When the vegetarian special at Tongue in Cheek arrived at the table, it seemed to symbolize the restaurant's role in the nascent revitalization of St. Paul's frazzled Payne Avenue.
That's a weighty civic burden for a $15 plate of risotto, but bear with me.
Chef/co-owner Leonard Anderson had obviously glued himself to the stove, because that rice was lovingly nurtured to maximum creaminess, a whisper of tangy chèvre hanging in each bite. A barely held-together poached egg and a spiky nest of chives, daikon sprouts and nail-shaped enoki mushrooms were eye-grabbing finishing touches, but the topper was a gossamer froth, infused with a gently ripe Parmesan perfume.
I know. Froth. And in a neighborhood that, for decades, was defined — or is that besmirched? — by its most notorious tenant, a strip club named (wittily, it must be said) the Payne Reliever.
But the Payne Avenue of 2015 feels as if it is finally OxiCleaning that tawdry reputation, thanks in no small part to a growing collection of pioneering food-and-drink entrepreneurs.
Topping that list is Tongue in Cheek. The restaurant has emerged from the crowded field of 2014 newcomers because Anderson sagaciously demonstrates how dynamic, resourceful cooking (including, yes, froth, a re-branding of the 1990s' much-maligned foam) can thrive in any neighborhood.
He kicks off his menu with a handful of what he calls "teasers," little two-bite pops of artfully presented brilliance. Slightly larger than an amuse-bouche, they are playful bursts of creativity, and impressive distillations of what Anderson creates on a larger scale further down the menu.
Here's one example: a dime-size bite of Niman Ranch-raised pork belly, rubbed with ginger and garlic and slow-roasted until it bastes in its own caramelizing fat. It's deep fried until it achieves a faintly crispy exterior that yields to a shimmering, mouth-melting inside — and then that sublime porkiness is foiled by a bright mango salsa and hints of peanut. That's a lot of contemporary cooking, all for the price of a cup of coffee.
OK, one more. Toying with the edible compounds in his culinary chemistry set, Anderson plops a strawberry-flavored orb into sparkling wine, which amusingly bursts — releasing big berry flavor — when the slightest pressure is brought to bear in your mouth. Lovely.
Slightly precious-sounding? Perhaps. In reality, they're anything but. Oh, and their $2 price tags are also genius. For the unimpressed, you're only out two bucks. Love it? Order another one or two. You're still spending less than what constitutes a small plate in most restaurants.
Solid building blocks
Anderson, who cut his culinary teeth under the tutelage of chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Roger Johnsson at the late, great Aquavit in downtown Minneapolis — and then went on to run W.A. Frost & Co. — doesn't hesitate to cater to diners with modest budgets and everyday appetites. The results are far from ordinary.
His burger is a knockout, the thick patty packed with herbs and shallots, meatloaf-style, and topped with spicy arugula and a melty young Cheddar.
For a while Anderson was preparing a beautifully embellished fried egg sandwich; if I were an East Sider, it would have been my go-to Tuesday night dinner. The same for a comforting bowl of pasta drenched in sauce from that same mellow white Cheddar; the results are pure, unadulterated comfort food, a mile beyond the blue Kraft box and large enough for leftovers.
Right now he's funneling some of that over-the-top pork belly into soft steamed buns, adding texture and color with a crunchy Asian-style slaw. Shareable, yes, not that I ever could.
A spectacular tuna poke also triggered my order-your-own instincts, which called upon a small bowl of crisp, salty potato chips — and crunchy, paper-thin radish slices — to scoop up cool, velvety, ruby-red pieces of raw tuna. Oh, and its mad-scientist touches are both amusing and delicious. Speaking of raw, a beef tartare was notable for its pristine, slightly sweet bite.
The menu's building blocks get the star treatment in a handful of entrees. Anderson sears that slow-roasted pork belly and introduces fall-color sweet potatoes and carrots, with pops of another late-season stalwart, chestnuts. The results yanked me off my pork belly-induced boredom.
An even more calendar-appropriate dish was lean, beyond-tender grass-fed flank steak seared on the grill and glazed with soy-caramel sauce, sharing the plate with an essence-of-winter combination, roasted Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
For all of the fun that can be had at dinner — and the front-of-house staff fully embraces the restaurant's lighthearted, easygoing name — I can't help but gush about brunch. The half-dozen or so egg-centric choices mirror dinner's tightly focused menu, and each one is a winner.
I've already gone on record with my unabashed adoration for the scampi-style shrimp and crème fraîche-loaded grits, the classic combo ramped up with a zesty chermoula. Kudos also to fried eggs and punchy chorizo served over a condiments-laden pita.
A Benedict gets less conventional with a spicy hollandaise and supple house-cured gravlax. Even basics — a well-stuffed omelet, a hearty potato hash, the crisp and thinly sliced bacon — are handled with care. Following the dinner menu's sensible pricing structure, nothing tops $14.
Some rough spots
Disappointments? A few. I loved the delicate saffron notes and clever bok choy-celery root compare/contrast on a tuna dish, but the fish had clearly exceeded its sell-by date; was no one with a functioning olfactory system working in the kitchen?
Desserts are uneven, either too much (an over-the-top ode to the s'more) or not enough (a refreshing but barely there raspberry granita). The menu's brevity might grow to bore regulars. And my one ding against the otherwise delightful brunch is the depressing absence of baked goods, a weekend essential.
The setting — a pair of 120-year-old storefronts gingerly modernized with a pragmatic dose of do-it-yourself sweat equity — is by no means fancy, but it charms.
A word for the uninitiated: Slapping a smiley face on Payne Avenue's progress is somewhat sugarcoating the neighborhood's rebirth trajectory. It's no Linden Hills, not by a long shot.
At least not yet. But signs of an upswing are everywhere. It doesn't take an urban planner to explain the pivotal role that well-run restaurants can play in transforming communities. Just look at the elbow grease, enthusiasm and know-how that Anderson and his business partners — spouse Ashleigh Newman and their pal Ryan Huseby, all East Siders — invest in the corner of Payne and Jenks, every day.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib