A taste of home is a powerful thing, especially when home is a place you know that you might not see again.
For Venezuelans like chef Soleil Ramirez, home can feel ephemeral — out of reach and sorely missed. In her new restaurant, Ramirez not only aims to share the transportive beauty of Crasqui, a Venezuelan island where aquamarine water laps up against white sand, but also share a piece of her journey through gorgeous plates of food.
Located just over the Wabasha Street bridge outside downtown St. Paul, Crasqui is one of the anchors of West Side Flats. The building is relatively nondescript, but inside the bright blue floors and white furnishings evoke the Caribbean Sea, sand and the elegance of a luxury destination.
On the menu, Ramirez stretches from the street food fare she serves at her other restaurant, Arepa Bar, into something closer to fine dining. Plates are a mix of richly textured sauces that support the main attraction — whether it's meat, vegetables or seafood — and are often garnished with flowers.
Ramirez, who fled Venezuela and moved to Minnesota in 2016, pulled together financing to create Crasqui, her longtime dream of sharing these tastes of home and pushing her culinary talents into a new era.
Location: 84 Wabasha St., Suite #3, St. Paul, crasquirestaurant.com
Hours and reservations: Tue.-Thu. 4-9 p.m., Fri. 4-10 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Reservations are available, but on nice days, ample patio seating makes it especially easy to walk in and find a table.
The vibe: While some diners were dressed for a special occasion, jeans and a nice shirt are plenty fancy. It is an elevated dining experience, but the vibe holds no pretension. Service was attentive and knowledgeable about all menu items and ingredients.
The food: It's worth noting that while Venezuela is in a tropical climate, the cuisine doesn't typically contain much spice; it's often more of a meat-and-potatoes-type meal. This makes the menu appealing to both adventurous diners, who can find exciting nuance in Ramirez's dishes, but also for those who love a good rib-eye ($38).
Some starters may be familiar to fans of Ramirez's Arepa Bar, located inside Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. Arepitas ($18), empanadas ($15) and tequeños ($16) make for great bar food munchies. The tequeños are a super-thin bread dough wrapped around a mild cheese that pulls just a little (not unlike string cheese) and comes with a cilantro-spiked dipping sauce. The gluten-free empanadas are made from corn flour and stuffed with braised beef and fried crunchy. My dining companion, a Venezuelan immigrant, took one bite and was hit by a thunderbolt of memory, the way food sometimes does. Suddenly, he was a child on the beach, exhausted from sun and water, holding his mother's hand. She would buy her children snacks to feed that ravenous post-swimming hunger, and the flavors of this dish brought him back there.
There are other appetizers, too, like a chunky, chopped ceviche ($22) with grouper, mandarin leche de tigre, guava pearls and peppers, or a shrimp bisque ($17) served with a bevy of seafood: calamari, whitefish and mussels.
Entrees are hearty without being heavy, a pork chop with fondant potatoes ($30) might be the most substantial, but there's also a black bean soufflé ($24), calamari and fennel risotto ($32) and sea bass with mango chutney ($42).
A majority of the menu is gluten-free and there are several vegetarian dishes. For pescatarians, there are even more options.
It's easy to save a little room for dessert, when the desserts are so light: the cocotero ($14) is a coconut husk filled with rum cake, coconut quesillo and cocada cream, garnished with a violet and toasted coconut flakes. There's also a passion fruit mousse ($14) and seasonal fruits and sorbets ($8).
The drinks: Cocktails make great use of the fantastic rums stocked behind the bar. Those whose taste buds have taken a beating from the slick syrups of so-called tropical drinks will revel in the balance of citrus and fine spirits. The Yo Queiro Tanto a Mi Caracas ($15) drinks almost like an Old Fashioned, with Diplomatico mantuano rum, a little funky fresh sugar cane juice and a lime. There is also an affordable wine list that pulls bottles from South America and Spain, plus a Venezuelan beer along with a few local pours that rotate through.
Getting there: Parking can take a little fortitude. The closest spots are all on-street parking, but there are spaces available in the complex's surface lots, the largest one facing Wabasha Street. There is a flight of stairs to access the front door, but near the parking lot there's a ramp, too. All parking is free.