We may not be Jamestown or Santa Fe, but both of our Twin Cities have quite a lot of history in them — left-behind relics and places poised for revival. In the past few years we've seen the North Loop benefit from that special combination of right time, right place, and right saturation of young, upwardly mobile Millennial condo-dwellers, resulting in a string of successful, high-gloss restaurants. Lowertown is finally starting to get its due, helped along by the opening of the Green Line. And lately a number of historic buildings — beloved family diners, high-ceilinged corner drug stores, and former biker hangouts — are suddenly being bought up by young restaurateurs in Payne-Phalen, a strip on St. Paul's east side that feels like a small-town Main Street.
"I definitely think there's a bit of a renaissance happening here," says Leonard Anderson, the talented chef behind the neighborhood's latest addition, Tongue in Cheek. Anderson owns and runs the eclectic, meat-centered eatery with his wife, Ashleigh Newman, and fellow W.A. Frost alumnus Ryan Huesby.
Hmm. Eclectic. Meat-centered. On the east side of St. Paul. Sound familiar?
"I give a lot of credit to the Strip Club for sort of paving the way for us and Ward 6 and the guys at Cook St. Paul. Every time I go there for dinner I can't believe how consistently good it is. They help put this area on the map for sure."
But Anderson has a lot of other good reasons for wanting to set up shop in Payne-Phalen. Not only do he and Newman reside on the East Side, there are the more practical realities, too. "It's cheaper over here," says Anderson. "But we just genuinely like it. We want to bring something new to this community."
They've certainly succeeded in that regard, and not just as the sequel to Strip Club. For one thing, they have an entire six-course vegetarian tasting menu (plus one for carnivores) in which Anderson works his way from two-bite super-clean combinations like compressed watermelon with cave-aged AmaBlu cheese from Fairbault, to house-made gnocchi — a re-working of the same fabulous puffs he made at Frost — with thinly split, slightly caramelized string beans, shallots, soy, and a subtle mascarpone foam that shouldn't work, but does. Clearly, Anderson enjoys having room to play on the tasting menus as well as with the regular dinner lineup, which is divided into one- to two-bite "teasers" (a la the microplates at the Rookery), a few plates designed for sharing, more standard entree-sized dishes, and three desserts.
Starting off with a bang, the roasted pork teaser might have been the best bite we had at Tongue in Cheek. Gently caramelized pork belly rests on a dollop of sesame aioli, punctuated by finely diced ripe peaches and a few slivers of jalapeño. Sweet, heat, fat, yum. The berries and bubbly teaser — sort of a Kir Royale with an encapsulated strawberry at the bottom of the glass — was also fun for a few swallows of champagne. Did we mention all these teaser bites are $2?
Undoubtedly the star of the share plates is the beef tartare, which Anderson ingeniously serves on a frozen salt block and comes out looking like a big hunk of rough, rosy quartz. The beef itself is pristine and unseasoned, but as the block starts to warm up, you can rub each bite of meat on the surface and salt it to your taste. Scoop up your portion with the thin house-cut potato chips and start dreaming about other things that could be served or cooked on these salty slabs.
In the larger plates section, the pork belly makes a triumphant return, only this time it's chili-rubbed and served with roasted sunchokes and kale for some roughage to balance out all that unctuousness. There's an oft-changing meat and potatoes special, which on our visits was either a Niman Farms filet or a grass-fed flat iron steak. A huge part of Tongue in Cheek's guiding philosophy is based on humanely raised and responsibly sourced meat. For safe seafood they're working with the Minnesota Zoo's Fish Smart program, and Anderson's house-cured gravlax and scallop crudo with wasabi and Granny Smith apples both speak for themselves.
From the short and sweet dessert menu, we predict that most diners will be too intrigued by the "Ode to the Dome" to not order it. It's as calorically indulgent as it is architecturally impressive, with salty crushed peanut brittle, powdered peanut butter, sweet bruleed marshmallow creme, and ganache all formed into a smooth, semi-circular chocolate cap that floats like a futuristic island in an ice cream sea. It's crazy. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the lemongrass-raspberry granita that gets an extra kick from its fresh jalapeño garnish. It's super simple, with nothing terribly technical about it, but it provides just the right palate-cleansing ending.
Brunch was excellent as well, anchored by a couple of savory hashes with tenderly cooked fingerling potatoes, perfectly poached eggs, and one seriously spicy chipotle Hollandaise sauce. This seems to be where Anderson diverges from his usual Asian-flavor-meets-French-technique to introduce some Mexican flavors into the mix. That said, the menu also boasts some of the best, fluffiest, soaky-uppiest French toast we've had in a long time. It's topped with ham, eggs, cherry compote, and a special coffee butter that Anderson makes with instant espresso and coffee base for intense flavor that goes as well with the ham as it does with the sweet, custard-y bread.
We had a few minor quibbles: The burger was overly salty, the bourbon creme brulee veered a little too closely to soft scrambled egg territory, and when the dining room is full sound bounces around like you're sitting inside a grain silo. Overall however, Tongue in Cheek shows savvy, creativity, and respect for its diverse audience both in price point and in its food and drink offerings.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that we are going to be fully seasonally driven," Anderson says, summing up his plans. "I like to still use berries in the winter, I just wouldn't get them from here, obviously. The menu will change often, but the names will probably stay the same. That's what we think of as the jumping-off point."
And we'll happily dive right in.