The next time I book a dinner reservation at the Strip Club, I'm going to ask for Table 14.
It's a doozy of a two-top, wedged into the prow of the restaurant's slip of a balcony and accessed by a spiraling black iron staircase. Although it's not exactly private, it somehow manages to feel that way, and it has a backdrop like no other, a twinkling panoramic postcard of the St. Paul skyline that is entirely unexpected and utterly captivating.
"I feel as if I should be popping the question," said my friend, as if we were in a bad Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg movie, and for one scary second I imagined that there was a velvet-boxed Tiffany solitaire in his coat pocket. Yeah, it's that romantic.
The rest of the railroad car of a room -- there are maybe 50 seats here, tops -- isn't nearly as lovey-dovey, but it drips a no-nonsense blue-collar charm, in no small part because of its address. Let's face it: St. Paul's East Side isn't exactly blipping the foodiscenti's radar. But co-owners Tim Niver and Aaron Johnson know a thing or two about flipping underdog locations into hot properties. Until they opened their Town Talk Diner, how many folks were GPS-ing E. Lake Street?
They also had the smarts to team up with chef J.D. Fratzke. In his last gig, a four-year run at Muffuletta, Fratzke injected some long-absent juice into a coasting stalwart -- no easy feat. In his new job, he's forged a vibrant menu that skillfully merges his appreciation for locally raised ingredients with his affection for uncomplicated gastropub fare. The guy can cook.
Starting with the restaurant's namesake dish, a New York strip that just might be the lead candidate for the best steak in town (certainly for the $28 price tag, the steak world's equivalent of a blue-light special). It's a grass-fed, super-lean cut, from Minnesota's own superb Thousand Hills Cattle Co., and its abundant beef flavor seems to reveal an unlimited staying power with each wow-inducing chew. Fratzke draws out the meat's built-in grace notes by wet-aging each cut for up to 45 days before shaking on the sea salt and firing up the kitchen's ancient grill. It arrives at the table in thick slices, the interior juicy and scarlet, the exterior caramelized to sizzling perfection. There are a half-dozen accompanying sauces -- foie gras with port, garlic-seared shrimp, a pungent blue cheese with tangy green onions -- and they're all fine, but this steak is so right-on that it deserves to be served naked.
Fratzke could stop right there and be a success, but luckily he doesn't, putting out a veritable parade of affordable and appealingly unclichéd small plates (when Strip Club is the name on the door, the word tapas is probably too perilously close to topless). An opulent slab of seared foie gras is counterpointed by a sweet plum jam and tangy grilled leeks. Tender white kidney beans, flecked with sage and pert red onions, are spooned over toast triangles. Bits of catfish, rolled in cornmeal and flash fried, are paired with a bacon-kissed ketchup.
A cute tartlet is filled with mashed potatoes blended with a pleasing combination of green onions, bacon and blue cheese. Smoky grilled romaine -- and a clean slice of anchovy -- put a modern twist on the old Caesar format. Fratzke has a great eye (and tastebuds) for charcuterie, especially the snappy wild rice pork sausages he imports from his hometown butcher, Ledebuhr's in Winona, Minn. There's a fantastic duck confit, the meaty legs rubbed in a whisper of allspice, nutmeg and juniper, slow-simmered in fat and vegetables and finished with sweet grilled grapes.
Like the Town Talk, this is a shop that knows how to fry. I'm crazy about the oysters, pulled from Pacific Northwest waters, lightly dredged in egg, flour and bread crumbs and fried until just barely crispy on the outside, with the oyster's naturally briny liquids still deliciously preserved. There are tender walleye fritters, two to a serving and finished with a tarragon-packed aioli. The fries are a treat, too, crisp, golden and wonderfully salty.
In true gastropub fashion, there's a category-killing burger. I also love the workingman's swipe of hearty braunschweiger, buried under port-simmered shallots and served in a soft roll, as well as the sloppy lunchtime po' boy, starring those great walleye fritters. Among the short list of entrees, one beautifully embraces touchstone Minnesota flavors: crispy-skin duck, wild rice, root vegetables and apples. Fratzke does what few seem to accomplish with catfish -- he makes it elegant -- and his savory Swedish meatballs, a nod to the nearby Swede Hollow neighborhood, taste as if he's been making them all his life.
Weekend brunch shines, and now that I'm clued in to how the restaurant is a three-minute drive from the St. Paul Farmers Market, I know where I'll be vanquishing my post-shopping hunger pangs. I can't imagine not ordering the fantastic plate of creamy scrambled eggs topped with sizzling, garlicky shrimp. Or the fluffy omelet stuffed with smoked haddock. Or the towering pile of hearty pancakes layered with fried eggs and slabs of ham. Or the inviting toss of garden-fresh greens dressed in a warm compote. The only thing missing was a decent baked goodie.
That made me think of other gaffes, all more micro than macro disappointments. Escargot, pulled from their shells, were rubbery and flavorless; ditto a bowl of beer-steamed mussels. A thick, bacon-wrapped pork loin was tough and dry, and there might be a better preparation for a similarly tough tip steak topped with stewed peppers. The wet, messy pork sandwich doesn't deliver on a promised spicy bite. The simple desserts were perfectly pleasant but nothing more. And while the Strip Club boys are upfront about their meat-loving mindset -- the menu clearly states that vegetarians are "regarded with benevolent amusement" -- it seems a little harsh.
Hey, at least Niver, Johnson and Fratzke have a sense of humor. They take their work seriously. But not themselves. These guys have fun, and it shows. What a novel concept, fun. That often gets buried under 10,000 daily challenges that come with running a restaurant (and, too often, dining in one), but, in the end, shouldn't the art of having a good time be what the restaurant business is all about?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757