St. Paul's 128 Cafe is now chef-owned and the food shows it

Shrimp and green papaya salad with spicy pickled tomatoes

Shrimp and green papaya salad with spicy pickled tomatoes

First of all, die hard fans of 128 Cafe's classic ribs can relax -- that particular menu item is still available, as is the roasted garlic and the classic Caesar salad. That said, new owner and chef Max Thompson has enlivened the rest of the menu with dishes that will change frequently. He's flexing a little culinary muscle inside this St. Paul neighborhood gem.

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Locally, Thompson was one of the chefs who helped open Butcher and the Boar alongside Jack Riebel and Peter Botcher. While he was raised a Minnesota boy, he studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York. He's worked with such acclaimed chefs as Daniel Boulud and Rick Moonen.

Thompson took over ownership of 128 Cafe in August, and has since been changing things up in the kitchen and in the dining room. The space feels lighter, airier, and there's fresh carpet, paint, and art on the walls. Some of the longtime servers remain, but most of the staff is new.

Of the small plates we tried, the pheasant terrine was a winner. Rich meat was dotted with a house-made jelly and served alongside a moustarda and apple sauce. It was a delicious, light meal starter. The shredded green papaya salad didn't lack any heat; zesty and full of bright citrus flavor, it was a taste of the tropics in the middle of a snow storm.

The nightly special of chowder was perfectly executed: House-smoked fish was draped in creamy broth, mixed with luscious white beans and a few dabs of 128 Cafe's Twang hot sauce. The smoke from the fish played the role of bacon and we used a charred piece of brioche to sop up every last drop.

Not every dish was ready for prime time. A pork belly was beautifully scored, but the meat was dry, and the fat was chewy. The charred Brussels sprouts with crispy bacon were underdone in the center and perfumed with an unappealing cabbage funk. Still, these new dishes are showing plenty of promise for a return trip or two.

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