Lucia's and W.A. Frost: A look at classic restaurants

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2014 - 1:30 PM

REVIEW: In the rush to embrace the never-ending stream of restaurant newcomers, don't overlook the classics.

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Quick: How many Twin Cities restaurants have either opened in the past several weeks or should materialize in the next few months? Give me two minutes and I’ll rattle off an astounding 40 — yes, forty — without breaking so much as a scintilla of a sweat.

After marveling at the supercharged dining environment in which we find ourselves, my thought process eventually took a different turn. In a world that venerates new-newer-newest, what about the restaurants that have not only endured, but prospered?

In that vein, here’s a far more audacious figure: Since opening her eponymous Uptown restaurant in 1985, Lucia Watson has changed her menu every week. That’s approximately 1,500 menus.

Along with a seasonality that’s as reliable as a Week-at-a-Glance calendar, Lucia’s long-standing success lies in its seemingly opposites-attract approach, where a rigorous fidelity to classical cooking techniques is married to a modest Midwestern wholesomeness.

Here is the place where short ribs are skillfully taken to their mouth-melting limits, with slow-roasted onions and root vegetables coaxed into candy-like bliss. Where the simple act of tearing into a flurry of lettuces, cabbages and other glimpse-of-summer vegetables takes on quasi-healing proportions. Where airy omelets approach work-of-art status, or a humble plate of scrambled eggs is treated with the same care as a crispy-skinned slab of arctic char sold at five times the price.

Where soups are colorful pops of flavor-saturated clarity, and something as unassuming as a platter of smoked salmon with crackers and pickled vegetables becomes a study in unfussy splendor.

Where the sudden appearance of the dessert tray becomes an instant mood elevator. Where even seemingly mundane details are treated as life-or-death matters: A bread basket that isn’t some warmed-over, made-elsewhere loaf but a minor celebration in the bread-baking arts, or allowing something as familiar as a chocolate chip cookie to shine anew.

The incremental manner in which Watson has expanded her business, diversifying as adjacent storefronts became available, has always struck me as practicality personified. After all, there’s only one Lucia Watson, and because it’s her name on the door, the single location allows her to keep a watchful eye over all aspects of her operation.

Another clear Watson gift is her ability to discover and nurture talent. Current chef Ryan Lund is a prime example. The food coming out of his kitchen is a Lucia’s high-water mark; ditto the lovable work of longtime pastry chef Annamarie Rigelman. The service staff, many with years-long tenures, pretty much radiates hospitality.

Lucia’s is not without its issues. Some diners might find the restaurant’s brief menus limiting. The dining room and wine bar are both looking their age. When the To Go side is busy, which is often, the ordering process can be a bit frustrating.

Big deal. Particularly when I look back on the countless happy occasions I’ve shared with friends in that flower-dappled dining room (last week, the space was festooned with a wedding’s worth of cheery forsythia).

Then there are the many cherished hours at brunch, with Mom. The way-too-many awkward first dates smoothed over in the snug wine bar. The sunshine and fresh air absorbed on the pooch-friendly sidewalk. Or the way Watson has steadily schooled this city in the importance of locally raised ingredients, a showing rather than telling strategy that has permitted us to taste their merits for ourselves.

I don’t have anything more than a professional acquaintance with Watson. Yet because Lucia’s the restaurant is such a reflection of Lucia the person — and maybe because both have earned indelible, Mount Rushmore-like profiles on the Minneapolis landscape — it sometimes feels as if she and I have been immersed in a 29-year friendship.

Which explains why, when I get around to counting my blessings, Lucia’s — and its namesake — occupy a permanent berth on what’s fortunately a long list.

1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., 612-825-1572, www.lucias.com. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., for dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5:30-9 p.m. Sun. Wine bar open 11:30 a.m.-midnight Tue.-Thu., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat., 10 a.m.-midnight Sun. Lucia’s To Go open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

 

Cathedral Hill classic

Meanwhile, in St. Paul, W.A. Frost & Co. is a year away from its 40th birthday (for the bar; the restaurant followed two years later), and I sincerely hope that Mayor Coleman is planning a parade to mark the occasion.

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