The Lexington: How do you modernize a legacy? Very carefully.

Those might not be escargot in your escargot dish.

Those might not be escargot in your escargot dish. Mecca Bos

The new chef of the Lexington in St. Paul, Jack Riebel, just wants to make his mom happy.

The 75-year-old “Ma Riebel,” as she’s affectionately called, raised five boys (“one blood brother and three non — she’s a mother to all”) in her house three blocks from the Lexington, “and we weren’t always great kids, let’s just put it like that,” says Riebel.

All the same, Ma Riebel raised up the perfect man for the job of reviving the Lexington, the near-centenarian institution that so many Twin Citians hold dear.

“I’m a blue blood," says Riebel. "St. Paul through and through. I grew up three blocks from the Lexington. All I do is this work. This is what I do."

As the project got closer to opening on February 9, the weight of it started to really dawn on chef Riebel: This restaurant helped build St. Paul. “I wasn’t really thinking of it like that, but it’s true," he says. “It’s a gilded shrine to the community. And if I told you I wasn’t scared shitless, I’d be lying.”

On top of that, everybody has a different idea of what the Lexington was. The chef inherited at least 50 years’ worth of menus and recipes of differing eras and culinary styles. What did he have to keep? What could go away? What could he update without a massive uprising? What could be altogether new?

It’s a very delicate balancing act. This is a chef who has headed up the kitchens of La Belle Vie, the Butcher and the Boar, and the Irish bar kitchen at neighborhood institution Half Time Rec. The Lex is by far his biggest challenge.

Still, he insists, at the end of the day, it’s just an old-school supper club. When I suggest that it’s actually a new-school supper club, he puts his finger over his lips. “Shhhhh.”

Upon entering the discreet back door at the Lex, you’re led along a long corridor where framed photos line the walls. In them, gray hairs, blue hairs, and everything in between are apple-cheeked from bourbon and drunk on a fine night out. Some of the diners pictured have likely sipped their last Old Fashioned. And just as you pass these old regulars and enter the dining room, lots of others on canes hobble by. This is a many-layered crowd of eras gone by, eras going by, and a new generation, too. 

So how will the menu reflect that? 

Just about every era’s menu had a pot pie and a Lexington Salad, though the preparations differed. For the salad, Riebel settled on the 1966 version, probably not coincidentally from the year of his birth. The salad had blue cheese infused directly into the French dressing, which the chef thought was weird, so he just crumbles cheese on top of the French. Easy enough.

Almost every era also had escargot and deep-fried mushroom caps, the latter of which he didn’t want to do. So instead of escargot in those little dishes covered in cheese and breadcrumbs, it’s mushroom caps. Boom: two birds with one stone, and a slightly modern fix to the old problem of deep-fried mushroom caps. It's also a stealthy vegetarian offering that’s still decadent.

Much of the menu goes on this way, with clever, intellectual “fixes” to dishes that many people have a death grip on. The pot roast of the moment is a “beef pot au pho” a clever play on the classic French pot au feu, a rich beef stew in a more traditional pot roast style. Here, it’s given a Vietnamese treatment with sous vide beef in a delicate broth accompanied by bok choy and mint instead of carrots and onions. Will people get it? If not, they can always order a Steak Diane with mushrooms, cream, and fries, about as classic as it gets.

The seafood cocktail is not a cocktail at all; it’s an aguachile, better known as ceviche, the way they serve it on the Yucatan — citrus-cooked shrimp, octopus, and snapper dolled up with chile. It arrives with a little pot of cocktail sauce and saltines, for that comfort gesture.

“I don’t know when the pushback will come, but I imagine it will,” worries Riebel, more than once in our interview.

But why?

There’s still a full list of steaks, from a 10-ounce sirloin ringing in just under $30, to a dry aged Porterhouse for two for those moments when you really want to get giddily meat-stuffed. The bundle of warm rolls (which happen to be the best in town, by the way) arrives on the table unbidden, with packaged pats of Kerrygold butter. There are oysters chilled and grilled, and even liver and onions, though the liver in question is seared foie gras.

Mashed potatoes hemorrhaging butter, a classic Caesar salad with capers and anchovies, even onion rings: It’s all there. Why should anyone be displeased?

The chef says he isn’t done imagining this menu, not by far. This starting list is just a foundation, one that he’s confident he can execute, right out of the gate, with the resources he has. Like every other kitchen in town, he’s understaffed. They just recovered from a 12-hour power outage. Riebel is unfazed. “This is the nature of our business," he says. "Whatever can go wrong, will.”

He’s also unfazed by the notion that the mammoth grande dame is zigging while the rest of the restaurant world seems to be zagging. “Everything is cyclical,” he says. “All of a sudden people are going to look around and say, whatever happened to eating off of a tablecloth and sitting down to a nice meal?” He’s right, and in that sense, the Lex is just doing a little trend-setting.

Above all, Riebel wants this to be a place for everyone. 

“I want the guy who varnishes the floor down at St. Thomas to be able to sit down next to the mayor and have a drink.”

And so far, he says, nobody could be prouder than his mom.

1096 Grand Ave., St. Paul