The stately St. Paul Hotel is celebrating its centennial year, as good a reason as any to check in on its flagship restaurant. The St. Paul Grill isn't nearly as old its grande dame host -- the restaurant opened as a part of a 1990 addition -- but it feels as if it has been the center of certain overlapping St. Paul social circles for, well, forever.
Blame it on the setting. It's hard to imagine more timelessly good-looking surroundings, a combination of soaring ceilings, mahogany paneling, potted palms and richly patterned carpets that suggests a Polo Ralph Lauren retail outlet lurks just beyond the kitchen. Even better, enormous windows frame views of the hotel's flower-filled garden and beyond to Rice Park, the urbane town square that Minneapolis surely looks upon with unadulterated envy.
The enduringly clubby bar is similarly, almost absurdly handsome; it's the George Clooney of watering holes. It doesn't hurt that the Grill's owner, Morrissey Hospitality Cos., treats its premier property with the tender loving care it deserves. Try finding a scratch, dent or any other obvious sign of wear anywhere. It's immaculate, and one of those rare environments that actually improves with age while managing to remain ageless.
When the kitchen adheres to the upscale American grill format, the food more than holds its own with the decor. Shrimp cocktail is exactly as it should be, and its appeal cannot be overstated. Each serving consists of four gigantic butterfly cut shrimp -- every bite has a marvelous pronounced snap -- served over a pool of unapologetically feisty, horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. The textbook prime rib was cooked precisely to order, and the plentiful leftovers created the kind of sandwich that makes a person happy to brown-bag it. Steaks are similar exercises in excellence, served straight up and headlined by a fantastic thick-cut, beautifully aged and expertly seasoned bone-in filet, its ruby red center surrounded by a nicely charred crust. But, hey, at $47 a pop, it should be nothing short of perfect.
I loved the sizzlingly good lamb chops, a pair of meaty beauties boasting a bold, intensely lamb-y flavor. There's a fine wedge salad, and it would be easy to make a daily noon-hour habit of the substantial turkey club sandwich, with the crispy beer-battered walleye sandwich (swiped with a pert roasted red pepper remoulade) coming in as a close second. Even the side dishes, all too often just tossed-off afterthoughts, are treated right, from ultra-creamy skin-on mashed potatoes to deluxe bacon-flecked mac-and-Cheddar. And the bread basket, imported from the New French Bakery, totally gets it right.
All is not well
Let's just say that the road gets a little bumpy when the menu veers away from the steaks-and-chops format. One example, out of many: Why ruin the gentle sweetness of five large, lovingly caramelized scallops with a tone-deaf butternut squash-vanilla purée? I'm rolling my eyes just thinking about it. Better to resist the temptation to embellish and serve those plump, flavorful scallops on their own.
Sometimes the problems are technical. I didn't encounter a single pasta that wasn't weirdly overworked. Salads often arrived soaking wet. An institution of this caliber should not be proudly serving flavorless tomatoes; can't we agree to enjoy them in late summer and then count the months when they'll return, in their full glory? And I hesitate to compare restaurants with one another, but honestly, if you're going to serve a crab cake, why wouldn't you study the ultimate role model at the Oceanaire Seafood Room and then do your best to replicate it?
Over and over again, please
Consistency is another issue. Case in point: chicken noodle soup. On one visit it was a revelation, a superb $6.95 meal in a bowl, its broth bursting with intense chicken flavor, the wide noodles cooked to perfection, the generous chunks of chicken juicy and tender, the carrots and celery gently toothy and each spoonful singing with a robust black pepper bite. Honestly, I could heap on the praise and still not do it justice, and while greedily slurping the last noodles I was secretly plotting a return engagement. Unfortunately, what I got was a sad impersonation of what I'd experienced just a few days earlier, and it wasn't the only dish to thrill me on one visit only to bum me out on another. Go figure.
"Large" is the most flattering word applicable to most of the desserts, where quantity too often seems to trump quality. Case in point: I was thrilled to find a banana cream pie on the menu -- it holds a permanent berth on my Last Meal Wish List -- but my enthusiasm waned with each disappointing foray into a mega-serving of gluey custard and tough-as-nails crust. So it goes with much of the rest of the menu, with one exception: a lavish, thoughtfully prepared chocolate sundae that -- sure enough -- could easily feed two.
Wow, I just re-read the previous four paragraphs, and I'm really harsh on this place. Here's the thing: It is not unreasonable to expect more from a restaurant that enjoys -- and frankly, trumpets -- such a sterling reputation, and isn't shy about pricing itself accordingly.
Morning at its best
Fortunately, the Grill totally redeems itself at Sunday brunch. The feverishly addictive baked hash browns, laced with sour cream and heavy cream, require a self-control that I only wish I possessed. The bar puts together a frisky Bloody Mary that rouses even the sleepiest of taste buds. Fresh dill only accentuates just how good the silky Hollandaise sauce is, the bacon is thick and crisp and smoky, the liberally stuffed omelets are light and fluffy and the meal starts with a Mimosa and a warm, gooey caramel roll. Nothing's too fancy, but it's all skillfully executed and no detail is overlooked. It's exactly the type of well-polished experience expected at what should be and is often, but not always, Minnesota's pre-eminent all-American grill.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757