Tulip Time

452 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 221-1061

MY FRIEND'S MOTHER recently flew into town for a visit; in a panic to find adequate dining arrangements for her daily diet of snails and elk filets, he appealed to me for suggestions. I had none to offer until I remembered Tulips, that oft-forgotten splotch of pink that roosts in the posher realm of Selby Avenue in St. Paul. It's perfect for tranquilizing the old lady in you.

Actually that's not quite fair, because Tulips also appeals to your younger side. It's the restaurant that you might have created in your attic as a kid; it's that sort of pretend-perfect. The waitresses lilt "bon appétit," Perry Como and Cab Calloway croon from obscured speakers, tables are set with tea candles and vases stuffed with pink carnations and baby's-breath, and the walls are decked with scores of dried flowers, tiny, tasteful white lights, golden cherubs, and gilded mirrors. Losing yourself in the glass and chintz lace, you might long for a fluffy little dog to perch in your lap. The service is as sweet and formal as you could wish for, our waitress making flourishes over fluffing my pink napkin and placing it in my corduroyed lap. Over in the new wine bar, a mirror reflects the image of a sophisticated bartender smoking, looking as sultry as Bette Davis.

Tables are quickly covered with baskets of warm bread, made daily in town at A Toast To Bread, and served with two large cloves of roasted garlic and a mammoth dish of whipped butter. This clever diversion leaves you time to choose wisely between the available appetizers, the list of which flirts shamelessly with your sophisticated side. My friend's mother's face turned shades of pink as she thrilled over the artichoke hearts steamed in chardonnay and garlic ($4.95). She found herself in an equal state of rapture as she plunged into the escargot bourguignonne ($5.50)--fat, buttery snails sided with a warm assortment of julienned carrots, chives, and zucchini, covered with a rich and lemony hollandaise sauce. Perhaps sensing that she was exhibiting pleasure too freely, she glanced up and told us (as she picked the last traces of escargot from between her teeth) that the whole thing could have used some salt.

As for my friend and me, we were much pleased by the robust tapenade ($3.95), a pate that smacked of the Mediterranean, made with black olives and mild anchovies and spiked with loads of garlic. Along with some warm bread and red wine (they have quite a nice list here), it would make a cheap and gratifying meal all by itself. The soup of the day ($1.95/$3.50) on our visit was a Mediterranean tomato-based fish soup, topped with a dollop of rouille that was delightfully hot. Other appetizers include a brie and fresh fruit plate ($5.50), crab cakes with roasted red pepper butter ($7.95), and ravioli neapolitaine ($4.95).

The serving plates are garnished to please the eye of a 19th-century European painter; the entrees are ample enough to feed you both tonight and tomorrow should you be so crass as to take home your leftovers. The New York strip steak, studded with peppercorns ($12.95), comes just as you order it--the word rare has meaning here. Topped with a delicious bit of cabernet wine butter, this steak could not be conquered even though we all took our forks to it. My friend's mother turned up her nose at the ravioli with sauce neapolitaine and mozzarella cheese ($8.95), declaring it boring (though, as she wasted little time in finishing it up without leaving a crumb, I couldn't verify her opinion). My friend was happy as could be with his baked, flaky walleye, crusted over with herbed walnuts and finished off with aioli ($17.95).

Of course you'll want to top off such a sweet experience as this with a mouthful of sugar. Your choices are all rich; none of that nouvelle sweet-&-low schlock going on here. There's a dense, flourless chocolate torte; a messy, sticky chocolate-rum pecan pie; a double-chocolate brownie cake; apple crisp; and a wonderfully tart cheesecake drooled over with raspberry sauce, most all of which reach your table after being well-treated to a bath of whipping cream (all $3.75). If this isn't cute enough, your coffee cups come resting on a doily with a fancy finger cookie. So if you find yourself in the company of a stickler for the Victorian touch, you'll find that Tulips can accommodate better than most.

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