"I don't know about this," said my friend, as we walked across the gangplank to the No Wake Cafe, the St. Paul restaurant on board a 1940s tugboat on the Mississippi River. "It feels so Gilligan's Island to me."
Happily, the No Wake is no USS Minnow. The boat -- which also houses a four-room bed-and-breakfast, the Covington Inn -- is moored on the Harriet Island pier opposite downtown St. Paul. And, like the show's billionaire castaway, Thurston Howell III, it could not be more charming.
The No Wake is not for the claustrophobic. The ceiling is perilously low, and there isn't a wasted square inch of floor space. When the room is more than half-full -- which is probably most of the time, since it only seats about 50 -- it can feel as crowded as a communal dressing room at Loehmann's during a Donna Karan clearance.
But when the sun goes down, the No Wake oozes romance, particularly if you've snared a seat near the windows on either side of the fireplace. From that vantage point, the lights of downtown St. Paul shimmer across the Father of Waters, enormous barges and small pleasure craft glide by, the dining room glows with candles and spirited conversation and the river beneath you gently sways the boat.
Happily, the good food almost always matches the surroundings. The tightly edited menu, which changes periodically, manages to have something for nearly everyone.
During several recent visits, chef Claudia Rhodes did interesting things with freshwater fish. One of her best dishes was a sauteed filleted walleye with a snappy peanut and green chili chutney, paired with nicely marinated Roma tomatoes. For an appetizer, she served a beautifully smoked trout fillet with a lemon herb mayonnaise and tasty little wild rice crostini.
When she moved to the bounty of the sea, she also showed a sure hand: plump grilled sea scallops, bursting with flavor, tossed with farfalle and squid-ink pasta in a pesto sauce cleverly tarted up with parsley and pecans.
An appetizer of fish cakes, made with halibut and topped with a red-pepper aioli, also impressed. A large Salade Nicoise would have been better if the tuna hadn't tasted as if it had been grilled the day before.
For meat eaters, Rhodes slow-cooked a short rack of pork ribs to tender, juicy perfection, marinating them in a hot but mildly sweet honey and chipotle pepper sauce. I've rarely had better. Less successful was a rib-eye sandwich, a pile of ho-hum beef on a sourdough bun.
Vegetarians don't get short shrift. A pear gorgonzola salad was pretty to look at and alive with flavor. And Rhodes had a thing for peppers. As an appetizer, she roasted red peppers and stuffed them with gorgonzola; for an entree, she stuffed Anaheim peppers with chèvre and caramelized onions and served them with spicy black beans and rice.
Desserts really rocked the boat. Pastry chef Debora Pritchett Gilson whips up four or five treats every night, and her expert handiwork, which somehow managed to be both simple and imaginative, never veered into the cloyingly sweet stuff popping up on dessert trays all over town.
Sometimes she doesn't quite carry it off -- for example, a "Cuban" bread pudding was an odd combination of flavors and textures, and a chocolate layer cake was disappointingly dry. But when she does well, she hits the jackpot.
A blueberry crisp -- popping with fruit flavor -- and a shortcake, piled high with early summer berries, were both amazing. And I'm still daydreaming about her spectacular banana cream pie: a perfect pastry crust topped with banana slices, a mountain of fresh whipped cream and huge white chocolate shavings. It tasted as if it were composed moments before it arrived at the table.
Gilson's scones, served at brunch and still warm from the oven, were also noteworthy. The bread basket's crusty warm baguette was great, too; it hails from A Toast to Bread in St. Paul.
The brunch menu, which also changes with some regularity, was as slim as its dinnertime counterpart: five entrees, a pair of fruit and cheese plates and a handful of sides. Rhodes served walleye at breakfast, too: a large cornmeal-crusted, pan-fried fillet, jazzed up with a pleasantly spicy roasted red-pepper aioli. Another hit was a thick frittata loaded with wild mushrooms and an excellent apple-smoked bacon. A hazelnut brioche French toast had a big case of the blahs, though, and the fruit plate -- in terms of both presentation and selection -- was nothing that couldn't be had at a supermarket deli.
But you don't notice when the food isn't all it could be, because the setting is so darned enchanting. "Forget Gilligan's Island," said my friend as I was paying the check. "This place is the Love Boat."