Did you notice that my list of the best dishes of 2006 this year contained not a single tip of the hat to a single St. Paul plate? Let me tell you, several St. Paul partisans noticed, and boy howdy, did they give me a talking-to. "Wrong, so very wrong!" trumpeted one. "Nary a St. Paul address in the whole bunch...ouch. And I thought they dismantled Checkpoint Charlie," said another.
Well, you're big boys, so I'll tell you the truth. I actually realized that there weren't any St. Paul entries on my list, and thought about dropping someone to add in W.A. Frost, but truth be told, something in me rebelled. Something ornery.
I visited all of the best restaurants in St. Paul last year—Zander, Au Rebours, Heartland, Frost, et al., and none of the meals I had were the top ten meals of the year. Are they great restaurants? Yes. Did I hit them on bad days? Yes. Would I give them a negative review based on a single visit? Never. Am I going to lie and shoehorn one into my top ten? Not this year I'm not.
There's an implicit grading on the curve that all of us local food writers do for St. Paul and the suburbs, and I'm kind of sick of it. I picture two imaginary geographical points in Minnesota, one on top of the IDS building, the other atop the Uptown Theatre, and the farther you get from either of those two points, the gentler and easier the curve you're graded on gets. At this point I could name five ritzy suburbs in which if you put a plate of pasta on the table without falling into it or poisoning anyone, you'll get a rave review in half of the local rags. Of course, you readers are not idiots, and so to compensate for these fuzzy raves, many savvy restaurant-goers have learned to discount praise for all suburban, and most St. Paul restaurants. Meanwhile, people who want to believe that the restaurant they've been to twice in the last decade which is near their lovely house is master-class have the critical ink to back it up. Eventually, it all snowballs, and here we are: drowning in a murky world of insider-relativism and the soft condescension of low expectations.
Yes, it's enough to drive me to drink, too. So when I drove to drink at Il Vesco Vino, the newest hotspot in St. Paul, I really needed that glass of delicious, weighty, blackberry-scented Benuara Syrah-Nero d'Avola ($9), served in a surprising, elegant, sharply geometrical glass.
I've been to the building that now houses Il Vesco Vino many times as a critic. The restaurant formerly located there, the Vintage, was hot stuff when I first started reviewing restaurants, and subsequently had the longest, softest, dullest public coast toward irrelevance since—since I don't know what, I've been sitting here for ten minutes trying to decide if Charo, Christian Science, Y2K terror, or Ross Perot most aptly completes this sentence, and since I want to move on to the appetizers, you'll have to pick your poison.
In any event, I think it's clear enough to everyone that when I got to Il Vesco Vino I was hell-bent on holding them to a higher standard: I was like Ross Perot in a faith-based medicine-refusing frenzy contemplating jet planes dropping from the Y2K sky while tapping my feet to Charo. As befits such a creature, I received one of the most uncategorizable meals in my whole history of restaurant reviewing.
First off, the room at Il Vesco Vino is as wonderful as it ever was: fireplaces, exposed brick, giant windows showcasing snow filtering through the fairy-lit trees, and all the understated reclaimed Victorian glory anyone could hope for. The bar at Il Vesco Vino is a nearly full circle taking up most of the first floor, and these bar seats are highly desirable, as they get you access to Il Vesco Vino's excellent Italian wine list and often marvelous antipasti.
Several of the appetizers are charming. A platter of charcuterie and cheese ($15) had tender slices of prosciutto, a few very good sorts of salami, and some good cheeses including a nutty cow's milk cheese from Italy's Campania region. The meatballs ($11) were buoyant, light, meaty, and mild, and so likable and homemade I wish I had a pot of them on the stove right now. A salad in which grilled bread supported a tower of grilled pineapple, Gorgonzola cheese, arugula, and a red wine poached pear ($9), was various and lively.
Heartened, I placed an entree order. Often on a first visit to a place I'll let the server point me toward what the restaurant does best, as I'm hoping to see them with their best foot forward: In this instance, even though the server insisted that our table had chosen the very best the restaurant had to offer, I didn't get best feet forward, I got worst feet backward, tangled, tripping, drowned. The linguine with clams ($17) was truly strange, as the sauce tasted unpleasantly of something out of place, and a fight broke out among my dining companions as to whether the white wine in the garlic sauce simply had a potently sherried edge, or whether someone had mistakenly used vermouth. A braised lamb shank ($19) was both burnt, at the bone ends, and undercooked in the gristly middle. A simple dish of baked ziti ($16) made with braised goat tasted so indistinct and salty, it might as well have been airplane food.
Disheartened, we moved on to desserts. And suddenly we were transported back to the charming restaurant of yore. Zeppole doughnuts ($7) were fresh, hot, and melt-in-your mouth delicious. A ricotta pudding cake built upon a base of grilled pineapple ($7) was nicely balanced, simple, and pure. I tried an espresso because the restaurant offers a special brand from Naples, Caffe Kimbo ($2.50), and it was very good. In fact, every part of the restaurant's beverage program is very good. The wine list easily joins the ranks of the best Italian selections in town. It is offered in two parts: A bottle list covers not just the big guns from Piedmont, with that region's famed Barolos and Barbarescos, but also offers all kinds of small artisanal bottlings, many at very good prices, from lesser known regions. They're especially strong with Sardinian and Sicilian offerings. In addition to the bottle list, Il Vesco Vino also offers an excellent glass-pour program, in which a variety of fairly distinguished table wines are offered in either a 250 milliliter or 500 milliliter pour. Prices for the 250 milliliter pour start at $6, and a glass is roughly 150 milliliters, so many of the wines are quite a bargain in addition to being delicious.
Returning later, I found this same odd Il Vesco Vino pattern: likable appetizers, then a leap headfirst into the slough of despond for entrees, and then clawing out again for agreeable, forthright desserts.
Any St. Paul partisan who thinks I write from a place of lying, preconceived snobbery is welcome to bring it on, because I have seen Il Vesco Vino's gnocchi. The first time I ordered them, I was told the chef didn't like the way they were coming out and so wasn't serving them. What a good-faith bit of quality control, I thought. Finally, someone with standards! When I ordered them on a later visit, what arrived was a white swamp of glue with bits of veal struggling to escape at the top, like prehistoric beasts trying to flee the LaBrea tar pits. There was, in the entire dish, no place where a single gnocchi could be detected; it was one mega-gnocchi, the Pangaea gnocchi! The taste was like lemon zest and school paste. We told the waiter that these gnocchi were not quite right, and the management graciously not only took them off the bill, but offered us a free dessert. Later, I woke up in the night, trying to imagine how the gnocchi that the chef didn't like the look of could have been worse: Perhaps they arrived at the table, raced from the bowl, performed an IRS audit and a colonoscopy, and then tore off down the street on fire?
But, you say, one screw-up, for which the management did everything it could to make amends? Surely you're not going to spread that all over town! We all make mistakes!
And here we have the problem with not grading on a curve: If we hold Il Vesco Vino to the same standard that we hold similar Minneapolis restaurants, like, say, Zelo, to, then we don't ignore the entrees, do we? As much as it makes us feel like jerks, we don't. I mean, I don't. And so I sit here longing to rewrite this and bathe myself in the sylvan bubbles of low expectations. From which point I could say that I recommend Il Vesco Vino without y'all wrinkling your noses in confusion. I do! I do. I really do. As a sort of Italian tapas place it works brilliantly. I wish I lived in Cathedral Hill Victorian splendor and could just drop by for beautiful wine and snacks whenever I wanted. One of the joys of being a civilian and not a critic is that you can just order what you know to be good, and not venture into perilous new territory. Any regular at Il Vino Vesco will quickly find much to love.
All of which makes me wonder, does this issue of St. Paul actually bring up much larger restaurant-reviewing issues? Is that why I'm so out of sync with St. Paul's champions? They cruise along on insider's knowledge, and then I thrash in, carrying a 10,000-candlepower spotlight and a notebook? Will answering that question invalidate the entire system of reviewing? Will I answer any of these questions? Ever? No? No.
I will say that this exercise has made me consider that old saw about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all of the other ones. Is restaurant reviewing the worst form of learning about a restaurant, except for all of the other ones? On this point I think we can finally find multi-city agreement.