After the mess that was Salt Cellar, the nouveau Cathedral Hill steakhouse that fizzled before it could gain any traction, we were curious what owners Joe Kasel and Kevin Geisen would do with Fitzgerald’s, a new, more casual concept for the space.
Since Kasel and Geisen are also responsible for Ox Cart Ale House, another initially ambitious project that’s flattened out into a middling sports bar concept, we were, frankly, skeptical. Fitzgerald’s was billed as a bar-centric place serving nachos and chicken wings, so we figured there wasn’t much to get excited about.
But then we got a sneak peek.
The gorgeous space got a light remodel, scrubbing it of some of its luxe. The dining room fireplace was moved in order to make room for a larger bar area, a few TV screens were installed, and the scaffolding has been exposed, giving it an industrial feel. Goodbye, extravagant steakhouse, hello, neighborhood bar.
They were wise to tap Graham Messenger, a chef with a long, long pedigree of fine dining, including time at A Rebours, Doug Anderson’s pre-Meritage French-style bistro in the Hamm Building, W.A. Frost, and Heartland. Messenger seems absolutely gung-ho about bringing his talents to a bar food menu, and from what we tasted, we’re pretty gung-ho about eating it. Of course, we’re reserving fair judgement for when the doors open and the throngs arrive.
That said, he’s taken the lowly jalapeno popper to fine-dining heights, filling these lava-like torpedos with bechamel and a fine brunoise of jalapeno. Or check out the nachos, which are more like big, delicate tostadas, with your choice of house-pulled braised beef or pulled chicken, finished with housemade cheese sauce. Or how about the fried St. Louis-style ribs, braised and then deep fried like a buffalo wing?
Seems like every little thing has been thought about, tinkered with, and repurposed in a way that won’t let bar food sit in its regular old pile of wan grease.
Messenger has also worked in a few wild cards too, like deep, funkily spiced beef kofta with tzatziki, and a French onion soup that he's particularly proud of, with a chicken stock that coaxes gelatin from chicken feet through long, slow braising. And only real Gruyere will grace the crouton’s top.
There are burgers, naturally, and even a bunch of freewheeling pizzas, using an excellent dough sourced from nearby St. Agnes Bakery, and toppings like Spanish chorizo and caramelized onion.
A couple of steaks have remained, including a hangar steak with frites, and a Steak Au Poivre, that Messenger says is a remnant from his A Rebours days. The good news is, they’re both nicely priced, at $17 and $18, a far cry from Salt Cellar’s eye-popping Piedmontese beef price points.
The bar is informed by craft cocktails, including the Bruiser, a manly boozer of a drink, with smoky mezcal, maple, and bourbon, and a St. Paul Sour, a girlish, blush pink riff on a classic whiskey sour, getting its color from a whiff of red wine.
The owners have merged with the entities behind Handsome Hog and Public Kitchen and Bar. It will be interesting to see if the kitchens can keep up with their enviable real estate. Ox Cart has the only rooftop bar in Lowertown, and Fitzgerald’s is of course situated in the tony Cathedral Hill neighborhood, taking its name from the author who made the St. Paul area his stomping grounds.
Opens Wednesday, October 19
173 Western Ave. N., St. Paul