In our experience, the trouble (if any) with Blue Plate Restaurant Company establishments has generally come down to the food. Service is warm and enthusiastic, decor is comfortable without being sloppy, menus are approachable without being boring, and then it happens: the $14 entree that tastes as though it were decanted from a vacuum-sealed plastic bag rather than being cooked in a kitchen by a person. (Or worse: Soon after opening, Freehouse served us a lobster mac and cheese that was so bad it was downright magnificent.) If all you’re looking for is a comfortable place to hang out, that’s not a deal breaker, but it’s kept us from revisiting a number of Blue Plate spots.
However: Good and unexpected things are happening at Bottle Rocket, which went into the former Scusi location on St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul. There’s nothing particularly ambitious about Bottle Rocket’s menu, which revolves around familiar sandwiches, burgers, salads, and appetizers, but everything is given a welcome twist.
We weren’t asking much of our Gorgonzola Chicken Salad ($12.60), featuring ham and roasted chicken, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, cheese, and a simple vinaigrette. And yet this was one of those salads you can’t stop eating, because the ratio of greens to proteins to properly made dressing is so happily aligned. Well-composed bites are what you get every time you stab your fork, and that’s a rare pleasure.
Our Freehouse Brew Burger ($11.60) was built from a couple of properly cooked (medium rare, as ordered) patties slathered in Velveeta, provolone, “brewer’s mayo” (something akin to special sauce), piquant and lovely slices of house pickles, and served on a rich but delicate toasted egg bun. Much like the salad, a good sense of balance (acid versus fats, bun versus meat) makes this a compelling burger even in a market that’s increasingly glutted with them. The fries that came on the side tasted distinctly of potatoes, and were crisp without being brittle. In all, a burger (and fries) to return for.
We’ve had a lot of pointless restaurant-made deviled eggs in our day. Most suffer from being overcomposed, although some are merely boring and overpriced. Bottle Rocket’s Little Cluckers ($5 for six egg halves) are satisfyingly basic but have enough mayo, mustard, and pickled mustard seeds to give them some real kick and complexity without getting overloaded.
The only serious dent in Bottle Rocket’s charm was the Cinnamon “Monkey Bread” dessert ($7.60). We put monkey bread in quotes because what we were served was a clammy, nearly flavorless slab of apple-cinnamon bread pudding topped with an equally wan dollop of whipped-cream-like substance covering a squat buttery schmear of what we presume was the menu-touted bourbon cream. Monkey bread means one thing, and one thing only — ooey gooey brioche pull-aparts liberally marinated in a buttery, cinnamony, caramelly goo. If you’ve ever had homemade monkey bread, you know that there are two main problems with it: It’s messy, and you’re inclined to eat it until you get sick. We happily stopped eating Bottle Rocket’s baffling rendition after a couple of spoonfuls.
Our brunch at Bottle Rocket was an echo of lunch — solidly delicious dishes somewhat marred by a texture-related incident.
The restaurant’s rendition of Chilaquiles ($13) wasn’t hopeless. Firm but properly cooked black beans and proper seasoning made this tortilla-chips-and-sauce brunch favorite at least functional. The chips, sadly, were cooked down into a mush that lacked any of the crispy-chewy textural contrasts that make great chilaquiles so much fun to eat. It was, in fact, less of a layered experience than a single bread-pudding-like mass.
Chicken Royale ($9.60) lived up to its name. A piece of fried chicken riding on a waffle topped by an egg and sausage gravy could easily turn into a monotonous (or oversalted) mess. And at many places, chicken and waffle entrees contain a couple of thousand calories — in keeping with the spirit of the dish, but somewhat off-putting when you’re staring down a pile of carbs for breakfast. But the Chicken Royale is a perfectly reasonable size, at a reasonable price, and it is packed with enough savory, herbal flavor to keep it interesting. It’s salty, but not oppressively so. All in all, one of the better renditions of this easy-to-screw-up new brunch standard.
With toddler in tow, we also tried the kid’s order of French Toast ($5). The bread was thickly cut and light without being insubstantial. It was browned beautifully without being charred, and it took to syrup beautifully. Nothing fancy here, no whistles and bells — just what the toddler ordered.
Bread pudding problems notwithstanding, Bottle Rocket is free of pretense and quite inviting, signaling a welcome re-centering on real food for its parent group.
Neighborhood bistro in Macalester-Groveland, St. Paul
1806 St. Clair Ave S
St. Paul, MN 55105
OWNER: Blue Plate Restaurant Company
Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Fri 11 a.m.-midnight
Sat 8 a.m.-midnight
Sun 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: “Call aheads” (get on a list if there’s a wait)
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Not really
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$18
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Some street parking