“What kind of food is it?”
In Minnesota, we love to put restaurants in a box. It helps set expectations, and especially helps when we’re inviting friends to join us.
“It’s Italian!” “It’s a pizza place!” “It’s French!”
St. Paul’s newest, most beautiful restaurant doesn’t fit in any box, and that may be both the most exciting thing and most disappointing thing about it. Elephant Bar is a co-mingling of two friends: chef Lucas Almendinger, who last cooked at Tilia after running Co-Op Creamery Cafe and Third Bird, and entrepreneur Nabeel Ahmad, who owns the building across from Union Depot.
Ahmad grew up in the Midwest but was born in Pakistan, and Pakistani/South Indian flavors are infused in many of Elephant Bar’s dishes, quite successfully. The kabob roll is a must-eat: a skinny, flavorful sausage, served with yogurt, mint, and red onion on an incredibly flavorful Indian flatbread called corn paratha. It’s buttery and chewy inside, and crispy outside. We liked the croquettes as well: four perfectly fried herbal balls of saffron rice and braised chicken on a bright yellow spatter of tamarind yogurt.
Like many newer restaurants, the vegetable section of the menu is not to be ignored. Just when I think I’ve grown bored of cauliflower, Almendinger reinvents it by glazing it in black garlic, roasting it, and topping it with freeze-dried berries. The spring vegetables dish soared with the true potential of Elephant Bar—coconut saffron milk providing an exotic, flavorful base for fiddlehead ferns, plums, tomatoes. Each bite made me want more.
I can’t think of the last time I left a restaurant craving a chicken dish that wasn’t a giant plate of fried chicken, but Almendinger’s mastery of technique, combined with flavor, really shows off on the Chicken & Endive main course. Served on a bed of labneh (a thicker Greek yogurt) and topped with gremolata and a black walnut puree, it was juicy, flavorful, and unique.
But there were misses. The ribeye was tough and inexplicably served with charred strawberries and an onion syrup. We were told the combo would taste sort of like peanut butter and jelly. It didn’t. Duck confit on crispy basmati rice was nicely punctuated by little smoked pomegranate seeds, but the chef’s predilection toward subtle flavors left the duck itself lacking. We tried to order the whole chicken, served in the Pakistani Chargha style—marinated overnight in a spiced yogurt sauce and then deep fried in oil. Despite the restaurant being only half-full on a Friday night, they ran out.
You’re guaranteed some of the Chargha chicken in the cafe at the front of the restaurant during a lunch visit. The sandwich was so good, it’s worth a drive to Lowertown St. Paul. Served piping hot on a toasted brioche bun, it’s crunchy, juicy, served with a zippy ranch dressing on a bed of lettuce and topped with thinly sliced Aleppo pickles. I’m still craving the smoky heat of the pickle, along with the Chargha chicken’s intoxicating cardamom and turmeric seasoning .
The cocktails are spectacular. Crafted by Jesse Held, who created the cocktail menus at Parlour and Constantine and now runs his own company Earl Giles, the turmeric-infused tequila margarita especially popped. Little touches made familiar drinks better: mezcal in the Old Fashioned; extra-fragrant makrut lime in the gimlet with a rim of toasted coconut.
Along with soaring ceilings, exposed brick walls, plush and luxe white seating—is one more example of the incongruous nature of what’s happening at Elephant Bar in the men’s room. There, a giant, stainless steel urinal trough is sadly not an ironic statement, not an homage to the Metrodome, but something the building is stuck with because of a dispute with St. Paul’s historical commission
So what is Elephant Bar? I asked chef Almendinger, and he described it as “modern American with a strong influence from South Asia,” which even he knew wasn’t really much of an answer. But that’s life, right? Things worth exploring don’t always neatly fit into a box. And the early signs are promising—Elephant Bar is worth exploring.
213 Fourth St. E., St. Paul
Available online Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for parties of one to six. Larger parties, email: email@example.com
Cafe: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
The brilliant-orange Turmeric Margarita, for one