The upcoming Oscars have me thinking about Jill Wilson.
Pretend, just for a moment, that the Academy Awards include a category for Best Performance by a St. Paul Restaurateur. I'm fairly certain that Wilson would at least make the short list of nominees, if not hear Scarlett Johansson or Seth Rogen announce her name from the stage of the Kodak Theatre, following the words, "And the award goes to. ... "
Wilson first fell in love with the 128 Cafe as a customer and then as a server. When co-owners Brock and Natalie Obee called it quits last June after an admirable 11-year run, Wilson stepped in and bought it lock, stock and recipe. Cafe 128, version 2.0, reopened in November.
So what's so special about the 128? Plenty. Under the Obees, it was one of those just-under-the-radar finds that develop small but rabid followings. Wilson not only took over the lease, but she obviously intuits the qualities that made -- and still make -- the 128 that rare neighborhood magnet.
Starting with the unmatched setting, a pair of intimate, side-by-side rooms on the ground floor of a century-old apartment house across the street from the University of St. Thomas campus. It's a real sweetheart of a place, but during the past few years the Obees had accumulated enough deferred maintenance so that it was beginning to resemble Minnesota's transportation infrastructure. No longer. Wilson's investment -- her own version of a 7 1/2-cent gas tax increase -- has brought the space back where it belongs. The main dining room's fetching knotty pine essence glows anew, and the secondary dining room has been fluffed and buffed so it longer feels second-best. The place virtually defines cozy -- heck, it's practically cuddly -- and there isn't even a roaring fireplace in sight.
Wilson also had the smarts to rehire chef Ian Pierce, a longtime 128 presence who knows the restaurant's clientele inside and out. What I appreciate most about Pierce's work is that he respectfully embraces the Obees' legacy, but he isn't running a museum, either. The brief menu is constantly being peppered with rejuvenating touches.
The 128's signature dish remains intact, and it's a doozy: slowly braised and generously seasoned pork baby back ribs, sold in half and full portions (the full-size reminds me of what Bette Davis once said about growing old: It's not for sissies). They're seared on the grill until the abundant meat crackles outside, but a knife and fork will quickly reveal a mouth-wateringly tender interior. Although they hardly need embellishment, Pierce adds two anyway: a small cup of sauce with just the right sweet-spicy notes and a hefty dollop of skin-on mashed potatoes. The end results are so satisfying -- and so worth the $28 price tag -- that, if you're a frequent diner, you almost have to force yourself to order something different. They're that good.
For the most part, those anti-rib excursions won't lead to disappointment. Pierce often displays a refreshing minimalism, from fork-tender beef tenderloin in an exceptional red wine demi-glace to pan-roasted chicken served with creamy polenta and a robust bacon-rosemary pan sauce. Earlier this winter he was slow-braising pork and pairing it with a hearty blend of gnocchi and roasted Vidalia onions, and there's always a winning pasta dish.
I appreciate what Pierce isn't doing. No burgers, pizza or other obvious panders to the college crowds across the street. But sometimes his work gets a bit overwrought. One daily fish special, a crispy barramundi, was buried under so many ingredients I could barely find it. Another Obee holdover, a kind of make-your-own crostini, arrives at the table as an ungainly mountain. A lighter hand with a heavy cream sauce would do wonders for a bowl of oversized ravioli filled with savory shards of duck confit.
Other appetizers really shine. I love the way the tender cod cakes snap with energetic Thai flavors, and zesty harissa-glazed shrimp get just the right finish with fragrant saffron risotto. An earlier menu featured spicy beef skewers, although they've been ably replaced by a small plate of beef short ribs that also have a Thai-style zing. One night I felt fortunate to inhale every drop of a simple butternut squash soup. Even a nicely embellished toss of field greens stands out.
The unassuming desserts don't deserve to be labeled afterthoughts -- they do their hit-the-spot marks well -- but they're nothing fancy. There's ice cream from nearby Izzy's and a rich wedge of a brownie (all drizzled with a decent house-made chocolate sauce), and there's usually some variation on crème brûlée and maybe a nutty, fruity bread pudding.
And I'm sorry to say that Sunday brunch, a favorite of mine at the 128 of old, won't be coming back, at least not in the foreseeable future. But hey, if that's the biggest complaint a whiner like me can muster about Wilson's new regime, then I say hand her that statuette.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757