The debut of chef Alan Bergo, former sous chef to Lenny Russo at Heartland, nestles into the old-school, narrow-street ambiance of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood like a well-chosen fedora. And like that ubiquitous piece of Rat Pack haberdashery, it evokes a classic past that only intermittently makes sense in today’s culinary landscape.
Retro touches abound, such as a tableside-assembled Caesar salad and tony, dark décor, yet the meal kicks off with a revisit of the relish tray—a changing array of, say, horseradish Cheddar, ginger kraut, and marinated eggplant—that inaugurates the evening with contemporary complexity.
The menu focuses on cranking up steakhouse classics. The lobster bisque, for instance, has an undercurrent of paprika oil. It’s OK, but more to the belt-loosening point are the beef-fat pommes frites, delectably slathered in what is essentially béarnaise with soul: shallots, beef gloss, and a tomato purée with fried rosemary and sea salt.
Of the pastas, the salt-and-fat-loaded pappardelle basically takes subtlety out in the back alley and beats it to death with a butter stick. The steak, on the other hand, hits the smooth tones of a classic crooner—a perfectly cooked sirloin arrived with a mushroom conserve that lends earthy notes without overpowering.
Cocktails stick to traditional greats—a Sazerac and an old fashioned blended with egg white that lends a welcome sourness to a drink that’s lately being poured far too sweet—at appealingly retro prices ($9 per). For a liquid dessert, the mudslide manages to peel a decade or two off the calendar.
But by the end of the night, being asked to entertain so many different evocations of the past can feel a little confusing, especially when spots such as Manny’s and the Strip Club have their concepts more tightly dialed in. It’s an open question, for now, whether the Salt Cellar will put a more consistently distinctive stamp on the old standards and familiar crowd pleasers. To half-quote Yogi Berra: The past ain’t what it used to be.
The Salt Cellar
173 Western Ave. N., St. Paul