.
Of course, that is just one idea. I have many. Another involves tests for citizenship to weed out the poor huddled masses, while seeking out the wealthy, un-huddled non-masses, by installing Patek Philippe timepiece inspectors at the borders. Another idea of mine is in rougher stages right now, but I can disclose that it involves breeding Arnold Schwarzenegger, replacing the calcium in his fetus's bones with adamantium, and war with Canada.
If this is all too realpolitik for you, here's another way to improve the world: Put a restaurant like St. Paul's newest, Margaux, every few blocks. Oh, it's a lovely thing to have in your neighborhood. It's a neighborhood brasserie—which in this case is kinda French for "serves beer," "is a place for drinks, coffee or alcoholic, as well as a restaurant," and "ain't expensive." It's open all day long, from 11:00 a.m. till midnight most days, and till 1:00 in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays, making it ideal for late lunches, pre- or post-theater light meals, after-work happy hours, blind dates at which you don't know if you'll be ordering wine or coffee, and the other such non-mealtime bits of life that make urban life fun. (However, never on a Sunday: Margaux is closed then; the kitchen also closes nightly at 10:00.)
The food at Margaux is good in an elevated, mostly French, but never too fussy sort of way. The appetizers and snacks, for instance, are mainly of the two-napkin dig-in and gusto variety: Escargot ($8.95) are the standard sort, served in ladles of garlic butter designed to turn your bread basket into a feast. The duck liver mousse ($4.95) is sweet and light, and sized to serve two or three people. Salads are a strong suit at Margaux, and the servers always offer to split the generous portions for two people. I particularly recommend the salad of mixed rough greens and chicories, which is served with crumbles of gorgonzola, candied walnuts, and a whole braised endive, which offers a rich, caramelized, slightly bitter counterpoint to the sweeter elements of the dish ($7.95).
The moules frites ($10.95) consist of a delicious bowl of fresh cold-water mussels (not those frozen green-lip ones that show up depressingly often lately) in a white-wine broth touched with garlic and herbs, served alongside a tall cone of fat French fries with skins so crisp they looked almost frothy. It's the perfect dish to split with a friend over chilled beers while you deconstruct office politics, dissect imploding romances, or discuss whether Arnold Schwarzenegger would best repopulate a sunless world when mated in black-op government petrie dishes with cheery, cheery cheerleader Katie Couric or get-it-done plowhorse Madeline Albright.
Speaking of beers, Margaux offers two dozen, as befits a brasserie. The lion's share are Belgian, including Hoegaarden witbiere on tap for $5, served in the official Hoegaarden glass, just like it should be. The place has a full liquor license, and makes some smashing cocktails; the Manhattan ($7), made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, is particularly pleasant. The French-leaning wine list is a good balance of big, but not too big, offering two dozen varieties offered by the glass (from $6.50), and about six dozen by the bottle or half-bottle, including a number of bottles priced in the low $20s. During happy hour, 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. to midnight every day, Margaux sells tap beers for $3.50, and takes $1 off the price of all the cocktails.
Does that sound like more drinking than you usually think of at French-inflected dining in the Twin Cities? Well, it is. Margaux aims not to be fine dining, but more of an everyday watering hole, with benefits, in the Belgian style. Margaret Doran, the owner and executive chef, came up with the inspiration for Margaux after living in Belgium and cooking in Brussels for a year. "We've got a lot of people coming in to Margaux off the street in ball caps and jeans, which is exactly what we want," she explained to me when I talked to her on the phone for this story.
After returning to the States, Doran ran a restaurant outside Chicago called Dylan's, and later moved to Minnesota, running another version of Margaux in White Bear Lake from 1998 through 2003. The first Margaux was where Doran perfected her appealing vision of French food for casual American lives. "I like old-world recipes," she explains, "but to present them in a way that's not fussy, or pretentious."
To that end the restaurant serves that least pretentious of restaurant calling cards: an excellent cheeseburger ($10.95, with a great pile of fries). That burger is made with tender beef; gouda cheese; a sweet, grilled, light bun; marinated strips of zucchini, finely chopped onions, and a secret sauce in which I detected a bit of good whole-grain mustard before I wolfed the perky, robust delight down. The restaurant's salad Nicoise ($14.95) is nicely done, with slices of rare seared tuna and crisp, poached haricots vert.
My favorite dish was the restaurant's chicken under a brick ($15.95), which is the meat of half a chicken, mostly deboned, and cooked pressed flat so that the skin develops the kind of crispy crust you commonly only see in roadside fried-chicken shacks. It's incredibly delicious stuff—salty, tender, crisp—and the bright parsley sauce that finishes the bird only serves to accent how fine chicken is when it's done well. An entree of seared halibut ($24.95) was tender and delicate, the filet seared with good crust and flavor, the crawfish sauce and decorations of fried calamari rings none too intrusive.
My few encounters with dishes that were less than ideal at Margaux tended to be disappointing in very French ways. The duck two ways ($21.95) offered a lovely, tender, medium-rare duck breast, but it was served in slices layered with a stuffed duck leg that was terrifically dry. A sort of rabbit fricassee ($16.95) was made with lots of onions, carrots, white wine, and fresh thyme, but the rabbit must have been practically whole before it was stewed, and the thyme branches were thrown in whole, making the dish treacherous with tiny hard things.
Desserts can be simple and good, such as a fine, creamy, sized-to-share crème brulee; or simple and bad, such as an overly sweet rhubarb crumble or terribly stale cream puffs. (Our server insisted they were profiteroles, which are filled with ice cream, but in the end it wasn't the custard inside the elderly pastry I objected to; the things could have been filled with bearer bonds and they still would have been unwelcome.)
Perhaps the only question left to answer is exactly where Margaux is. It's in the Rossmore building, which is not exactly downtown St. Paul, as it's a block east of where the skyways end. (If you know your skyways, you can park for free on the street near Margaux, have drinks or dinner, and scoot indoors all the way to the Xcel.) Margaux isn't exactly in Lowertown either, as it lies a few blocks north, up the hill.
Doran told me that people are starting to call the area, with all of its new lofts, condos, and construction, Uppertown. "This neighborhood was such a cement oasis for such a long time," says Doran. "It felt like a desert town even two years ago. But now with all the new residential property and the nice weather, the area is just coming to life."
When the brasserie puts out its summer tables, there will be even more street life in this sudden neighborhood, in this reviving city long mocked for its spooky, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop night streets. And while there may be many ways to improve the world, surely none is more worth the energy than restoring vibrancy to the nights of St. Paul.