Comfort food goes contemporary

He may be just 23, but Derik Moran is already an old hand in the kitchen.

The Nick and Eddie chef got his first cooking job at age 11, flipping burgers in a beer joint. By 18 he was head chef for a high-end resort in northern Wisconsin. After stints at Porter & Frye and Trattoria Tosca, he's been running the show at Nick and Eddie since August, working 18/7 with just a two-man crew. Camping out in the kitchen is more than paying off.

Those labors are all evident in a salad Moran calls Mississippi Greens, a glorious $7 testament to his appeals-to-all-senses cooking style. A salad so pretty that one glimpse of it would have sent Renoir rushing to his easel, it's a striking blend of delicate micro-greens and garden-fresh herbs dressed in a ranch-inspired buttermilk dressing and finished with bits of Moran's fantastic house-made bacon.

Much of what he's doing on his muy-affordable menu (entrees average $15) could be described as contemporary comfort food. Pot roast, mac-and-cheese, fish and chips, steak and potatoes, they're all here, but in lighter, brighter versions. The item he can probably never retire from his constantly shifting roster is a variation on chicken and dumpling soup. In Moran's capable hands, the chicken is cured in its own fat and then rendered until the meat falls off the bone and the skin is tantalizingly crisp, then served in an herb-flecked broth brimming with crunchy carrots and onions and pillowy pan-seared gnocchi. It's definitely a dish I'm adding to my Potential Last Meals list.

Moran is a self-taught charcutier, and the results are first-rate, including the terrines and pâtés on what he calls his "Smorgasbord Plate" (priced to move at just $12), a darned good hot dog swiped with gutsy mustard and a zesty ground sausage that ramps up the delicious Scotch eggs. Even Moran's inexpensive bar nibbles, including a chewy-crusted Margherita-style pizza, tasty onion-filled pirogi and divine smoked pork tacos with a slow-burn aioli, are reason enough to fight for a meter in the parking-challenged neighborhood.

Here's one blessing Moran should be counting: He's fortunate to be sharing his kitchen with co-owner Jessica Anderson. Her enthralling desserts -- an insanely good eclair, a chocolate sponge cake filled with whipped cream and topped with a thick fudge sauce, velvety butterscotch pudding splashed with heavy cream -- reiterate why straight-up simple, when it's done right, can be so satisfying.

The Loring Park restaurant remains its quirky, slightly rakish self. If it were a person, it might be an ex-punk rocker sliding toward AARP membership and amused by the previously unthinkable prospect. The kitchen's pace can be leisurely and the drafty room could use a space heater or two (or five), but there are two definite mood enhancers: a small collection of cheeky paintings by local artist/bon vivant Scott Seekins, and an iPod playlist that could pull top dollar on the black market. After an unfortunate (and now cleared up) run-in with the liquor sales-tax folks last fall, which left the bar running on near-empty and served as a customer deterrent, a funky new private events space is drawing much-needed traffic through the door.

As is the food. Having Moran at the helm has quickly proven to be a win-win for everyone: Diners can enjoy his engaging cooking, and he has the opportunity to focus his considerable energies on what he loves most. "I'm like a 5-year-old kid on a jungle gym at the playground," he said. "This is exactly what I want to be doing all the time."

Nick and Eddie, 1612 Harmon Pl., Mpls., 612-486-5800, Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Change comes to Cathedral Hill

Six years ago, Wyatt Evans started as a line cook at W.A. Frost & Co. Today the 28-year-old is getting close to capping his first year as chef at the high-volume Cathedral Hill-er, and after cooking his way through several seasons, he's made the menu his own. Well, more or less.

"There are a few holdovers that I can't take off the menu, or our regulars would kill me," he said with a laugh. I'd have to agree. If I couldn't get a crack at the triple-decker gravlax-on-toasted brioche club sandwich -- or the fried-egg BLT, for that matter -- I'd pull together an angry mob of pitchfork- and torch-wielding villagers myself.

At this enduringly popular restaurant, Evans' extensive menus are by their very nature crowd-pleasers, in the best sense of what can be a cliché-ridden genre. He's doing beautiful things with locally sourced meats and poultry, most notably duck confit spread on a flatbread with oven-dried tomatoes and chèvre, fabulously crispy pork belly that's nicely paired with a hearty fig puree, and a sublime roast chicken with collard greens and a yam puree.

Evans clearly has a winning way with soups, and his small plates boast big flavors: fabulous gnocchi made using rutabagas rather than potatoes, an elegant potato-quail roulade, pert chickpea fritters, gorgeously presented oysters -- they're all worthwhile, and not expensive, averaging $8. Dinner entrees fall in the $17 to $34 range.

Weekend brunch is particularly pleasant, with a dozen or so salad-soup-sandwich holdovers from the lunch and bar menus, plus well-prepared breakfast items, including a spicy sausage gravy spooned over tender buttermilk biscuits and ultra-creamy scrambled eggs, golden brown pancakes tickled with a gentle orange infusion and topped with a pretty cranberry-walnut butter and a hearty hash brimming with bits of house-cured corned beef and caramelized onions.

One disappointment? The standard-issue desserts. Another is the dining rooms' dusty, tattered appearance, at least under the unforgiving light of day, although few settings are better balms for the winter-weary than the historic, fireplace-filled labyrinth that is W.A. Frost & Co. The recent conversion of a basement banquet room into a grotto-like lounge might be the most brilliant idea since the restaurant's famous patio was hatched. The clubby, candlelit space is utterly enchanting, and it's certainly the right setting for enjoying Evans' enticing small-plates menu over a bottle from the restaurant's extensive, well-managed wine list.

I've been around long enough to remember when the 35-year-old restaurant was content to coast on its reputation, but starting about a decade ago, a string of talent (including Lenny Russo, now at Heartland, and Russell Klein, who moved on to open Meritage) upped the ante, and W.A. Frost & Co. has been tasting as good as it looks. Evans is the next name in that starry lineage, and he knows it. "My job is to continue the excellent reputation of this institution," he said.

So far I'd say, "Mission accomplished."

W.A. Frost & Co., 374 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-224-5715, Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily and brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends. Bar open 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757