The smart new Lexington thrills and unites multi-generational St. Paul

Beef pot au pho

Beef pot au pho Tony Nelson

The Lexington pot pie, like a lady’s Easter hat, is folded over primly at the corners and crescendos in billowy pleats at its toasty golden pinnacle.

Inside, a fine stew, at once liquid and solid, has al dente spring peas and supple chicken suspended in a luxe sauce. It’s a tilt-your-head-back-and-sigh kind of bite.

This much ballyhooed pot pie is 6 circular inches of metaphor for the restaurant that serves it: The new Lexington is both celebration and pure comfort. It’s special, showy, and precise, but most of all, it’s eager to please.

“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,” Jack Riebel, chef and partner, told me in an early interview.

The old Lexington needs no introduction. Established in 1935, the St. Paul institution was long considered that city’s finest restaurant, the grande dame on Grand Avenue.

After closing in 2013, it was acquired by a team of investors led by longtime and renowned restaurateur Josh Thoma (formerly of La Belle Vie and Solera, currently of Smack Shack). It finally reopened after a lengthy and expensive renovation earlier this year, much to the relief of its many fans.

Veggies and dip

Veggies and dip Tony Nelson

Riebel heads up the kitchen. Formerly of La Belle Vie and Butcher and the Boar, Riebel is a “blue blood” St. Paul guy who grew up three blocks from the Lex. He’s also consistently the Twin Cities’ best chef.

A dining touchstone revived by a culinary master — what could possibly stand in the Lexington’s way?

Ghosts, of course. The staff doesn’t like to indulge in the lore too much, but one doesn’t have to stretch her imagination too far to think the place haunted. On an early visit, the power in the entire restaurant went out, leaving the whole of it utterly dark except for the flicker of candlelight. The kitchen valiantly played on, sending out what courses they could. Servers busted out manual credit card swipers.

A few weeks later, all of the hoods went out, forcing the cooks into the catering kitchen to finish meals. There’s other unexplained phenomena too. A former staff member insists chairs were stacked, poltergeist-style, behind his back.

So, is it haunted?

“You’d think [potential spirits] would be happy someone is in here!” says Riebel.

Even if the spirits aren’t happy, we the people are certainly glad he’s there.

Riebel speaks at length about the daunting job he faced reopening the Lex. His opening menu had to somehow satisfy three generations of diners. He gathered a half-century’s worth of menus and went to work on must-haves, sacrifices, inventions, and re-inventions.

The job was nothing short of an intellectual pursuit. A puzzle fit for a master. And it seems as though he nailed it.

The oversized, stately menus are the sort you spot in film noir or cartoons. They don’t make them like these anymore. It’s an important gesture that lets you know you’re about to have an exceptional experience.

The Lex is, has been, and will always be an old-school supper club, so they have indulged those who want big, important steaks and chops, and little ones, too, for dainty eaters. Spend $29 (10-ounce top sirloin) to $100 (36-ounce dry-aged Porterhouse for two) on beef how you like it. The Lex is bound to get it right every single time.

But look beyond the obvious choices for those strokes of intellectualism. A liver and onions lover might find himself supping on foie gras and caramelized onion bacon pecan brittle. An escargot fiend discovers mushroom caps under her cheese and toasted breadcrumbs instead of snails. Both of these are modern updates to a couple of Lexington menu items that history simply would not allow the kitchen to jettison.

And Riebel, an avid lover of the sea, couldn’t and wouldn’t be content with pink cocktail shrimp hanging off a martini glass. Here, the seafood cocktail is a Yucatan-style aguachile with plump snapper, shrimp, and octopus spread on a plate with chile, cilantro, and citrus woven in for color and flavor. A little ramekin of Saltines and cocktail sauce offers a nod to old traditions.

Or try the beef pot au pho, a cheeky take on pot-au-feu, a workaday French beef stew. This faux pho boasts sous vide beef, bok choy, mint, and sesame spaetzle in place of ordinary noodles. Pecan-crusted Whitefish Gorbachev—named for the Soviet statesman who visited Minnesota in 1990 and was fed by Riebel at the the late downtown Minneapolis fine-dining restaurant Goodfellows — has the distinction of being approved by KGB protocol. It passes muster for us as well.

But for my money, the most gratifying way to enjoy the Lex is at the back bar, where, Thursday through Sunday, jazz luminaries dazzle the room at no additional cost to you, a rare pleasure in these days of ever-thinner margins and fast-casual everything.

A true barman serves your drinks: none other than Geoffrey Lee Trelstad, who used to manage the bar at the very fine and long-lost King & I. Here, he holds stately court, not like a newfangled “bar chef” but like a gracious barman ought, in a vest, a name tag, and a tie. He’s one who hears “Chardonnay!” being bellowed by a drunkish chorus in the back corner and has the bottle out and uncorked before the final syllable is uttered.

And there are cocktails. Elegant ones, ceremonial ones, boozy, slushy ones. Despite the Deco architecture that suggests an expensive hotel lobby from an Orson Welles flick, this is a democratic bar. Just look to the bowls of kicked-up Goldfish crackers and Tiki drinks for proof.

Or consider the veggies and dip, a rosy ring of radishes and kohlrabi crowded around a pond of Ranch dressing tinged with kimchee.

It’s Minnesota and it’s worldly. It’s provincial and it’s daring. It’s old and it’s new, it’s the mayor and the floor varnisher, and it’s beyond intellectual. It’s genius.

See our photo gallery of The Lexington here

The Lexington
1096 Grand Ave., St, Paul