The Amazing, Uncategorizable Barbette
November 12, 2008
Can you feel that, my friends? That cold wind that gets under your skin and makes you dance around like an idiot in the streets? When I left my place this morning, I was pelted by hard rain that could almost be described as snow. I suppose this icky precip is what Mary Lucia calls “frickle” (freezing drizzle, right?), and what weather.com refers to as a “wintry mix,” which sounds more like a nice, creamy winter cocktail than this face-stinging frickle nonsense.
In all fairness, I don’t mind winter. I know it’s controversial, but I’d go so far as to say I like it. Snow and wind are the great democratizers of the Midwest, pitting man against nature and proving time and again that we’re all in this together, kind of like street parking or gynecological exams. I also adore the style of the season, which I refer to as Minnesota Chic: everyone goofed out in scarves and hats that make us look like cast members from the Muppets. At the co-op today, I saw an older man with a front-tied scarf around his neck wearing a wool alpaca hat with colorful flowers on it. He was laden with groceries and dodging the frickle on the way back to his car. This is the kind of stuff I like. Take that, delusions! Nice try, unpreparedness! It’s hard to be foolish or pretentious when you’re from Minnesota.
Anyway. My radiators are finally humming, my car is cracking, and last night, Lake Calhoun looked like an exquisite portrait of itself, as you can see in this picture I took. I also had a guest in town. My author-friend Ronelle came for a visit from Portland. This is a woman with her wits about her. She arrived with hiking boots, wool coat, hat, and scarf. Together, we looked like poster girls for Minnesota Chic. We wandered around Lake Calhoun until our toes got cold then went to Barbette for dinner.
I have to center myself and sigh deeply before I can tell you about Barbette. I feel slightly transformed every time I walk in this place. Imagine being welcomed by a round gold table, deep red banquettes, jewel tone accessories, a decadent reclining nude (on the wall, of course), vintage circus posters, and colorful hanging lights that look like bubblegum on a stick. I love my urbane corner of St. Paul, but this atmosphere makes me want to pack up and move. Romance such as this is best experienced as an easy pied-à-terre on your favorite corner, a joyful whim you can come to love.
We ordered frites to start, because who should do without them? This is the half order, which our server advised would be more than enough. She was right. There wasn’t enough mayo, but that’s OK. And I would have loved a bit of cracked pepper, but that’s OK, too.
I ordered one of the specials. Braised Minnesota beef daube Provençal with organic root vegetables, nicely served with two pieces of white bread for mopping up and eating every last drop of the sauce.
Barbette’s classic French cooking is so faithful and sure of itself that it allows the experience of living, dining, and discussing to be the real star of the show. When great food, gracious service, and an imaginative setting come together this seamlessly, you have found a restaurant that can take you somewhere. Mid-evening, I looked around and noticed that the place had reached a pitched equilibrium, with every seat taken and no one waiting to get in. The buzz was high and the crowd consisted of packs of suits, ladies of six, and one particular table of two sitting next to us – a man and a woman so drawn to each other they just had to be physically enmeshed. At Barbette, that’s perfectly all right. Barbette makes me want to date intensely, fall in love, or broker a really big deal. The setting transports you, and the food makes you remember who you are. Maybe this is why the place is named after a circus act, something that is kind of exotic, but kind of dorky – and as I see it, thoroughly Minnesota Chic.