Well, things sure took a sharp left turn this time, didn’t they?
This time last year, the pavilion on Lake Como in St. Paul was home to a white-tiled, cafeteria-style eatery called Black Bear Crossings. Some called it cheery. Some called it cold and impersonal. Some loved it for its beachy, casual, nostalgic feel. Some bemoaned its relatively high prices for mediocre sandwiches.
Things really couldn’t be more different this year. The cafeteria line has been replaced with a substantial, pub-like central bar. The thin-legged white tables have been ousted for heavy, solid, dark wooden ones. The upstairs loft now has the plush upholstered chairs and shady nooks of a clubby library.
And plain roast beef on white with little packets of mayo? Oh, no no no. Not anymore.
Como Dockside, which replaced Black Bear Crossings in the pavilion (after a little bit of contract-related unpleasantness between the owners and the city of St. Paul), is bringing to Minnesota a little more of the country’s current passion for all things culinary and Southern — with a Louisiana twist.
And it’s really about time. When you’re making a day of it with a visit to the Como Zoo, the Conservatory, the water park, or the bike paths, do you really want to make do with whatever utilitarian salad or sandwich looks the least boring? In Minneapolis, where the park system has been forming lucrative partnerships with forward-looking restaurateurs, the parks have become destinations not just for activities but for dining. Lake Calhoun has Tin Fish (now celebrating a dozen years); Harriet has Bread & Pickle; Nokomis has Sandcastle; Minnehaha has Sea Salt. Lake Como fans, welcome to the club.
Dockside, however, is a little harder to make sense of than its Minneapolis counterparts. Seafood (Tin Fish and Sea Salt) and beachy picnic fare (Sandcastle and Bread & Pickle) make instant sense at seasonal park eateries. But why gumbo (above) and pimento cheese and chicken-fried steak at Lake Como? I guess the best answer is that no one else in town is doing it. Also, hush puppies.
Let’s talk about those hush puppies ($5 for six): Why, in this country, have we made fried potatoes our salty hot-weather snack of choice? Why not these airy balls of fried cornbread batter, crispy and mysteriously perfectly spherical? Why not this tangy remoulade instead of ketchup? Who knows? But there is still time to change America for the better. Up with hush puppies!
Along with the hush puppies, all the best stuff at Dockside is found among the appetizers. You can get your authentic Southern pimento cheese as a generous mound, ready to be spread on crisp toast ($6) or rolled into funny little collard green packages, like decadent dairy dolmades. Those are very good for sharing. But if you order the pickled shrimp on toast ($11 for three), you should probably warn your tablemates they won’t be getting any. Each fat, sweet, very slightly acidic prawn sits on a crisp bit of toast with a swoosh of mayonnaise so generous you would swear somebody’s Southern grandmother was trying to fatten you up. (Listen to your grandmother.)
Almost everything — from scattered pickled vegetables to the artful butterleaf salad, and even the fried green tomatoes ($7, above) — comes with the sorts of flourishes and plating that would feel more at home at a white tablecloth place than at a picnic table outside a park pavilion. (Indoor seating goes fast, but there are so many tables near the park waterfall and under the pavilion roof that it’s hard to imagine a time when you wouldn’t find a seat.)
When our picnic table was filled with appetizers, the dissonance between the dishes and the setting was fun — with a glass of crispy-sweet rose, it was like a fancy picnic.
When it came time for the main dishes, however, the dissonance was less fun and more jarring. Take the chicken-fried steak ($15). I know, I know: We ordered it. But on a sunny summer evening, nobody wanted to eat it, no matter how creamy the mashed potatoes or how crisp the breading (which wanted pepper).
The gumbo ($12) hit the right balance between formality and fun, with two carmine crayfish staring up at you, but the broth was missing the richness and depth of flavor that any good soup or stew, especially one hailing from the bayou, needs.
Better choices for your fancy outdoor picnic are the smoked half chicken ($16) and the pimento gnocchi with sour cream fondue ($12). Cognitive dissonance be damned, these are fine dishes. The smoked chicken is perfectly tender and just the right size. The gnocchi are surprising little nobs of smoky, peppery-sweet flavor bathing in sour cream (admittedly not for everyone). With the crisp onions on top, I would eat those anywhere.
And here’s what we have to say about the po boys: Don’t bother. We tried the pulled pork ($12). Then the beef ($12). Then the shrimp ($15). We kept thinking that this — the classic New Orleans sandwich — is what could be the missing link between Dockside’s Southern charm and Como’s lakeside setting. When they arrive at the table, it’s still possible to hold out hope: a fat loaf of soft, dense bread stuffed with ample fillings, wrapped tightly in waxed paper, evoking genteel picnic baskets. But there’s just nothing going on in there. No zing. No pep. No layers of flavor. Just bread, meat, lettuce. Sad.
Good thing there are beignets ($6) to cheer you up. Beignets are good anywhere: in a clubby lakeside pub, on a picnic table in the grass, or staring out at the jewel of the St. Paul park system. My smaller dining companions even convinced me to order them as an appetizer. Nobody would fault you for celebrating St. Paul’s park dining destination by ordering them at both ends of your meal.
Louisiana fare in Como Park in St. Paul
1360 Lexington Parkway
St. Paul, MN 55103
Sun-Thu 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 8 a.m.-midnight
Vegetarian / Vegan: Yes / Ask
Entree Range: $12-$15
Parking: Public lots