The short version: Go the Strip Club right now and eat the food.
The long version:
A friend and I went to dinner at The Strip Club, Saint Paul, on Saturday night. Easy to find, and parking was plentiful.
We had a 6:00pm reservation, and were seated up the spiral staircase at a charming deuce with nasty Ikea folding chairs. Several of the tables on the upper level have these, several have seats decidedly more chairlike, and our server quickly and graciously swapped out some decent chairs from an empty table.
The room is simply but pleasantly decorated, dark paint scheme, nice view of downtown Saint Paul (especially from the upper level). A near total lack of soft surfaces makes for a lively room, even moreso on the ground floor, where things can get pretty hectic around the bar. Even upstairs, the noise level could discourage intimate conversation. Fortunately, my friend and I had no need to whisper sweet nothings to one another, so mostly, the noise level wasn't unacceptably loud, and it was mostly the noise of happy diners.
We began with a brace of Manhattans, Maker's Mark perfect for me, the house Manhattan for him. Both drinks were well made, showing little evidence of the tendency of many bartenders to shake the bejeezus out of the brown drinks. The house Manhattan, allegedly made with Kirsch, was slightly better than my perfect, and had, oh be joyful, what seemed to be an honest-to-god housemade maraschino cherry, crisp and teasing, beckoning from the bottom of the glass. I switched to the house Manhattan for a second round, to get my own cherry. Besides, the olives in the perfect Manhattan were nothing special, and I had forgotten to ask for a cherry rather than the (correct) olives.
Luckily, we were in no hurry, as the bar's response was maybe a tad leisurely, but the bar was also busier than a gentleman's club during a political convention, so we weren't feeling neglected. Server assistants kept our water filled, and we settled in for a careful study of our menus.
Our server was a genial fellow, though he seemed a bit confused (he may have simply been harried or new), readily advised us on the menu, and apprised us of specials. Seduced by the siren song of bacon ketchup,we began with an order of fries, ($6) an order of the Devil's Eggs ($3), and the Grilled Meat onnastick dujour ($6), which I believe was a chili-rubbed ribeye that night. Again, a somewhat longer than expected delay, but the kitchen seems cozy, it was the height of Saturday dinner rush, and we had nowhere to be, so we simply kept up our manly badinage and enjoyed our cocktails, and the wait. In that order.
The fries were among the best I've had, hot, fresh, very crisp, and lovingly seasoned. The bacon ketchup, while very tasty, didn't suggest bacon to either of us, and the other dip, an alleged remoulaude, was also very good, but much more garlicky-aoili-y than I would have expected, having mostly crossed remoulaude's path in New Orleans, where (like so many things), it has been tinkered with. Since both were toothsome, and garlic is proof of God's love for us, we had no complaints.
The Devil's Eggs were a variant on the classic midwestern picnic deviled egg. Half of the order, the egg whites were, well, white. The other half, the whites were violently purple, as though Barney's eggs had been used. We sipped our drinks and pondered this wonder. Since the eggs were not dinosaur sized, I ventured that beet juice was somehow involved; our server confirmed that the purple ones were pickled in beet juice. The purples had a slightly firmer texture, and the hint of vinegar & beet in the finish appealed. Both colors were filled with the usual yellow deviled egg filling, but with a hint of heat on the tail end, from curry and chile oil that made for a welcome update to the July Fourth staple we all know.
The Grilled Meat onnastick was scrumptious, and boded well for the other beef lurking in the kitchen. A nicely sized lump of Ribeye, grilled medium rare, garnished with a bit of fennel. Perhaps lightly rubbed with chili before grilling.
We could certainly have tried to tuck away about another hundred of these small plates, but what would be the point of that? We flagged a cab for for entreeville.
My friend ordered the eponymous Strip ($28). The steaks can be had plain or topped with any of 7 sauces, for an additional charge of $4-15. He opted for the pistachio butter sauce ($4). We asked our server what was so dreadful about the beef that it needed topping. Luckily, our server was a genial fellow, and did not chuck our rude selves over the railing onto the large table of twentysomething gents with seventies' sideburns (which were ugly in the seventies, too), Hawaiian shirts, and the occasional porkpie hat. He allowed as how he serves about an equal amount of steaks with and without topping, and because the grass-fed beef was leaner, some folks preferred a bit of extra flavoring. Having had some wonderful buffalo steak with blue cheese in the past, this made sense to me.
Thus mollified, I ordered the beef special, which was a chili-rubbed ribeye with a red pepper coulis, if I remember correctly ($32). Both were ordered medium rare. We were told that they'd be served sliced. The last time this happened to me was a fairly overpriced hunk of cow at New York's mysteriously famed Peter Luger some years back. My suspicions were again raised, but a combination of the toothsome grilled meat onna stick, and a couple of well made Manhattans stalwartly kept my fears at bay.
With our steaks, we each had a glass of a cheap Spanish Syrah (~$6). While we waited, I gazed speculatively at a woman a couple of tables over with earrings the size of dvds. That's something that you don't see every day. We argued about whether she was drinking an unsugared Sidecar, or Cosmopolitan. We each smugly maintained that we were correct. Our server sided with the Cosmopolitan school, but I didn't hold that against him.
Our entrees arrived in less time, it seemed, than the small plates. Mighta been the earrings.
My friend's strip was served with sauteed carrots and half a grilled lemon. He puzzled over the latter for a while, and I suggested a squeeze of lemon onto the steak. He tried that, tasted it, and declined further lemonizing. We swapped tastes of our entrees.
His strip was sensational. The pistachio butter business was savory, the steak didn't need it, but it didn't hurt it a-tall. He allowed as how the carrots were expertly sauteed, and how nice it was that the same amount of care seemed to go into some sliced vegetables as the slab of meat.
My ribeye was, in a word, superb. Probably one of the top three steaks of my life. Maybe top two. Certainly I should eat more steak, to be sure. The seasoning was exquisite, the coulis complemented the meat wonderfully, and the sauteed mix of squash and onions helped boost the whole shebang right over the top. It took me a while to eat, as I thoroughly chewed every morsel, whilst making little whimper noises. In this instance, the loud room was my friend.
I will say that the level of medium rare that our meat was cooked to was on the rare side of medium rare, but that didn't bother us in the slightest. Your feelings on this might vary. If there was a flaw to our entrees, it was the lack of bread to mop up juices, which were plentiful and succulent. We mentioned this drawback to our server, since we did not want to embarrass him by licking and slurping at our plates. 'Let me see what I can do,' he murmured, returning shortly with a couple of pieces of focaccia, which served admirably. Bread does not normally seem to be served with an entree, and we were not charged, which was a small gracious touch. The wine paired splendidly with the meat, and we happily worked our way through two unforgettable entrees. Sat back, blinked dazedly, sipped at the dregs of our wine.
Around about this time, we noticed that the table below of unfortunately dressed young men had given way to a table with a number of women dressed for the spring weather. We decided that dessert was in order, the better to study and appreciate this unexpected treat.
We asked for the dessert menu. Our server regretfully informed us that there was no dessert menu, but consulted his notes and readily spooled off what was available. There were, I think, six or eight choices. All desserts are $8, and the only two that I remember from the list are the ones that we had.
First was a whole poached pear. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, but it lacked the panache of everything else that we had eaten that evening. We speculated about the addition of some blue cheese, or smoked walnuts, to liven things up.
The little flourless chocolate cake was another story entirely, and heralded the triumphant return of The Cherries. The little cake, about the size of a cupcake, was topped with four of these tasty rascals, and further escorted by another three, honor-guarding the plate. The whole shooting match was then drizzled with a cheery cherry syrup, possibly house made, and topped with a forgettable meringue cookie. The cake itself was one of the top four chocolate desserts that I have enjoyed, two of which are no longer available. Creamy, dense, made with weapons-grade chocolate, a bite of the cake taken with one of the cherries and a sip of excellent coffee was bliss and heaven itself, and almost completely distracted me from those spring frocks downstairs.
The single stall unisex restroom was well kept (no small feat, given the crowd), but since its open plan is pretty much in the thick of things, you really want to be sure that the door is locked if you value privacy. Mind your head coming down the spiral staircase, as the clearance is tight for those over six feet, and a piece of plate steel from the balcony menaces the unwary. I feel for the staff that must charge up and down that staircase all night.
Four cocktails, three starters, two entrees, two coffees, two desserts. Most of it stellar, some merely exceptional, and $155 later (before tip), we staggered blissfully to the door, around the corner, and did deep breathing exercises under the kitchen exhaust for a moment. We felt that we got a very fair shake. On a Saturday night, anyway, the joint was jumping, with the crowd at the bar about three deep, in a space about the size of my car, so there was a bit of a din. But I've put up with far greater noise for far lousier chow.
Now and then my old friend and I do this (most often when his vegetarian spouse is out of town), and have been doing it for years. To steal shamelssly from soupkitten, we are easy to please, but hard to impress. We were not so much impressed as dazzled by our evening at The Strip Club.
Now I want to try an early week night, see if the room is any quieter. Hard to imagine the eats getting much better, though.