Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: St. Clair Broiler

I went to the St. Clair Broiler last night to meet up with a couple friends. Found someone else I knew from a summer class and joked around with him. Our company showed up and we went to find a table. Still, that was kinda funny, just running into someone I knew like that.

The interior of this place, my friend tells me, used to be of a reddish theme: the dining room we sat in had lemongrass walls with yellow trim, and the other room was done in avocado. Tables were of a golden wood and the booths offered brown vinyl seats; all about were hung old pictures of St. Paul, copperplate images and maps. Nice enough but not compelling. The exposed duct work in the ceiling was also painted lemongrass and track lights arced about. I'm also informed that the square plates on which all our food came was a recent touch as well.

I'd never been to this place before. We readily found parking in back, which was convenient. We discussed appetizers and one of my party warned us against the tri-colored nacho chips, insisting they were always bland and a bit stale. It wasn't clear whether she was talking about this place or wherever tri-colored nacho chips may be had. A couple of us did have salads, and these were sad and unnecessary: iceberg lettuce, croutons, and dressing--not even the obligatory carrot shavings. One doesn't come to a neighborhood American cuisine bar/restaurant for a good salad, one supposes. When the onion rings came out they were sufficient, but the dill dip that accompanied them was excellent. The onion rings served only as a vehicle to get the dill dip over our papillae.

The service could not be questioned: our man was friendly and lively, and the waitress of other tables was generally smiling and conversant. Someone else, maybe a greeter (she didn't wear the polo shirt that matched this room) stalked about with a scowl, but who knows what could've been behind that.

The menu would have been frustrating for a vegetarian; fortunately, I am a practicing omnivore. I noticed that many of the sandwiches and meat selections featured sauce from Rudolph's or were advertised as being a Rudolph's sandwich. I wondered what was up with that and found this on the Broiler's Web site: "In August of 2006 the St. Clair Broiler was sold by longtime owner Jimmy Theros to his cousin also named Jimmy Theros and his son Charlie. The latter two Theroses have made their reputation at Rudolphs Bar-B-Que in Minneapolis." Well, there you go: the latter Jimmy Theros has been revising the menu to promote his other restaurant's fare. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but business is business.

As well, the beer selection was largely domestic, whether bottled or on draft. This was a personal point of contention for me: not even a Newcastle? I can see a good ol' boy neighborhood joint being afraid of Guinness, but Newcastle? Come on! I had a Leinie's Summer Weiss and made do.

My own meal was quite fine. I had the pulled pork sandwich, and the meat was smoky and moist, if flavorless on its own: the Rudolph's sauce was arranged to be the star of that stage. The potato wedges with it were very tasty: baked with their peels, they had a great earthy scent with their creamy texture. I asked for a side of mayonnaise (usually another little heartbreak for me) and, bless their hearts, St. Clair Broiler uses real mayonnaise! Not that watery and flavorless salad dressing that so many other places fall back on, not knowing the difference.

One of our party was upset about the beef stroganoff, a dish she takes very seriously. The sour cream was not tart enough, the beef sat in a gravy instead of a thick cream, and her personal recipe uses tomato paste and red wine. This dish fell far short and she ate perhaps a fourth of it before calling it a wash. In terms of gross errors, my wife had the beef medallions, requesting them "medium rare." Perhaps 20 minutes later our server came back and apologized that all our food was late: the medallions had been cooked medium well and had to be replaced. (For this, my second beer and my friend's second wine were on the house. Kudos to them!) Yet the medallions she received came out medium. It's true that there is some latitude for personal interpretation in rare, med. rare, medium, &c., but as she pointed out one would expect a place calling itself a "broiler" to have rigid standards for such things. I find no fault with this argument. Her skin-on mashed potatoes, however, with mushrooms and onions, were superb.

Looking at the bill (medallions, $8.95 and pulled pork sandwich, $12.95), I think their prices are not unreasonable. You get a good full serving of food and, even if it's not the work you wanted, a lot of work does go into the preparation of this food. I think anyone could go here with an open mind and low expectations and come away feeling pretty good about themselves. This might not be a place to bring a first date (unlike the cute teenage couple sitting behind us) but it should be perfectly cromulent for stuffing your face and kicking back. If you've strict standards for haute cuisine, why are you reading this?

St. Clair Broiler, 1580 Saint Clair Ave St Paul, MN 55105

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