Restaurant review: Ward 6 is Payne Avenue's people magnet

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2013 - 3:26 PM

Let’s all raise a glass to Bob Parker.

Better yet, someone ought to throw this guy a parade. Preferably down St. Paul’s Payne Avenue, because if anyone is going to kick-start the long-awaited rejuvenation of a thoroughfare that has been synonymous with the word “blighted,” it’s Parker.

With his Ward 6, Parker and co-owner Eric Foster are demonstrating the transformative power that food and drink have in turning around ignored if not downright troubled neighborhoods.

They’re obviously not operating in a vacuum — Payne has been showing hopeful signs of life for several years, with new housing and retail sprouting up alongside such stalwarts as Morelli’s Market and Yarusso-Bros. — but if any one project has single-handedly boosted the street’s prospects, it’s this well-conceived and smartly run people magnet.

The 128-year-old building once served as a taproom for the nearby Hamm’s brewery, and it has a gorgeous, lovingly restored oak and mahogany bar to prove it. Once a total fixer-upper, it now greets the street with a cheery and colorful facade, a calling card that will surely encourage a healthy commercial real estate dose of Keeping Up With the Joneses.

Inside — the design work is by Smart Associates of Minneapolis — couldn’t be more welcoming and comfortable. A long, sunny railroad car of a space, it’s a jumble of tables, booths and that beaut of a bar, all leading to chef Liz Olson’s busy kitchen. The whole shebang exudes one of those enviable is-everybody-happy? auras, and those good vibrations don’t just happen by accident.

With Ward 6 — the name stems from its location, within the sixth of the capital city’s seven political districts — Parker seems to have culled every lesson learned from the 30-plus restaurant openings he’s been involved with over the years and applied them to his new venture. Experience is everything, right?

The bar taps into a beer list that’s curated as carefully as a Walker Art Center exhibit and pulls together a yesteryear selection of well-made cocktails sorted into three categories: $6, $7 and $8.

Olson’s menu adapts a similarly unfussy, unstudied approach. It’s modern short-order cooking, executed with an emphasis on freshness and originality.

Half of the menu is devoted to libation-loving grazers, with old-school items along the lines of chicken wings (crispy-skinned, with tons of chicken flavor), excellent hand-cut skin-on fries (served with a bevy of dips or as a template poutine), a decent cheese plate and a few ridiculously fatty slabs of pork belly, their barnyard excess cut by a sharply acidic citrus-cayenne syrup.

A chalkboard menu at the front door heralds a few specials, and they usually merit attention. Particularly whatever meatball concoction is coming out of the kitchen: Witness a tender pork-beef combo jazzed with plenty of jalapeños and a pretty tomatillo salsa. Don’t ignore the daily dinner entree, either. On one recent Sunday evening, a savory turkey meatloaf, with a homey white bean-wild rice salad, tasted as if I’d won the blue plate lottery. At $15, my MasterCard was equally impressed.

Similarly fortunate feelings materialized the moment Olson’s triumphant Reuben sandwich hit the table. It’s a wowser, with a stack of slow-cured, ruby red beef blanketed in sauerkraut and a generous swipe of a feisty sweet pickle relish-lime-Sriracha dressing.

Appealing to the masses

Ward 6 is true to its beer-joint roots and knocks out two great burgers, both built with deeply flavorful ground chuck. While it may reside on the blue-collar East Side, the restaurant isn’t afraid to embrace its dainty side, with a simple, finely shredded chicken salad tucked into cute little profiterole-like buttermilk biscuits, a dish that’s more high tea than Miller High Life (not that Parker would tap such a mass-market brew).

Another reason for admiration: Olson acknowledges that neighborhood pub patrons could be — gasp — vegetarians, a group that might not touch the kitchen’s striking platter of patés, rillettes and terrines (a shame, really, as they are uniformly first-rate), but they’ll be all over Olson’s colorful collection of relishes.

She’s constantly changing the mix of its half-dozen or so components, and over the course of my visits I encountered a zippy cayenne-infused carrot relish, a husky black olive tapenade, a creamy and nose-ticklingly spicy avocado purée, tangy kimchee, an assortment of sweet-hot candied nuts, a bright corn relish and snappy bread-and-butter pickles. What a wonderful way to snack, so light and imaginative and satisfying. And, once again, affordable at $9.

Going a trifle less healthy, Olson lightly batters and fries a medley of vegetables, serving them with a harissa-laced hollandaise (she does not shy away from heat, a welcome development). There’s a decadent grilled cheese sandwich, with golden, buttery sourdough and ripe, runny Camembert counterbalanced by peppery arugula, crisp pears and pungent mustard.

Another snack is a crock of salty, garlicky olive oil and butter. It’s an ideal way to liven up a semi-dull baguette. (It’s the one disappointment in what is an otherwise fine bread inventory, all sourced from the remarkable New French Bakery.) More substantial appetites will be satisfied with a hearty stew of pert garbanzo beans, blanched sweet potatoes and a ginger- and cinnamon-accented tomato jam, spooned over basmati rice.

Dessert starts with pie, part of a small local renaissance for a particularly beloved corner of the baking arts. It’s easy to see why Olson embraces piemaking: She demonstrates an instinctive feel for filling out a pie tin. The formula changes weekly, if not more frequently, and she clearly has a knack for turning out sturdy yet flaky crusts.

Then there’s the snowy white soft-serve ice cream. It’s nothing fancy, just a basic factory-made mix, but it’s first-rate, with a clean vanilla bite. It’s also the featured attraction in a fun-loving series of boozy milkshakes (I instantly added another 5 percent to my server’s tip when she admitted, sotto voce, that “Those adult malts are my favorite desserts”), but like the best-of-all-possible-Dairy Queens (minus the cone), it’s also served straight up. Usually, anyway; adding a shot of espresso only underscores how great it would be if Olson conjured up a few delicious sundae toppings.

The decent beignets do double duty, serving on both the dessert menu and as a cornerstone of the just-what-the-neighborhood-ordered breakfast, which also features a fabulously eggy pancake-popover hybrid and a carb-loading savory bread pudding. Good coffee, too.

A neighborhood asset

Sure, there were blips. Pasta is not one of the kitchen’s strengths. And while Korean-style pork short ribs sounded intriguing on paper, they arrived fatty and aggressively seasoned. Those kinds of imbalances are not infrequent: A teriyaki sauce, pooled under nibble-worthy ginger-chicken meatballs, was inedibly salty.

So, does Ward 6 merit a drive from, say, Maple Grove, or Eden Prairie? Probably not.

But Parker, a devoted East-Sider for more than a decade, has done a tremendous service for his restaurant-starved neighbors. Sure, his motivation might be enlightened self-interest; with assets like Ward 6, can increased property values be far behind?

But given the ever-present smile on his face, it’s safe to say that all of his obvious hard work is really a labor of love.

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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    Thursday April 4, 2013

    Payne Avenue's people magnet.

  • Echo Columb, 6, finished her Ward 6 lunch with a cup of soft-serve ice cream. She was joined by her dad, Josh Columb, and brothers Epsen, 10, and Oskar, 13.

  • Ward 6 makes a cheerful first impression on Payne Avenue.

  • Ward 6 ⋆⋆ 1/2

    www.ward6stpaul.com • 651-348-8181

    Location

    858 Payne Av., St. Paul

    Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun. Bar open 1 hour later.

    Atmosphere and service

    Casual and convivial. No reservations.

    Price ranges

    Nothing over $15; majority $11 and under.

    Recommended dishes

    Charcuterie plate, relish tray, meatballs, burger, Reuben, Cicero stew, pies, soft-serve ice cream.

    Wine list

    Brief roster of bargain-priced wines, 19 local craft beers (plus Hamm’s) on tap and a classics-loving cocktail list.

    Special menus

    Five $4-$6 kids’ items, including a $4 portion of many adult items.

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