When St. Paul’s 18-year-old 128 Cafe quietly came up for sale last year, chef Max Thompson jumped at the opportunity.

No big surprise. After more than a decade of cooking for big-name chefs in New York City (Andrew Carmellini, Rick Moonen) and Boston (Tony Maws, Chris Douglass), the Minneapolis native had returned to the Twin Cities with the purpose of owning and running his own place.

Emphasis on his own. While words like reliable came to embody my accumulated feelings toward the 128 over the past decade or so, Thompson has injected a new and welcome adjective: Surprising.

Thompson seems to take great pleasure in tamping down the been-there/done-that quotient. Why settle for a dreary mixed-greens salad when there’s the prospect of adding a firm poached pear, crunchy (and not-too-sweet) candied pecans, salty blue cheese and fragrant fennel?

Rather than relying upon wine, he turns to a brawny beer broth — with wisps of bacon and perky Fresno chiles — as the vehicle for coaxing open a bowlful of plump mussels.

He’s also a skilled terrine maker. Last week, Thompson was turning out a variation on a coarse country pâté, grinding luscious Duroc pork back fat, hickory-smoked country ham and top-flight Wisconsin bacon with a five-spice-style seasoning. Truly, superb.

News of fresh-caught walleye from Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg became an inventive freshwater shore dinner, starring strips of the flaky, piping-hot fish gingerly fried into a delicate golden crispiness. The rest of the heaping plate was filled with tender, waxy yellow potatoes and snips of smoky bacon, while a fairly traditional tartar sauce was countered by swirls of what the kitchen calls twang sauce, a hot-blooded blend of fermented chiles and vinegar.

Thompson’s cooking also reflects his extensive and far-flung travels. Northern Thai accents transform the standard Minnesota winter hunk-o-short-ribs dinner, with a floral fermented green curry — and a splash of coconut milk — insinuating itself into that rich, fork-tender meat. A slab of tantalizingly blackened pork belly, the meat deeply juicy and flavorful, bore a nuanced Chinese twist.

Even so-called basics are handled with obvious finesse. Witness grilled chicken, a supremely juicy brined bird brimming with intense chicken goodness and resting in a classic, don’t-miss-a-drop pan sauce. Thompson doesn’t ignore his meat-and-potatoes demographic, offering up a sizzingly first-rate New York strip, grilled precisely to order and paired with crispy, salt-flecked roasted fingerlings.

Catering to regulars

Exercising astute caution, Thompson has retained a handful of classic 128 dishes. Fortunately, rather than remaining as museum pieces, they have blossomed under the benefit of his expertise.

Whole bulbs of roasted garlic, so mid-1990s, right? It’s doubtful that the Clinton years ever tasted this good. A patient stint in the oven mellows but hardly eliminates the garlic’s bite and brings each clove, texture-wise, to a spreadability not unlike bone marrow. The results pair nicely with a chunky apple-golden raisin chutney and tangy, snowy white chèvre, a make-your-own crostini tailor-made for frigid February evenings.

Similarly, Thompson has done the impossible by measurably improving the restaurant’s seemingly unimprovable and justifiably famous baby back ribs.

While the sweet-hot sauce remains unchanged, even tradition-minded sticklers will appreciate how Thompson has tapped a methodology that differs from that of his predecessors. As the oven’s heat quietly illuminates each and every flavor molecule, the low-and-slow process yields succulent, fall-off-the-bone meat under a slightly charred, tantalizingly crispy and sticky-skinned glaze. They’re fantastic, and made even better with a suitably crunchy slaw and well-seasoned baked beans. At $18, the generously portioned half-order ($32 for the full meal deal) is one of the Twin Cities’ great under-$20 dinners.

His relatively brief menu yields little room for error. Its most recent iteration failed to include a meat-free entree, leaving vegetarians to find satisfaction with a starter-size portion of a lovely risotto enriched with brown butter-coated Brussels sprouts. Nice, but not enough.

Details were occasionally overlooked. Three examples: Overcooked tagliatelle was almost a parody of overzealous salt use, a Caesar’s garlicky punch leapt over the boundary between robust and flat-out harsh and inedibly oily tortilla chips put a damper on an otherwise beefy and subtly spicy chili.

The rec room as restaurant

Thanks to Thompson’s handy parents, a few modest but much-needed upgrades have enhanced the 128’s quirky, secret clubhouse-esque intimacy.

In the main dining room, anyway, this year’s punishing winter seems to melt in the retro coziness of its knotty pine surroundings, which lovingly bear the trappings of a basement rec room, circa 1966, minus the Twister mat.

Unfortunately, the restaurant’s personality split remains. Which means that being seated in the second, far more generic dining area — or the Not Knotty Pine Room, as a friend of mine calls it — has all the appeal that the words “garden-level apartment” have in a Craigslist for-rent listing.

Thompson said that he views the restaurant as a work in progress, with plans to rectify the décor’s shortcomings.

He has pledged to upgrade the dessert menu. Right now it reads as a holdover from the previous regime, basically ice creams from nearby Izzy’s and a monster of a brownie, wonderfully crumbly and intensely chocolate-ey.

One bite, and it’s evident that Thompson (or one of his three kitchen staffers, a tiny crew) can bake — further evidence comes in the obscenely buttery, crunchy-on-the-bottom corn muffins, with their sneaky jalapeño bite — but the sweets selection remains disappointingly slim.

But, hey, baby steps, right? Advancing too much change, too soon, might put off the regulars, and the dinner-only 128 is definitely one of those restaurants that deserves its loyal following. Next up: adding an additional 10 or so items to the menu, including a burger and other sandwiches.

Heresy, perhaps, to 128 die-hards. But the strategy could also be interpreted as a smart foray into diversification, at least from the perspective of someone like yours truly, who lives within walking distance of the restaurant and isn’t always in the mood to spontaneously drop $30 on a plate of short ribs.

In other words, good for him.

“We’re trying stuff, I’m putting myself out there,” said Thompson. “We obviously make mistakes sometimes, but this is my baby. I’ve been working almost 15 years to get to here.”


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