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.

Over the years, owners John and Stephanie Rupp have had their ups and downs, chef-wise. Right now they’ve got a keeper in the kitchen. He’s Wyatt Evans, and he climbed up the ranks to become executive chef in 2009.

Evans has clearly developed a firm grasp on pleasing — and frequently surprising — the Grand Canyon-wide demographic that the restaurant so ably serves. Global flavors are handled with aplomb, whether he’s suggesting North African (a silky, sushi-grade tuna), Vietnamese (velvety beef tartare) or Thai (plump, flavorful mussels).

A host of dishes are tailor-made for cold winter nights. Prodigiously juicy chicken, bearing a crisp, herb-packed skin, was served over creamy mashed parsnips and surrounded by an arc of intensely flavorful pan juices. Reordering elements of a classic pastrami-on-rye with smoked salmon proved to be a brilliant mash-up. Gloriously fatty and flavorful head cheese was expertly prepared and presented.

A cracker-crust flatbread was generously topped with earthy mushrooms balanced by delicately sweet caramelized onions. Other plus-size small plates (“micro entrees” in Frost menu-speak) offer a flurry of creative, $14-and-under options, starting with a maple sausage-pheasant cassoulet.

With the Lexington remaining dark, Evans seems to be luring in its old-school clientele with a fine shrimp cocktail and butter knife-tender steaks. Even basic bar fare — a classic burger, a toasted ciabatta roll piled high with lean, vinegar-teased pulled pork — was right on the money.

Based on what I’ve recently encountered, I can’t give a blanket endorsement to Evans’ sprawling menu. Some dishes were ill-conceived (greasy pork spring rolls), others poorly executed (fishy, over-fried tuna-crab cakes).

My visits were frequently plagued with inexplicable service lapses, although they’re often matched by a forceful comeback: an unmatched cheese selection, a tasting menu that manages to evoke both luxury and value, a lovely a la carte weekend brunch and an admirably deep selection of affordable wines, including more than 60 bottles in the $35-and-under range.

Then there’s the setting. Scratch that: Settings. The genteel dining rooms could have doubled as Ralph Lauren’s career lodestar. The bar remains one of the Twin Cities’ most appealing backdrops for developing an affinity for Scotch, whiskey and bourbon. The grotto-like basement lounge is an under-the-radar romantic destination.

In the winter, guests are greeted with the soothing scent wafting from one of the historic building’s many crackling fireplaces, and in the warm-weather months, nothing beats Frost’s landmark patio, still an enviable piece of leafy, urbane real estate, all these decades later.

It’s tough to remember when the restaurant wasn’t the dining-out anchor that it quickly became. Which is why imagining a Cathedral Hill without W.A. Frost is the equivalent of a Cathedral Hill without, well, the cathedral. Impossible.

374 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-224-5715, www.wafrost.com. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily, for brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Bar open 11 a.m. to midnight Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fri.-Sat.

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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