'Which one of you is the critic?" asked the polite man as he approached our table. He was the fourth person to introduce himself that evening, confirming my suspicion that everyone at Forepaugh's -- right down to Molly, the house's resident ghost -- was aware of my presence in the restaurant that evening. So much for anonymity. "I just wanted you to know that, as a faithful customer, I was nervous to come back under the new ownership," he explained. "But I had absolutely no reason to be. It's as wonderful as ever."

I'll have to take his word for it. The last time I gave any serious thought to Forepaugh's was ... actually, I can't remember. For me, it has always been one of those restaurants that seemed to barely float on the periphery of my consciousness. You know the type: comforting to know that's it's there, glad it has a following, but not really my kind of place.

Surprise was my reaction to the news that Bruce Taher, he of the campus and corporate food-service giant that bears his name, had purchased Irvine Park's grand old dowager. A special-occasion landmark didn't seem to fit the come-as-you-are M.O. of his other properties, the Wayzata Eatery, Alaska Eatery, Nordeast Eatery and his most recent acquisition, the Timber Lodge Steakhouse chain. Then again, Taher appears to have a knack for rejuvenating underperforming properties.

Right off the bat Taher made two smart decisions: He recruited some top culinary talent (more on that in a moment) and he dropped what appears to be a ton of cash, giving the three-story mini-mansion a respectful top-to-bottom makeover. It's really a beaut', unlike any other Twin Cities dining venue. There are a half-dozen intimately scaled dining rooms, some lined in the kind of intricate woodwork that can't be duplicated today, others done up in tasteful golds, reds and creams. A cozy bar and lounge occupy half the main level and a fancy private dining room was carved out of a limestone wall-lined space in the cellar. I particularly appreciate how the setting whispers Victoriana rather than shouts it. Thankfully, this is a doily-free zone.

Gone is the vaguely continental fare, replaced by chef Donald Gonzalez's much more lively contemporary cooking. Gonzalez has a résumé that many young chefs would trade their MAC knives for, with stints under two great culinary standard-setters: Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Chambers Kitchen in Minneapolis. His mentors have obviously influenced the way he approaches his work.

When it comes to seafood, Gonzalez is as good as anyone in town, crafting dishes of nuance and flair. Halibut's timid personality was nicely balanced against a delicately aromatic coconut curry broth brimming with mushrooms, eggplants and fingerlings. Most spectacular was when mildly sweet striped bass became the centerpiece of a broth that popped with deep-green basil and garlic goodness, with cherry tomatoes and edamame contributing to the color wheel. Truly, late summer never tasted so good.

(Ditto the menu's one vegetarian entree: priests'-hats pasta filled with nutty cranberry beans and served in a subtle Parmesan broth flecked with burst-in-your-mouth grape tomatoes and a generous dash of garden-fresh dill.)

Tradition with a twist

Gonzalez also knows a thing or two about reinvention. Poutine (warm French fries, topped with gravy, a French-Canadian dish) never seemed so swellegant. Another old-school favorite, the wedge salad, goes upscale, and it works. I loved the thin-cut, quickly seared mini lamb chops and their dueling spicy-cool accents. Oh, and when's the last time you encountered beef Wellington? It was a Forepaugh's 1.0 mainstay, and Gonzalez's affectionate reinterpretation elegantly wraps a slab of beef in chard before wrapping it in a basket-weave crust. Nice. Though for $38, it had better be.

There were times when Gonzalez should have quit while he was ahead. An heirloom tomato-mozzarella salad -- so ravishing to look at that it made me wonder if he's an MCAD grad -- was artlessly thrown off balance by an oversized olive tapanade-topped crostini. Huh? Thin-sliced lamb was lost on a plate piled high with so many elements that it took several minutes to sort them all out. Then there was the divinely flavorful sweet corn soup, as luxuriously silky as an Hermés scarf, clumsily finished with a greasy, deep-fried pickled jalapeño. To paraphrase Renée Zellweger, he had me at the soup.

On other occasions I wondered if another chef was captaining the kitchen, because what I was seeing and tasting bore little resemblance to what I'd previously enjoyed. Where was the subtlety and the joy? A cast-iron skillet was blanketed with a thick layer of black pepper and stringy, overcooked mussels. Dull chèvre wrapped in grape leaves would have been yawned out of a last-minute office party. Sizzling bacon-swirled shrimp, big and juicy, were paired with a chile sauce so out-of-bounds hot that it had to have left the kitchen untasted, there's just no other rational explanation.

At lunch, Gonzalez wisely offers a greatest-hits version of dinner, including that exceptional halibut and striped bass, for starters, but then follows them up with a half-dozen overpriced, standard-issue sandwiches. One more whine while I'm at it: With the kitchen stuck far away in the basement, it was the rare dish that was truly hot.

Pastry chef Carrie Summer's ingenious and idiosyncratic desserts smooth over any and all rough spots. She often takes a Cubist's approach, breaking up familiar elements and re-ordering them in a riveting new light. For example, banana cream pie is transformed into crisp shards of hazelnut praline, an unapologetically rich vanilla custard, a perfectly caramelized banana and glancing dashes of coffee and maple. Hello, signature sweet.

Summer also has a knack for illuminating the seasons. A disk of robustly spicy gingerbread, a decadent maple-pecan gelato and a sublime dash of caramel were the essence of autumn. Even more memorable was her poetic fall sundae, with nickel-size pumpkin macaroons studding a scoop of pumpkin cheesecake gelato surrounded by a shallow moat of crisply refreshing cider soup. Like all of Summer's exceptional work, it's almost too pretty to eat, the key word being almost.

No, Forepaugh's fans shouldn't feel anxious about the new regime. Their old friend is in good hands.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757