We were excited. Admittedly, we were swept up by the tsunami of hype that carried The Lexington (1096 Grand Ave, St. Paul) from a multi-year closure, a sale, and a multi-million-dollar remodel, to a final opening of its doors earlier this year. With St. Paul’s own Jack Riebel, previously of Butcher and the Boar, running the kitchen, our hearts were aflutter with dreams of expertly prepared, innovative food with a nod to tradition, impeccable service, and a setting that stopped just short of actual travel through time and space. Alas, we wish we could report that everything was magical in the storied windowless box on the corner of Lexington and Grand, but what we found over the course of three visits in June was uneven food and capable but unconfident service.
The Lexington has several main rooms: a bar, two dining rooms (one with a window looking into the kitchen), and the Williamsburg Room, the breathtaking back bar where you’ll find live jazz on weekend nights. The wood paneling is regal and dark. Opaque, backlit glass gives the bar a genuine pre-war feel. The chairs are leather-clad, and the tables dressed in white cloth.
If you want to visit the Lexington but find their dinner menu a little too steep to dive into, consider the bar menu. There is some overlap with the dinner menu, but at a more accessible price (standards being relative, of course). We ate the Prime Beef Burger ($15), ordered medium rare, and it was fantastic. It was wider than the large sesame seed bun by an inch or two, and so tender that it could have been steak tartare slapped on the grill. Burgers are often a little beyond the requested level of doneness by the time they reach the table but this one was truly medium rare. The garlic parsley fries were a worthy accompaniment. We found our Jalisco Old Fashioned ($12), with its woody aftertaste of reposado, to be a delightfully sweet, citrusy way to end a workday. Everything went right at our late afternoon visit to the bar.
It was a different story at dinner. From the sliced radish crudité that arrived in a puddle of water, such that no dressing could adhere, to the desserts that could plausibly have come from a freezer case, there were as many lowlights as there were highlights.
On a round of drinks, we went two and two. The gin Rickey ($12) was simple and solid, as it should be when club soda and gin are mixed. The Punch du Lex ($12, above) was sweet and fun, with the dark rum shining through the punch. On the other hand, the Scofflaw ($12) was astringent, all lemon and grenadine, and the Lex Cup ($10) was unfocused and overly sweet, and sat mostly untouched.
Our appetizers were likewise mixed. The Cast Iron Scampi ($17) should have been a home run. With olive oil instead of butter and paprika and chili pepper in addition to garlic, the result was not recognizable as scampi. Not a bad thing necessarily, but the shrimp were spongy and heavy, as if they’d been poached in oil instead of sauteed. We ate four of the six shrimp.
The Smoked Lakefish Platter ($16) was considerably better. The salmon rillettes were lovely, rich and smoky, and the lake trout was flaky and firm. The whitefish salad was overdressed, and salmon roe added an unpleasant fishiness. It would have been improved with the addition of herbs. Caveats aside, we polished off the platter with gusto.
The 16-ounce NY Strip Loin ($46) was pitch perfect. Bone marrow butter drizzled over the top added a richness to the perfectly cooked, beautifully crusted meat. Similarly, the Beef Pot au Pho ($26), a Southeast Asian twist on pot-au-feu, the French classic, was almost as delightful. The slow cooked roast fell apart at the threat of a spoon. Slightly cooked bok choy was crunchy, and abundant fresh cilantro and mint were vibrant and aromatic. In place of pho noodles were toasty, nutty spaetzle that held their texture in the overly salted pholike broth.
The Lobster a’la Diavlo ($29) was serviceable Italian-American. The spaghetti was al dente and toothsome, but the lobster had a chalky texture that we found off-putting. The roasted tomato sauce was spicy in a Minnesota way, and a mint chiffonade lent a subtle cooling touch.
The Polynesian Spare Ribs ($17 for a half rack) were the dud of the entrees. Splayed out like pick-up-sticks, they arrived barely lukewarm. The sweet glaze was one-note and the ribs themselves brought little to play. We picked at them and brought the leftovers home to fulfill their destiny as the protein ingredient in a rice bowl.
We shared a side of Cheesy Cauliflower ($9) and found it to be poorly executed. It tasted more of roux than cheese and had a floury texture. None of us ate more than a bite, and the nearly-full dish was cleared from the table without query or comment.
Dessert could have saved a shaky meal that to this point had some legitimate highlights (I’m looking at you, Lexington’s beef). But both the Cheesecake ($8) and the Chocolate Tart with dulce de leche ($8) fell utterly flat. The cheesecake had a gelatinous feel and an unappealingly bitter jellied topping, and the tart was made of a flavorless pastry with a sad filling that had only echoes of caramelized sugar and milk. Missing in action: chocolate.
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s one drink, one appetizer, one entree, one side, and two desserts that went conspicuously unfinished. If four people don’t finish six shrimp, if the ribs are four-fifths uneaten, if four people take only four small spoonfuls from a large serving of cauliflower, if two desserts sit half uneaten (sacrebleu!), the staff should take notice. Though they visited our table repeatedly to ask, in a general way, how things were, they should have asked directly about the uneaten food.
At its core, the Lexington is a fine-dining supper club. Which raises the question (yet again): What exactly is fine dining? Is it $46 for a steak or $17 for a tiny science experiment that resembles food? Is it a server wearing a black apron and crisp white shirt or a beard and flannel? Is it a rich zip code or an up-and-coming neighborhood? Certainly, it can be any of these things. As the saying goes, it’s hard to describe, but we know it when we see it.
Regardless of hints of forward thinking on the menu, regardless of the millions of dollars spent remodeling, regardless of the next-gen Dyson hand dryers that look like they came from artwork on a ’70s future-themed pinball machine, and regardless of the ever-so-slightly playful drink menu, we found an experience that would be immediately familiar to the generation that first visited the Lexington when it opened in 1935. It is a wonderful legacy, and one that could be successfully revived.
But there is an increasingly crowded market for restaurants that want $300 for a full dinner experience for four — from Spoon and Stable, to The Bachelor Farmer, to Saint Genevieve and Saint Dinette — and each these restaurants brings a unique perspective, style, and sense of place. In a crowded market, and for those prices, they had better hit it out of the park at every turn, and that’s not what we found at the Lexington in 2017.
Historic fine dining supper club
1096 Grand Ave
St. Paul, MN 55105
OWNERS / CHEF: Josh Thoma, Kevin Fitzgerald, Jack Riebel / Jack Riebel
HOURS: Daily 3 p.m.-close
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Ask
ENTREE RANGE: $17-$48
NOISE LEVEL: Amenable din
PARKING: Multiple lots nearby, street parking
India Pale Ale continues to be the hottest-seller among craft beer styles according to national polls. This British style turned American best-seller is well known to Minnesotans, and several local breweries call an IPA their flagship beer. Steel Toe Size 7, Fulton 300, and Surly Furious (a variation on the style) are among the best known.
One Minnesota IPA, Miraculum, has been without a taproom to call home until this week, when Pryes Brewing Company opened on West River Road, north of downtown Minneapolis. No longer homeless, Miraculum is joined by four new beers as the taproom debuts.
Owner and brewer Jeremy Pryes once brewed in the former Lucid space in Minnetonka, and prior to that he spent years shaping recipes as a home brewer.
Though the taproom is just across the river from Northeast Minneapolis, which is widely known as a beer destination, it feels distinctly different from its neighbors. The patio is separated from the Mississippi by only one street, and weekend water-skiing shows and a convergence of bike paths bring a steady stream of passersby. The Pryes taproom is also distinguished by its design. Its interior has a cohesive look rather than the work-in-progress feel of early taprooms such as Northgate or Bent Paddle.
A natural first taste would be the Blonde, which is described as “bright, lemon, peppercorn.” The aroma holds little of the listed descriptors, and the light-amber color immediately seems off. For the style, the first few sips are much too heavy in the mouth, and there is little citrus or spice beyond the hoppy aftertaste. More appropriately labeled a summer ale, it may turn off blonde fans.
This story is sponsored by Boelter Landmark Restaurant Equipment and Design.
McKinney Roe is, on paper, a large restaurant. With seating for 325 indoors and more than 150 additional spots outside, it’s the kind of place that can accommodate a crowd, a useful feature for an eatery located at the base of the Wells Fargo building and under the shadow of the Vikings’ U.S. Bank stadium.
But the adjective “big” doesn’t really tell the restaurant’s story. As you walk the floor, you become aware that the restaurant is both grand and welcoming — warmly ensconced spaces have been subtly carved out of the greater whole, and there are comfortable nooks, corners, bar stools, and mezzanine tables that invite lingering conversation and “just one more” drink.
“At full capacity, we can have almost 500 people seated in the place, and yet it feels totally intimate,” says owner Dermot Cowley (below).
A STRONG PARTNER IN BOELTER LANDMARK
McKinney Roe looks the way it does in large part due to a collaboration with Boelter Landmark Restaurant Equipment and Design, along with design-build team partners Zeman Construction and Shea Design.
“[Boelter Landmark] is a great company,” says Cowley. “I’ve known Tom Lutz [left] now for 20 years, and he’s such a gentleman. Each restaurant that we’ve done, they’ve always done it. Everything from the bar, to the kitchen, to the refrigeration unit,we sit down and map it out and figure out: ‘What works? What’s the goal here?’ And then we look at the different equipment pieces that will help us achieve what we’re trying to do.”
Boelter Landmark’s major collaboration with McKinney Roe is the kitchen, the beating heart of this more than 7,000-square-foot, large beast of a place. As Cowley says, proper design is critical for keeping food moving and keeping customers happy.
“[The kitchen] was designed to maximize the potential to move fast,” he says. “One of the things we worked with Boelter Landmark on was the big flattop — you can do a lot of things on that. Most restaurants have a little flattop if they have one at all. But it allows you to do multiple things at once.”
In a normal restaurant environment, even a busy one, the kind of culinary firepower provided by the McKinney Roe kitchen setup might be overkill. But the sheer size of the Wells Fargo building can make for a lunch rush that could break a less intelligently designed kitchen.
“We have about 5,000 people working upstairs, and lunches are huge, and you’ve got to be fast,” Cowley says. “I think our average ticket time, when we’re full for lunch, is about 12 minutes to get food out.”
A MENU THAT ROAMS
The approach to food at McKinney Roe follows the decor on the mezzanine level — it’s eclectic, but feels intentional.
“It’s a contemporary American menu. It’s a little bit of something for everybody,” says Cowley. “We want to keep it fresh, keep it moving, and have a wide variety.
Right now, that means a menu with everything from seared scallops with grapefruit and mandarin orange, to foie gras mousse, to seafood cioppino, to the house signature Big Stag Burger. The latter is two quarter-pound certified Angus beef patties, white American cheese, sliced dill pickles, maple peppered bacon, caramelized onions, and Dijon aioli on a pretzel roll. The burger is big, and it’s popular, too, winning the 2017 Twin Cities Burger Battle.
At lunch, says Cowley, the grilled chicken club rules the roost. It’s a grilled marinated chicken breast, provolone cheese, bacon, Bibb lettuce, sliced tomato, chipotle aioli, and an over-easy egg, all served on grilled garlic naan bread.
BANKING ON THE STADIUM
McKinney Roe’s size, focus, and location gives it a unique opportunity. On Vikings game days, the restaurant could throw its doors open and swarm with crowds, but instead, Cowley and his team have decided to make the restaurant over into a space that functions as a private club, complete with dues and exclusive tickets (that include food and drink).
“It’s high-end tailgating, if you will,” he says. “It’s like coming into a suite. You’ll have tickets, and just like your tickets to the game, you can give your tickets away if you want. And the Vikings are pretty excited about it. We were open for a few games at the end of the season last year, and this space got so crazy, so I think [the private club model] is a better fit.”
Between its big but welcoming space, its powerhouse of a kitchen, its proximity to an increasingly dense part of the Minneapolis core, and its unique embrace of football culture, McKinney Roe is positioned to be a real game-changer of a restaurant.
Clearly old-school arcade games are having a moment here in the Twin Cities, and that’s a fun thing. But even better is an arcade that also serves food above and beyond the concession offerings one would normally expect. That’s the case with Minneapolis’ Tilt Pinball Bar.
Tilt’s menu is limited and focused mostly on hot dogs. But instead of nuking a sad Oscar Meyer wiener and dumping it on a plate, Tilt gets its hot dogs from Wisconsin’s Peterson Craftsman Meats (and sources vegan sriracha brats from The Herbivorous Butcher) and uses them as a base for some creative tinkering. You can either get the specialty offerings ($8) they’ve created, or you can build your own (starting at $7).
We tried the #5 specialty dog, which had a tangy kimchi and Kewpie mayo, a spicy-sweet combo that manages not to overwhelm the meaty dog. The Second City is a tip of the hat to the traditional Chicago dog, and has a comforting familiarity and array of flavors. But our favorite of the specialty dogs was the O.G.B, a decadent dog comprised of melted Gruyere, bacon, and smoked onions (above). That’s a rich and flavorful pile of goodness right there.
Our server told us that her favorite build-it-yourself combo was chili and cream cheese, and to our surprise, it was actually good. The cream cheese acted as a thicker, richer version of sour cream, and the chili, made in house, was meaty and mildly spicy.
Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.
Ahi Tuna Poke Bowl With Spicy Mayo at The Cove
The newly opened Cove in Dinkytown may lack the subtle touch of other Japanese or Japanese-inflected spots like Kado No Mise, Kyatchi, or Pinku, but there’s a certain satisfying earthiness to the chaotic, gloppy riot of flavors and textures that define the restaurant’s poke bowl. Guests can choose salmon or tuna and a house dressing or a spicy mayo; we chose the latter of each option and enjoyed the resulting dish, which brought together heat, creaminess, earthiness, citric brightness, and more.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]
Sour Cream-Raisin Pie at the Cedarwood Restaurant in Onamia
After a long day trip to the Iron Range, my 94-year-old father and I needed some supper and stopped at the Cedarwood Restaurant in Onamia. The counter had a whiteboard with a lengthy list of pies, and I pointed out one in particular to Dad: sour cream-raisin pie. Neither of us has had a piece of sour cream-raisin pie in more than four years, since my mother died; she was a stellar pie maker, and sour cream-raisin was her specialty. Dad had to think about it for a few moments, but agreed that maybe it was OK to try it. When the slice arrived, I let him go first. He took a bite, frowning, then said: “That’s pretty good. Not as good as your mother’s, of course, but pretty good.” He took another bite. “You know, that’s really good. I just don’t think there’s anything more elegant than sour cream-raisin pie.” I tried a bite and had to agree: The joy of sour cream-raisin pie is in its tangy-sweet creamy filling, which Cedarwood provided in near perfection. Poking at the crust, I posited the idea that not only was it homemade, it might have involved lard. Dad poked at the crust too, marveling at its flakiness: “Just like your mother used to make.” It was a great way to transition out of the sour-cream-raisin-pie-less stage of mourning.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]
Muffaletta Sandwich at The Original on 42nd
The Muffaletta sandwich at the newly opened The Original on 42nd was described by owner Andy Lilja as the shop’s most popular. After having it, that’s no surprise: It’s all about the balance, with rich and tender meat, a yielding roll, plus nice crunch, acid, and heat from the giardiniera.
[Last Week on the Hot Five: #1 | Submitted by James Norton]
‘You Can Rum But You Can’t Hide’ Slushie at Hola Arepa
Sitting at Hola Arepa’s open-air bar last Saturday night drinking a fruity, sweet rum slushie ($9) as the heat index dipped back into the 90s, I was in the Caribbean for an hour or so. It was pure escapism, and it was beautiful.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Ted Held]
Plain Bagel with Scallion Cream Cheese at Rise Bagel Company
Speaking personally, I judge a bagel shop not by its most complex or audacious offerings, but by its simplest ones. By that account, the newly opened Rise Bagel Company in the North Loop is a rousing success. Its plain bagel has a lovely dense interior and chewy-but-not-leathery exterior, and it’s a terrific vehicle for a variety of respectfully tricked out cream cheeses like the savory scallion number that we savored.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]