128 Café

A lack of focus bedevils the newly reopened basement bistro

IT’S HARD not to root for the 128 Café, a scrappy, idiosyncratic little restaurant that operates in the basement of a St. Paul apartment building. A rent dispute ended the restaurant’s initial 11-year run, but it re-opened last November after one of the café’s waitresses bought the place. Fans of the original will be pleased to hear that veteran chef Ian Pierce is again manning the kitchen, and that the restaurant still serves a number of old favorites.

During a recent meal, we experienced many moments of culinary glory. A roasted-garlic-bulb and goat-cheese appetizer served with an apple chutney was sophisticated and ravishingly good. And the rack of justifiably famous
sweet ’n’ spicy baby-back ribs were excellently prepared, the meat falling gracefully off the bone.

But for all of 128’s charm, there are signs that the new incarnation has yet to develop a menu with a clear direction. The Szechuan grilled flank steak, for example, was tender and properly cooked, but the marinade tasted like nothing more than a light dousing of fish sauce: Why do Asian flair without any flair?

A bland dish of penne pasta, collard greens, and white beans—saved from disaster by the inspired inclusion of cranberries—sorely needed a sauce to marry its flavors. And while the pan-roasted duck boasted a side of rich, creamy bourbon sweet potatoes, the fowl itself was bland and chewy.

Overall, the ribs were the best thing we ate—and that seemed indicative of the problem. The 128 Café isn’t a barbecue joint. What is its cuisine, exactly? Continental? Asian fusion? American classic? The sooner Chef Pierce nails that down, the sooner 128 Café will transition from neighborhood spot to citywide destination.

128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4128 » Dinner daily. $$