In an ideal world, every neighborhood would be blessed with a Bar Brigade-like restaurant.
No provocative culinary pyrotechnics to lure the Instagrammers. No see-and-be-seen scene for the Snapchat set. Instead, a neighborhood lands a much needed new hangout, one that’s as cozy as a well-worn cashmere sweater.
Chef J.D. Fratzke and owner Matty O’Reilly, longtime pals, are taking their culinary cues from small-town French taverns.
“Ninety percent of French food isn’t fancy,” Fratzke said. “No one is ever going to misconstrue this place as a country French bistro.”
He’s right about that; no tête de veau here. Turns out, Fratzke’s cooking the same kind of fare he’s been serving his family on his nights off. Chicken thighs, for example.
“They’re the most delicious part of the animal,” he said. “And the most foolproof. Lisa [Fratzke’s wife] loves roast chicken, so we have it once a week.”
The meaty thighs are roasted earlier in the day; when ordered, they get a quick sauté in olive oil, putting a tantalizingly crisped-up finishing touch on the skin while keeping the flavorful meat nice and juicy. Seasonal vegetables are sauteed in the same pan, then receive a little splash of chicken love in the form of a basic pan sauce, just chicken stock, butter and a bracing splash of lemon. Ina Garten would be pleased. I know I was.
Or there’s trout, pulled from Lake Ontario. The treatment couldn’t be more unassuming, just salt and pepper and the grill’s heat to coax the center of the velvety fish into a creamy, almost puddinglike texture.
The trout’s trimmings — primarily the bellies — end up as the foundation of a lovely rillettes, the cured fish fortified with crème fraîche and aioli, a slight whiff of anise coming from shallots that had been caramelized in a splash of Pernod.
The one meatless entree wraps parchment-like phyllo dough around an array of vegetables. An earlier iteration riffed on a classic Alsatian onion-olive tart, and right now it’s a hearty, chevre-infused take on ratatouille, the “purse” anchored to the plate with a swipe of a spiced-up tomato sauce. Nice.
The smallish menu is a reflection of the kitchen’s Lilliputian scale.
One of my favorite dishes is a salad that puts sweet, romaine-like gem lettuce in the spotlight, the leaves stacked high on the plate and dressed with a crème fraîche-garlic vinaigrette, crunchy sunflower seeds and pops of shaved green onions. Why am I not making this at home?
What’s telling is what isn’t on the menu. No burgers, flatbreads, Caesar salads or other neighborhood restaurant trappings. Thanks for that.
Instead, Fratzke offers slow-braised wild boar as the centerpiece of a robust bourguignon. And quail, a rarely encountered pleasure — in the Twin Cities, anyway. The intensely flavorful birds are sleeve-boned and pressed flat against the grill, where they take on a smoky cast, which plays nicely against the plate’s earthy mushroom risotto.
Downsides? Sure. If the menu had a Salt Lover’s section, that’s where the plainspoken soups would be featured.
While the oysters (there’s a single daily feature) were wonderfully briny and fresh, mussels steamed in white wine had a distinct past-their-prime vibe. Instead of a gratis bread basket, diners can invest $4 in a perfectly acceptable but hardly inspired trio of rolls, par-baked specimens imported from a New Jersey wholesaler.
Desserts seem to be chosen based upon convenience. A pot de crème cries out for more chocolate lusciousness, and caramel-drizzled, apple-filled crêpes don’t break any ground. Only a pretty clafoutis, singing with refreshing pineapple, leaves a lasting impression.
Fortunately, there are cheeses. Fratzke selects three regionally produced beauties that mimic classic French styles, serving them individually or in a platter, the generous portions supplemented by basic dinner party flourishes: nuts, grilled grapes, marmalade, crackers.
Lunch abbreviates that already abbreviated dinner menu while tossing in a few sandwiches and crêpes, and brunch tackles a few nicely rendered standards: French toast, a sturdy croque-madame, an omelet with that same ratatouille filling.
Elbow to elbow
The dining room’s shoebox dimensions will ring a bell or two with anyone familiar with the former — and longtime — tenant, Ristorante Luci. (There’s a reason why diners don’t see pasta, or Italian wines, on Bar Brigade’s menus; when he took over the space, O’Reilly graciously agreed to avoid Luci’s legacy.)
Bar Brigade remains the antithesis of most Twin Cities restaurants in that it’s tiny and cramped, an in-your-face challenge to standoffish Minnesotans’ long-standing aversion to personal-space violations.
The scale is a refreshing change of pace from the too vast restaurants that too frequently dot our landscape. The downside is that when it’s full — a figure that’s less than three dozen diners — it’s loud. Punishingly, full-throttlingly loud.
What isn’t familiar is the new and immensely charming (and less acoustically bruising) bar, maybe eight seats huddled around an L-shaped, butcher block-topped counter. As a venue, it’s equally successful for a weekday date night, a solo meal or an impromptu nightcap.
A word of warning: The wheelchair-inaccessible restrooms are located in the basement, via a steep, narrow staircase. There’s one upside, and that’s how O’Reilly and Fratzke commissioned Minneapolis illustrator Lisa Troutman to telegraph the restaurant’s story via her graphic style, using the stairwell’s walls as her canvas. It’s a shame that the dining room, which is sheathed in a dull wallpaper, didn’t merit the same distinctive visual treatment.
It’s a pleasure to watch as O’Reilly — he of Republic in Minneapolis — sets out to give St. Paul’s dining scene a few low-key boosts, not only with Bar Brigade but also with Delicata, his new Como-area pizzeria, and Red River Kitchen at City House, his summer-only spot on the downtown Mississippi riverfront.
And how great is it to see Fratzke outside the kitchen? In his role as general manager (chef de cuisine Tyler Drake is manning the kitchen), he’s the jovial greeting at the door, the how-is-everything query during dinner, the sincere thanks-for-coming-in sendoff. Fratzke’s constant, reassuring presence is a reminder of how so many Twin Cities dining rooms lack this important hospitality attribute.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “It’s as close to my heart as anything I’ve ever done. If I could kayak to work, this would be my dream job.”
Bar Brigade ★★1/2
Info: 470 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul, barbrigade.com
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tue.-Fri. Dinner 4-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4-10 p.m. Sun. Brunch 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Reservations accepted.
Service: Enthusiastic and friendly.
Price ranges: At lunch and brunch, most dishes $7-$12 (with one $18 exception). At dinner, starters and salads $4-$10, entrees $14-$22, sides $6-$9, desserts and cheeses $7-$9.
Recommended dishes: Trout rillettes, gem lettuce salad, chicken thighs, trout, quail, cheeses, pineapple clafoutis, croque-madame, quiche.
Beverage program: Delightfully affordable, all-French wine list, including 13 by-the-glass options that average $9.50. One cider (Sweetland Orchard’s fab cherry-rhubarb) and one beer on tap. Cocktails — clever, pretty — run $9 to $11.
Special menus: Not impossible for those following vegetarian diets.