THERE’S A CERTAIN chicken-or-egg quality to the ongoing efforts to revive downtown St. Paul’s residential scene. The city needs a critical mass of people to attract the shops and restaurants that make urban life possible—but it needs a critical mass of shops and restaurants to attract the kind of people who prefer urban life. Which comes first?
The answer appears to be both—if the crowd waiting at the door of the new Margaux on a recent Saturday evening is any indication. Margaux, which opened in February, gets extra points for bravery because it’s several blocks removed from the concentrations of commerce and culture that cling to the riverfront in St. Paul. In Margaux’s neighborhood, the unlovely rough spots haven’t yet been landscaped away. But there are lofts upstairs from the restaurant in the Rossmor Building, a former shoe factory. So the area’s makeover is probably pending.
Unless you live in one of those condos, you might find Margaux a little difficult to find. It’s worth the trouble.
Despite its mellifluous Francophone name, Margaux isn’t particularly formal or French. It’s more pan-European with a touch of Midwestern comfort food. But if Margaux is difficult to categorize, it’s easy to love. For starters, our table tore through the tuna tartare with apples, pine nuts, and watercress. Of the grilled shrimp brochettes wrapped in bacon, we left nothing but the skewers. But we couldn’t finish the obscenely creamy artichoke dip, and we were underwhelmed by the ordinariness of the house salad.
Our sampling of the evening’s entrées was consistently good. The beef tenderloin with shiitake mushrooms and cognac was accompanied by a delicious herbed potato gratin. The hanger steak au poivre arrived done precisely as ordered with a tasty pile of thin, crisp frites. A saffron Pernod vinaigrette was a lovely complement to the Scottish salmon on a bed of artichokes and carrots. And the best among equals was the diver scallops with a confit of leeks and a touch of vanilla. I’m not a big fan of vanilla in savory dishes, but here it was used judiciously, to lovely effect.
The indulgent theme of our Margaux evening continued well into dessert. The high-impact sliver of flourless chocolate torte was rich and dense. The classic crème brûlée was easily big enough for two to share. The generous wedge of apple tart had an appealing lack of supplemental sweetening. And a dollop of lemon curd in a crisp cookie cup was as satisfying as it was simple.
The Margaux kitchen has clearly hit its stride, but the well-intended dining room staff has some catching up to do. There was a palpable sense of panic among the waiters as the crowd of hopeful diners spilled out of the bar and onto the sidewalk. In contrast, the room itself is serene, high-ceilinged, and casually romantic, accented by a lovely van Gogh–inspired mural painted on the wall behind the bar. You can ask for a table in the intimate upstairs loft if the main level is too lively for your liking. But we liked the chatter and energy of Margaux—it’s exactly what this part of town needs to become a true neighborhood.
486 N. Robert Street