Category Archives: St Paul Restaurant Reviews

Pizza the Way Nature Intended

The last time I wrote, I was busy recovering from my apartment farewell party. While doing dishes, scrubbing the grill pan, drying stemware, and generally putting my place back to its original position, I also had to drink the remaining Chardonnay and do something about all those leftover Banh Mi. I had so many of them! Over the past three years of cooking for big groups of people, I’ve learned that the hardest part isn’t cooking, cleaning, or hostessing. It’s knowing how much food to buy.

I bought 25 baguettes from Jasmine Deli. They were relatively short, so cut in half, I had 50 small sandwiches for 20 people. I thought that everyone would have two with a few people having a few more — but somehow this math didn’t work. Even after eating them myself all weekend, there were so many leftover I had to bring a bunch to work. Most people put bagels, donuts, and cookies in the spare cube. I put roasted beet and tomato salad, minted watermelon with pineapple, and lemongrass pork and tofu Banh Mi. I suppose every office has someone like me, right? (Don’t answer that.)

Thankfully, I had an opportunity the following week to share the leftover beer and baked chickpeas with my friends at the Pizza Farm in Stockholm, Wisconsin. Yes, it’s true. If you don’t know it already, there is a fantastic gem of a farm an hour and a half out of the Cities that serves hands-down the best pizza around.

The couple Ted Fisher and Robbi Bannen along with their kids open up their own farm to pizza lovers every Tuesday night throughout the year. They grow all the ingredients to put on the whole wheat crust, which is made from their own home-grown, hand-ground wheat. The crust is thin, the ingredients fresh, and the pizza kissed by the flames of their wood-burning oven.

There are no signs leading to the farm. In fact, there is only a series of dirt roads that make you wonder why you are driving a hour and a half to what feels like the middle of nowhere just to order a pizza.

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Once you get there, it becomes exceedingly clear. The farm is beautiful and so are the people. Everyone brings what they need to create a night of fine-dining under the stars. It’s not uncommon to see a full setting with a tablecloth, chairs, wine, and a candleabra.

I had a bit of a geek out moment when I was standing in line to order. Brenda Langton, the chef behind Cafe Brenda and Spoonriver, walked by, which of course I had to declare to anyone within earshot of where I was standing. The girl taking our order said she heard the rumor earlier and asked me to point out Brenda. For better or worse, she disappeared into the crowd as Aaron and I made up things we could have said to start a conversation.

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The chalkboard menu has quite a few pizzas and unique ingredients.

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Orders are taken and you’re given a number. My car arrived at 5:30 and we had to wait an hour for our order. The last car in our party arrived around 6:30 or so and had to wait an hour and a half. You’re given a number as they are ticked off one by one.

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In the meantime, you can drink wine and order a loaf of the farm’s own bread. You can wander around and pet the goats, cats, and cows, strum a guitar, lay around in the grass with someone you fancy, and catch up with your friends.

Angela and Courtney

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Stefanie and Sarah’s daughter Elizabeth

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Lisa

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Aaron and his paddle. If you bring your own pizza conveyance device, I think you save a buck. Aaron brings his paddle and asks people who are done eating if he can re-use their box.

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I wonder how many pizzas can fit in the infero at a time.

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When your number is up, the beautiful lady in the flowered apron cuts it up and takes your cash.

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And you’re left to sit in the grass and enjoy the food.

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I’d love to hear more people’s opinions about the Pizza Farm. If you haven’t gone, check out this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for more details, or send me an email if you want tips on the best way to enjoy the farm.

Next Stop, Cheeky Monkey

How well I remember what the reassuring subway voice says about the “gap” in the underground tube in DSC01637London, the potentially dangerous area between the subway car and the platform. MIND THE GAP. The voice was warm and motherly, as if to safely welcome you to the royal city and hope that you have a most gracious stay.

I did mind both the gap and London itself when I was there, wandering around Regent’s Park and stopping to see Cezanne’s apples, Blake’s sinewy muscles, and Rothko’s moody landscapes again and again at the Tate, eating not much but soup and bread from the Europa around the corner from where I stayed and falafel sandwiches from that little place with the yellow walls near the Camden market.

Tonight I was reminded of all of these details about Londontown at the brand-new, eagerly anticipated Cheeky Monkey Deli in St. Paul (on Selby near Western). The tube sign logo is accompanied by a leisurely, self-assured monkey shooting you a playful wink, as if it knows just how hungry you are and just how good the food is inside. This little guy asks you to stop in, relax, and enjoy yourself before continuing to your next destination.

And guess what, guys? The monkey is right. From food to service to decor, Cheeky Monkey is a wonderful, much-needed addition to the neighborhood. I expect it will be extremely well-received.

The comfortable interior is sort of a mock stately atmosphere reminiscent of Palms in Milwaukee or even Sardi’s in New York City. It brings to mind the Sardi’s spoof in The Muppets Take Manhattan where Kermit dines against a backdrop of frog luminaries framed on the wall rather than famous actors. In this case, the chic black and red decor is offset with cheeky album covers, bold portraits, and beautiful rectangular subway tiles in the kitchen and the bathroom.

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The servers are all perfectly attentive and the kitchen is open and well staffed.

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The wine list (at least this early in the game) consists of two reds and two whites, but impressing us with grapes does not seem to be part of the business plan. Wine lovers are encouraged to stop by Solo Vino adjacent to the deli to pick up a bottle before going to the deli if they choose. Reports say there is a 5-dollar corkage fee.

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The menu is a thorough mix of roughly 15 sandwiches, complete with turkey, ham, roast beef, shrimp, pot roast, meatloaf, and four vegetarian options, including a Nutella and banana sandwich on toast. There is a handful of salads, daily soup, and a nicely balanced list of fetching cold and hot sides.

I ate roasted tomato and red pepper soup. It is served on a wood board with a bit of toasted bread and a shot of olive oil. (And come to think of it, the cup I ordered actually looks like it was served generously in a bowl.) The soup was totally satisfying, with a deep tomato flavor and and sharp boost of roasted pepper in the every bite.

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I also ate soft grits, which were creamy, fulfilling, and laced with pieces of bacon.

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It was hard to choose just one sandwich, but I ordered one with pot roast, horseradish cream, arugula, and pickled red onion on ciabatta bread. The white bread was perfectly soft and toasted, the meat effortless to eat, the arugula spicy and slightly limp, and the pickled onions nicely acidic and spread throughout. My only request would be a bit more of the horseradish cream, but I’m a fan of big flavors and most people would probably think this sandwich is perfect as is.

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As I ate, I couldn’t help but balk at the idea of choosing a chain restaurant over something as authentic and enjoyable as this. It is places like Cheeky Monkey that validate and enhance any urban living experience. Over the pipes was playing Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Radiohead, and later on (brace yourself) Axel F. And since I am such a geek, I also used my iPhone to check if the deli offers wireless Internet. Yes, they do. It’s the best kind of Wi-Fi, too — unadvertised and free, which makes Cheeky Monkey an even more enjoyable and civilized stop, no matter what route you are on.

Cheeky Monkey Is Coming. Let’s Invite Cafe Boy.

I always like how looking at my own blog statistics can feel like a sneaky affair. It’s like finding a shopping list, reading PostSecret, or following your friend unbidden on Twitter. It’s a mundane, sometimes compelling look at what people are craving and hoping to accomplish. Blog stats are like brain snapshots. Little electronic Polaroids of your brainwaves.cheeky monkey

The terms that have led people here are telling me that someone is earnestly looking for “Cafe Boy,” and has reached out to Google him more than a few times. Believe me, I understand. I have been looking for Cafe Boy myself, and many times losing him in one place, find him in another (only to lose him yet again). He’s elusive, but you can be pretty sure he has scruffy brown hair, a book in one hand, and a slight air of poetic sophistication that might be easily confused with Library Boy. Cafe Boy is usually alone and looks as though he would like nothing other than to talk to me. (Yes, me.) Please let me know if you find him.

It’s also obvious that a lot of people are looking for information about the soon-to-be-open Cheeky Monkey Deli in St. Paul. When I first saw the signs on the windows of the old Zander’s space, I stopped by Solo Vino to ask for more information. Last time, it was planned to open by the end of October. This week, I was told it would open by the end of the month. Peering in the windows at the empty space made me wonder if there would be another four-month extension, but we can hope for the best. From what I’ve heard, it’s a truly independent affair owned by none other than the proprietor himself, and wine will flow freely from store to store. I’m thrilled that the neighborhood will have a casual place to grab a bite of good food to eat. As it is, we only have the co-op, which I frequent, but usually to eat the same few things each time.

In the meantime, let’s bide our time with more entertaining brain snapshots from my stats. Care to imagine what these other people are looking for?

“Take a girl out for New Years.” A girl was daydreaming about the perfect New Years celebration her lazy boyfriend might orchestrate for her because she didn’t want to do it herself. This is a little passive-agressive if you ask me.

“Bean French tete.” Tête-à-tête? This person would like to have an intimate conversation over French lentil soup, or maybe haricot verts. In either case, I could be enlisted for that one.

“Guess what edible item is in the brownie.” I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like a game I want to play!

“Petite Lolita in gynecological visit.” Do I want to know what this one is about? I am hoping that a woman left her pocket edition of Lolita at the doctor’s office. Indeed.

Two of the Peoples in My Neighborhood

Before the rain that spat on us today started to turn into ice and make the sidewalks impossible to walk on, there was plenty of time to take advantage of the day. I had to pick up the MFK Fisher books I had on hold at the library, get groceries, exercise, and generally get stuff done. (Speaking of practical, er, not, don’t ask me how I managed to have an eight-dollar cup of coffee downtown last night.) This particular Sunday was brought to you by…

Dunn Brothers on Grand and Snelling

If I’m on my way home from the gym or if Nina’s is feeling a little too genteel, I love to grab a seat at Dunn Brothers on Grand near St. Thomas. It has a great vibe and is probably the most social coffee shop in the area. Aside from the main counter, there is also a designated bean counter and cashier in the back of the store who packages up fresh pounds of coffee at your command. In the two hours I spent reading, about 15 people stopped to ask what was fresh and to buy a couple pounds. With the good selection, freshness, and the counter rapport, it feels like a place where the cognoscenti go to buy their beans.

Breadsmith, also on Grand and Snelling

Next door is another of my favorites, Breadsmith, close to my heart because it is a Milwaukee company. Even though Great Harvest is walking distance from where I live, I don’t like the doughy, undercooked taste of their loaves. Breadsmith, however, has it in spades, with toothy loaf of whole grain that I wouldn’t dexactly call humble. It’s as wide as a dinner plate and, when you cut it open, springs up like a jack in a box ready to show off its perfect texture. To make it even better, it has a price tag of just 4 dollars.

Inspired by the bread, I suppose, I made some of the most satisfying hummus I’ve ever had. I guess there was nothing unusual about it. Maybe I just brought all the usual variations together in the most effective way. The ingredients are large can of chickpeas, 2 tablespoons of tahini, the juice of one lemon, a few glugs of olive oil, two plump cloves of garlic, salt, cayenne, and dry basil, for fun.

My two preferred tricks in hummus-making are to first boil the chickpeas until they are warm. It’s not that the beans need to be cooked. It’s that putting warm beans in the food processor along with all the other ingredients heats everything just so and brings out the life of the party. Second, I save about a half cup of the cooking water (maybe less) to add to the hummus as it processes, which ensures a nice, creamy texture.

Et voilà, a couple of drizzles of arbequina olive oil and paprika pulls it all together in the end.

Dunn Bros Coffee on Urbanspoon

Breadsmith on Urbanspoon

W.A. Frost and the First Snow Fall

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In one of his short stories called Winter Dreams, Fitzgerald perfectly describes the scene that fell on his hometown of St. Paul this weekend. “The days have become crisp and gray, and the long Minnesota winter has shut down like the white lid of a box.” photo(2)

Intrepid gal that I am, I didn’t let the first big snow fall of the year box me in. This weekend, I hung out with friends at 20.21, The Craftsman, and Riverview Wine Bar. I caught the British Advertising Awards (tell me please, what’s the big deal?) and the new Woody Allen movie. I walked to Nina’s twice, once to meet Nathan for breakfast and book-shopping at Common Good. The second time to meet a new gal named R, who proved to be a fast friend with a considerable interest in the city. I also went to the gym, made soup, did lots of freelance work, and bought a new sweater at Macy’s. (Remember, there’s always free parking on Sunday!)

As if that wasn’t enough for one weekend, I also had a second date with PS. Last week, we met at Eli’s and had a nice time chatting at the front table by the window. On Sunday, he called to ask me out again. Rather than the usual back-and-forth that can be so characteristic of these situations, this guy simply said, “Hey, I made a reservation for us at W.A. Frost at 7.” Now that, I love. No asking. No dalliance. Just good, old-fashioned datemaking. I graciously accepted.

But Frost? Truth be told, I was hesitant to go to there on a second date, given that it is fabled to be the epitome of romance. But when the dating gets tough, I suppose the tough get dating. I flipped up my hair, put on the new sweater and my snow boots, and crunched my way there in the snow.

282977658_bee1fd19ac_oI know that W.A. Frost has won many awards for its food. I know it used to be one of those creepy old pharmacies. I know Fitzgerald probably stopped by for an ice cream and a bottle of Coke, and that perhaps Nina herself used the corner of Western and Selby to pick up some of her brothel’s clientele. But as beautiful as that patio, high ceiling, and lovingly restored interior is, when I’m at Frost, I just don’t feel like I belong there. Maybe I’m a little too much like Fitzgerald, living in flat after flat, moving from town to town, not so sure whether to accept or reject the landed gentry living it up in all those prestigious Summit Avenue homes. Or maybe I just need to spend more time at the bar rather than the dining room.

I finally confided in my date. “It feels kind of . . . pre-theatre in here, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course I do. We’re the hippest people here,” he said, not missing a beat.

And so it goes. To date well is to be a curator of moments, collecting those that stand out and tell a story about an individual. I liked this particular moment. It said he understood.

I ordered pan-roasted Norwegian salmon with goat cheese risotto, bloody mary consomme, and petite herb salad. Everything about this entree came together nicely, especially the moat of consomme around the meal. PS ordered braised Fischer Farms pork belly with sauteed brussels sprouts petals, Vine Valley Farms butternut squash and miso broth, bacon-braised grits, and pickled pear. He also spoke highly of the bright rim of orange squashy stuff that surrounded his meal. The thing I like about Frost’s traditional plating is the always unexpected line-up of ingredients that accompany it. Bloody mary consomme? Pickled pear with a squash miso broth? Having a meal at Frost is a little like finding a wild outfit in your grandmother’s stately closet.

The entrees, though, were mere appetizers to the extraordinary dessert that followed. We shared a Meyer lemon cheesecake with gingersnap crumb crust, toasted pine nuts, Ames Farm honey, and candied Meyer lemon zest. Woo boy. I’m a lover of all things savory, and this dessert was almost like a third entree that was satisfying on so many levels. “Make sure you get a pine nut,” PS said. No problem.

I think I’ll be returning to Frost to sit on the patio in the summer or to meet the bartender, who seems to have a good reputation. I’ll be using it as a wine bar that has a most impressive list from around the world. I’ll be sitting by the big bar windows to watch the snow fall in such a lovely part of town. It’s a perfect winter spot, which also reminds me why I like the snow. It’s fun to say goodbye in. PS and I parted gracefully on the street corner as I donned my hat and walked back home.

W.a. Frost & Company on Urbanspoon

Ngon = delicious

DSC00836 When I visited Ngon (pronounced like the word “long,” but with an n), I felt like I stepped into a culinary border town that was quietly waiting for me to arrive. It was eerie and calm, but steadfastly ready, as though I had just missed whatever major dust-up had just rolled through. Oh wait — was it the flurry of reviews I kept seeing online, praising the creative owners and calling the pho and many of the appetizers and entrees among the best in town, from bloggers, to Rick Nelson, to Dara, to Iggers? That’s quite some high-falutin’ talk for Vietnamese food on University Avenue.

Stepping into Ngon reminded me of happily stumbling into a classy restaurant in the not-so-classy corner of Brooklyn where C and I once lived roughly known as Bedford-Stuyvesant (or, more appropriately, Bed-Sty), where the diners would be eying each other suspiciously as though the white tablecloth could be yanked out from under the foot of the restaurant at any given moment, mercilessly tossing them back on crusty Myrtle or DeKalb Avenue. Yes, Ngon is a place C and I would have visited enough times to thoroughly experience their considerable menu. That is an understatement, I’m sure. Ngon screams “delicious, reliable, intimate neighborhood restaurant absolutely perfect for you and your food-loving boyfriend especially happy that a fabulous menu came to the cheap part of town. See you again soon!”

But that’s just me. On a more universal scale, I think that everything about Ngon contributes to a juicy feeling of possibility. It has a crisp French colonial decor on a street better known for its neon. The servers were friendly and always at the ready. The menu mixes pricier upscale fusion alongside less expensive classics (a brilliant, move, I think). The owner and another guy were hanging out together at the bar. Best of all, Ngon hopes to “break the chain,” sourcing as many local products as it can and hosting a localvore’s happy hour every day of the week with a cool beer and wine list.

I went with Angela and Lisa, two of my most culinary friends, and conquered the menu along with the help of our gracious server. We ordered a fine sample and shared a bit of everything. We thoroughly enjoyed what we ate, but there were some mixed opinions and a little ambivalence, so I can’t say that we were equally enthused. Also, the appetizers and entrees came altogether too quickly. At a slower pace, we would have been able to ease deeper into our own conversation and foster a sense of expectation for our meal.

DSC00838 Wild Acres Duck Spring Rolls. Braised duck with organic spring greens, sprouts, cilantro, mint, and vermicelli. This was OK, but seemed to be missing something. None of us were terribly enthusiastic about this appetizer.

DSC00839 Sweet Potato Shrimp Croquettes. Lightly breaded sweet potato and shrimp, fresh herbs, and a spicy aioli. This disappeared in an instant. The thick, crispy coating belied the whip-soft sweet potatoes inside, and it wasn’t especially shrimpy. A wonderful balance.

DSC00845 Poussin Kadegen. Free range poussin marinated in pho spices with sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, and braised pork belly with a shiitake curry sauce. Lisa said it was tasty, but not extraordinary, and didn’t seem to deserve a 17-dollar price tag.

DSC00840 Pho Tai Ribeye. Rice noodles with a generous portion of tender ribeye cuts. I ordered this along with the Bun Bo knowing I would have two days of leftovers. Highly recommended. The pho was the star of the show, with a complex, spicy broth so tonguey that felt like it could lick you right back. And yes, tonguey is the perfect word for what I am trying to say. It leaves a lingering kiss of star anise on your cheek to tease you when you get back home.

DSC00841 Bun Bo. Rice vermicelli with lemongrass, onions, and ribeye. Vermicelli! I love this stuff. This meal was perfectly easy and comforting. Is this what Vietnamese parents feed their picky children?

DSC00843 Com Tam Tau Hu. Broken rice with ginger glazed tofu and fresh shitake mushrooms. This tofu was delish, given the glaze, and the frying. Angela, you didn’t say much about your meal overall. Were you ambivalent about it?

Some reviewers say that Ngon’s classic Vietnamese dishes rock the French colonial house, but their more imaginative (and pricier) entrees aren’t as memorable. This seemed to be true the night we went, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. With a restaurant that begs you to love it as much as this one does, you have to go at least twice to get a full opinion, whether you are in the neighborhood or coming from across town. Boyfriends, take your girlfriends, and your boyfriends too, and let me know if Ngon is a restaurant that lures you back again.

Ngon Vietnamese Bistro on Urbanspoon

On Burgers and Bohemians

It’s late October, and I’m feeling like a seasonal creature, like a weathervane, almost, responding to the seasons as they come. All summer, I spend my extra cash hanging out on patios around the city with my friends. As summer fades, I end up spending all my drinkin’ money, so to speak, on a weekly supply of luscious heirloom tomatoes. Seriously, I need an extra allowance to support my habit, as I take them home pound by expensive pound. But if time is money, as they say, then why should I resist? Heirloom tomatoes are so ripe with satisfaction that the time it takes to slice them open is all you need to make a fantastic meal. I mixed one up (raw, of course), with pasta, fresh spinach, and a little cheese melted in some pasta water.

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Now that the scarves are on and the fleshy heirlooms will soon be gone, I’ve entered the next phase of hibernation. I bought a bunch of stuff for the kitchen. In one transaction, I bought all of the practical things I have been craving for months. The granddaddy of the purchase was a mandoline. I read that the OXO Mandoline Slicer is the best of them all, and after seeing Mario Batali describe it on the product’s Amazon page, I was hooked.

On the social front, I had a last hurrah to warm weather on the patio at Salut with Nathan, the bohemian woodworker. When I lured him over to this side of the river, I used the juicy lucy at The Nook as my bait. Unfortunately, so did everyone else. There was a 40-minute wait. As we drove around thinking about where else we could go, he kept teasing me by saying “The Nook!” oh “The Nook!” as though I was a Greek siren who lured him to eternal damnation in genteel St. Paul. Where else could I take my incorrigible friend?

I have strange reservations about eating at restaurants that feel even a little corporate, and Salut does, with its smorgasbord menu and concept decor. It wouldn’t be out of place next to P.F. Chang’s and Maggiano’s over at the mall. However. I’m getting older now, and who am I to complain? With Salut, there’s now a French restaurant with great service and a happy bustle bringing extra life to a busy corner of St. Paul. And I was eager to try their burger. Dara Moskowitz included it in her now-famous 20 burgers you must eat before you die list. So off to Salut we went.

We ordered a bottle of red called la piquette, which translates into “nasty wine,” and Le Cheeseburger Royale with aged cheddar, lettuce, and tomato on grilled ciabatta with hand-cut fries. Yeah, it was very good, but I couldn’t quite determine if it was list-worthy. I might say it lacked a certain je nais sais quoi, a certain God-knows-what. But did it matter? The fries were perfectly crispy and my company was among the finest. I would go back to Salut (almost) any time.

Salut Bar Americain on Urbanspoon