Tongue in Cheek winks with playful, chef-driven eats in Payne-Phalen

The "popcorn shrimp" at Tongue in Cheek

The "popcorn shrimp" at Tongue in Cheek

There's officially a restaurant revival going on in St. Paul's Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

First Ward 6 came in swinging with charcuterie, beef fat-fried fish and chips, and boozy milkshakes last year; then Cook St. Paul put its own scratch-made mark on a long-loved East Side institution earlier this summer; and now Tongue in Cheek, with its colorful presentations, confluence of culinary styles, and bevy of creative cocktails, is helping to prove this neighborhood is a veritable hot spot for interesting new restaurants.

The names of dishes sometimes veer into punny, Chino Latino-like territory, and the melange of mirrors in the bar reflects a playful atmosphere. But the team at Tongue in Cheek is on a very serious mission to use humanely and sustainably raised meat and seafood.

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Tongue in Cheek offers a lot in the way of scale. There are regular-sized entrees, sharing plates, composed, Rookery-like mini-plates they call "teasers," a few starter-sized salads, and a soup that changes daily. We took the bait of the $2 teaser bites and started the evening with a few ocean-fresh palate-cleansers, including a very Scandinavian preparation of house-cured wild sockeye salmon gravlax with luscious avocado mousse, a feather of dill, a kernel of popcorn, and a few pearls of roe. The fork in the picture above is meant to give a sense of size by comparison, but these dishes are truly about two bites and well worth a dollar a mouthful. We also sampled a lively scallop crudo with green apple, wasabi, and crunchy flakes of sea salt. Tongue in Cheek works closely with FishSmart, an organization that works to increase the availability of sustainable seafood options throughout the Twin Cities.

The teasers transitioned nicely into the mysteriously quotation-marked "popcorn shrimp" (pictured at the very top of the post), which gave nothing away in writing but turned out to be croquettes of chopped shrimp (and not much batter or other filler, like you'd expect in a croquette) rolled in a salty, lemony coating that was made partially of crushed popcorn. Topped with three different types and sizes of roe, this app was like a sophisticated spin on a '60s cocktail party hors d'oeuvre. A dish of fluffy gnocchi took a modern Asian turn with split tender-crisp green beans, caramelized shallots, pine nuts, soy, and a mostly flavorless foam.

$2 salmon gravlax with avocado mousse, roe, and dill

$2 salmon gravlax with avocado mousse, roe, and dill

Entrees ran the meat gamut from grilled scallops and a fried egg sandwich with pickled onion to heartier stuff like the oft-changing meat and potatoes special. This go-around it was a flatiron steak that re-visited some of the Asian flavors of the gnocchi dish. But the accoutrements -- a caramel-soy glaze, cauliflower puree, and enoki mushrooms -- upstaged the meat itself. The opposite was true in the dish of chanterelle mushrooms, sunchokes two ways, mascarpone foam, and chili-rubbed pork belly, which was the most memorable meat of the night. The deeply caramelized exterior of the belly had turned into this chewy, flavorful bark, like the really good burnt ends at a BBQ shack. When it was first presented the portion seemed small, but once the cheese froth dissipated, three big planks of belly -- more than enough for the average diner -- were revealed.

Dessert was a chocolate "ode to a dome" that had so much going on under its surface it was basically like the season finale of Mad Men. We're talking ganache, marshmallow creme, bruleed marshmallow, peanut butter powder, salty crushed peanut brittle, all floating like a chocolate island in a puddle of ice cream. If you've ever had a Tunnock's tea cake, it was like a crazy, molecular-influenced, peanut butter version of that.

Based on this multi-course, multi-meat, multi-sensory experience at Tongue in Cheek, our interest in this eclectic east side chef-driven restaurant is fully piqued. Their happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday) looks fantastic, with a selection of $3 chelada-style beers and $2 mini cocktails made with ingredients like jalapeno-infused Jim Beam mixed with a fruity French liqueur called Mathilde Peche. Brunch looks just as promising. We'll be sure to report back in a few weeks.

Tongue in Cheek 989 Payne Ave., St. Paul 651-888-6148; Closed Mondays

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