Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Aren’t we all a little weary of the word curate? It’s become a popular term that implies careful selection and intention. And yeah, maybe it’s so overused that it has become a bit pretentious. I get that.
And yet it perfectly describes what’s going on at Saint Dinette in Lowertown, so don’t make a face about it. Because what they’re pulling together there is a pretty unique and unpretentious sum of all parts.
It starts with St. Paul, which doesn’t tend to tolerate pretention. Tim Niver and J.D. Fratzke, owners of The Strip Club Meat & Fish, knew they wanted their next project to stay in the capital city. Saint Dinette landed across from the farmers’ market and just down the street from the new ballpark. Much like The Strip Club, it’s a smallish space, around 75 seats plus a bar. But this space is bright and airy, with lofted ceilings and window walls overlooking the street, giving it an urban-chic, dare I say, New York-ish vibe.
Adam Eaton is the chef de cuisine, and make no mistake: He’s in charge. Fratzke and Niver do not work shifts here; Laurel Elm is the general manager. Both Elm and Eaton are La Belle Vie alums (along with about six other staffers). Not that you should hold that too close, because this is a curation of talents. But the feeling I get is that all the technique, all the attention to detail that these kids have learned from our best fine-dining shop is now being filtered through that very special Niver-Fratzke brand of hospitality. Which is to say: They get it.
Service is never stuffy, but on point and anticipatory of guests’ needs. There’s a casual flow to the place, but it’s not lackadaisical; they are serious about providing you your best time. At the root is an easy-going confidence stemming from the fact that they know and believe in what they’re doing—you can trust them with your night and your dollars.
The food may be the best curation of all, a flavorful collection of seasonal dishes that may not seem to make sense at first. Saint Dinette has been characterized as a Frenchy bistro with influences from Montreal and bits of Mexico and the Midwest tossed in. It’s not easy to conceptualize, but what it means is that borders don’t matter as much as flavors. They’re encouraging you to let go of preconceived notions and come along for the ride.
Start with some dilly beans and chicharonnes at your table. Does your brain stop you from enjoying the tart zing of Midwestern pickled beans just like Granny’s because they sit next to crisply addictive Mexican fried-pork skins just like Abuelita’s? I hope not for your mouth’s sake. Find the enchilada, which is a delicate corn tortilla wrapped around smoked blue marlin doused in a sexy black mole sauce with hills of crème fraiche. It’s redolent of earth, smoke, and sea, yet light and elegant.
Crab cappelini with nettles and bright lemon has just a touch of playful heat from jalapeños. Hearty porkloaf, veering more toward the French style, is a generous hunk of rich meat decorated with bits of mustard seed, pickled ramps, and potato thins. So goes the textbook trout rillette and the boudin with potato chips. These dishes are just French enough and damn tasty. The corn on the cob is dressed with mayo and cotija cheese in true eloté style but given a bit more reach with the addition of lobster roe. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But it was a welcome new dimension, even as I held my cob by the little plastic handles and sucked corn out of my teeth for an hour.
Let’s have a moment for the burger and the bologna sandwich. The burger is part of the new club of double-thin patty burgers (dripping with cheese on a squishy bun) that are the hot item on new chef-driven menus around the TC—though they’re only “cheffy” in attention to detail and execution. This beefy number with sharply crisped edges and richly gooey orange cheese is a top contender for emperor of the new class (songs will be written about it). The griddled bologna sandwich, for its part, is just as simple, low-brow, and delicious.
Eaters here include restaurant industry folks, young families, sporty dudes, and empty nesters—as eclectic a mix as the menu. Maybe that’s a sign of a curation that works.
261 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-800-1415, saintdinette.com