Early Taste: J.D. Fratzke's Bar Brigade

Restaurateur Matty O’Reilly says, enough Italian—the west side of St. Paul could use a little French

Matty O’Reilly has become a bit of an expert at repurposing and refreshing old restaurants. His reboot of the old Independent in Calhoun Square became Republic—and it was a seamless, quick transition. Same with his reboot of Dan Kelly’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis. Now he’s got Red River Kitchen in St. Paul’s City House, and, as of late March, Bar Brigade in the old Ristorante Luci.

Matty told me that he lives near St. Kate’s and the old Luci Ancora in St. Paul, heard it was coming up for sale, and assured the family that owns Luci that he wasn’t going to open another Italian restaurant. The west side of St. Paul has enough pizza and sauce joints, in O’Reilly’s mind, so he wanted to do something different with his relatively new culinary partner, Chef J.D. Fratzke.

My family popped into Bar Brigade on Wednesday, the day before it opened, so bear in mind these initial thoughts are thoughts formed when the restaurant was technically not open. The space is adorable: they yanked out the carpet and revealed an arched wall, and they put a beautiful lavender planting above the main entrance.

But it’s an adorable space with a menu that had my (fairly food advanced) 11-year-old saying, “I want to eat all of this.” It’s fairly focused, because the kitchen is tiny. But you’ll see three oysters for $7, a solid selection of cheeses (Shepherd’s Way Big Woods Blue is a Minnesota favorite; there’s a nice triple creme brie too), and five dinner entrees that are just perfect.

The roasted chicken thighs are tender, meaty, and satisfying. Get a couple oysters, two thighs with a couple of Lincoln log–shaped potatoes ($15), and a side of grilled artichokes on romesco sauce and thank me later.

I can also recommend the grilled trout (simple lemon sauce, beautifully cooked) for $16, and a really tasty bourguignon with tender wild boar instead of beef for $15. 

The wine list is largely French, and a real bargain if you choose bottles. The Domaine de Bellevue Gamay is bright and peppy for $36, and the Maison Angelot Mondeuse is an obscure red grape that is super food-friendly from the Rhone Valley for $33.

J.D. Fratzke is one of my favorite chefs in town—he cooks with such soul and flavor. My test of a neighborhood restaurant is whether it’s worth me driving from Maple Grove to eat there, and at least from my first visit—Bar Brigade is worth the trip.

Bar Brigade, 407 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; accepting reservations starting March 27 at www.barbrigade.com