To the new owners of the Lexington, I have just one question: What were you thinking?
When John and Michelle Hickey and Ed and Jenni Ryan purchased St. Paul's preeminent legacy restaurant last spring, they made sweeping changes, including formulating a bewildering new steaks-and-sides menu that seemed more appropriate to a sports bar than Grand Avenue's grand dame.
The revisions were met with a resounding thud, and, in late October, the ownership recruited chef Dan Calloway. Based on a disastrous meal I'd had a few months earlier, I'd say that he arrived in the nick of time. His first official act? "I got rid of all the stuff in the freezers, and I tossed out everything that was in a can," he said.
Yes, scratch cooking has returned to the Lex. Calloway, who grew up in the restaurant business and has spent the past four years cooking at Chester's Kitchen & Bar and Pescara in Rochester, appears to be the right person in the right kitchen at the right time. Let's hope that he and his crew are earning combat pay. They deserve it.
Dish by dish, Calloway is restoring the Lex to its tradition-laden roots. You know, the kind of place where a person can tuck into a well-prepared Thanksgiving-style dinner, with hefty slices of juicy, skin-on turkey -- both dark and white meat -- sharing an overflowing plate of creamy mashed potatoes, a silky giblet gravy, sage-packed stuffing and a bright, citrus-ey cranberry sauce. Or a just-right chicken pot pie. Or a pot roast that's marinated overnight in garlic and herbs and then braised in veal stock for seven hours until it achieves melt-in-your-mouth status. Like nearly everything else that comes out of the kitchen, it's served in a portion so generous that it should arrive with a doggie bag.
Calloway is schooled in the proper ways to cut and grill an Angus beef ribeye, each charred, salt-crusted bite teasing the tongue. His tenure at seafood-focused Pescara translates into basic, well-prepared daily specials: a thick slab of ocean-fresh halibut with a golden pan sear that yields to a succulent, white center, or a blackened striped bass filet over a simple bed of sautéed beet greens.
Some memorable dishes
No one is ever going to mistake the Lex for La Belle Vie, but that doesn't discount the intrinsic appeal of, say, a plate of colossal onion rings, which achieve all the right crunchy/tender/sweet grace notes. The fries are excellent, too. I loved the thick, well-prepared walleye cakes, brimming with generous pieces of that gentle freshwater fish and served over a pool of caper-studded tartar sauce.
A ciabatta-style grilled flatbread, heaped with earthy mushrooms and pops of tangy goat cheese, was a surprisingly satisfying way to commence a meal. A pair of sliders -- one filled with a lovingly caramelized scallop, the other made using a luxurious slice of beef tenderloin -- was a clever play on a bar standard. For dessert, there's a superb red velvet cake, or the kind of towering chocolate layer cake that most of us associate with a rousing round of "Happy Birthday."
Although it's a bit tattered around the edges, the Lex's timeless setting remains as dipped-in-amber as ever. The beloved, old-world dining room is as comfortable as a well-worn cashmere sweater; it's not by accident that generations of 651-ites have turned to its floral confines to celebrate life events of all stripes. The cozy, mahogany- and oak-lined bar has no local peer in the conviviality department (if the powers that be got rid of the bar's obnoxious TV screens, it could easily double as a "Mad Men" set).
Good for the Ryans and Hickeys for retaining the restaurant's fascinating gallery of black-and-white photos of Lex-going movers and shakers, past and present, including television mogul Stanley Hubbard, explorer Ann Bancroft, politician Eugene McCarthy and former owner Thomas Scallen. I suspect that most St. Paulites have had, at one point or another, a secret wish to see their mug enshrined in the Lex's back hallway; that's how much this establishment is ingrained in the life of the city. If only the public got more of a shot at the Williamsburg Room, the restaurant's delightful private-event space.
A necessary re-do
Back to the food. During several December visits, it was obvious that Calloway hadn't had the opportunity to revamp the entire menu -- and that he had his work cut out for him -- because some of what I encountered can only be described as Crimes Against Comfort Food.
I don't know that I've never tasted a more grim beef stroganoff, with gummy pappardelle blanketed with chewy mystery meat and a flabby, congealed sauce of indeterminate flavor origins. What was billed as coq au vin was more like the instant Betty Crocker version of this deeply flavorful chicken-braised-in-red-wine classic. I'd sooner force myself to sit through an entire episode of "The Chew" than take another stab at any of the dreary, overcooked pastas. I was unaware that it was possible to screw up an egg salad sandwich until I bit into the rubbery, flavorless one that was somehow supposed to constitute lunch.
A little tweaking could have a maximum impact. Shrimp cocktail were just this side of rubbery. The rote, lifeless salads aren't doing anyone any favors, with one exception: a wonderfully lively Caesar. A gigantic lamb shank, its outer edges lacquered to perfection, had spent a little too much time in the braising pot, and the less said about its accompanying -- and artless -- risotto, the better.
Other overlooked details also raised questions: What's with serving asparagus, the epitome of springtime vegetables, in the dead of winter? Why is the bread basket -- a key foundation garment in the supper-club wardrobe -- such a dullard? How difficult can it be to craft a decent hot fudge sundae?
But just as aircraft carriers can't turn on a dime, a busy restaurant can't evolve overnight, and Calloway is slowly but surely steering this dining landmark in the right direction.
"I'm not trying to re-create the wheel here," he told me. "My job, as I see it, is to protect the legacy of this place and ensure that the Lexington is around 50 years from now."