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