Tongue in Cheek (St. Paul)

Tongue in Cheek
Tongue in Cheek opened in 2014 in a part of St. Paul that apparently has a checkered past. It has received decent reviews from the professionals (see this enthusiastic writeup from Rick Nelson in the Star Tribune) and was also recommended to me in the comments on my review of Grand Cafe, where I asked for recommendations for more places doing interesting things under the radar. I put it on my list then and in mid-August we met two friends for dinner there on a weeknight. And I’m sorry to say that I had mixed feelings about it (and they were shared by the rest of the table, I think). It’s not that it was a bad meal (though some things were not good); it’s more that too many things suffered from excess of one kind or the other: too many elements in some plates, too much superfluous technique for its own sake, too many on-trend things on one menu, too much of an effort to be inventive for its own sake. There’s talent in the kitchen but it’s trying too hard, I thought. On the evidence of the better dishes at our meal this would be a better restaurant if it just calmed down and kept things a little simpler. 

As I don’t know a whole lot about the history of the neighbourhood I don’t have much to say about the apparent incongruity of Tongue in Cheek’s location, except to note that it does seem a little incongruous. A few blocks from the restaurant, we passed policemen questioning young men on a street corner and the aesthetic of the restaurant, inside and out, is a bit different from those of neighbouring businesses. I assume rents are not very high—the restaurant is large with an open bar area (which connects to the kitchen) leading to a spacious, though dark, dining room. The walls are covered with striking art (very little of which was to my taste, though that’s neither here nor there). Perhaps because we were there for dinner in the middle of the week (and we arrived at 8.30) it wasn’t terribly busy: a couple of other tables occupied when we got there and we had the place to ourselves from about 9.15 on. I assume it’s much busier on the weekends.

The menu is divided by sections for small and large plates, though in practice the small plates were not particularly small. There’s also a section called “Teasers” which features small amuse-like dishes meant for one. You can get these priced individually (currently $3 each) or a “flight” of all five for $12. We decided to get a flight to share between the four of us and then get four small plates and four large plates to share among ourselves. And to be safe we ordered all the desserts as well (there were three on the menu). We had general agreement on what we wanted to eat—my only stipulation was that we could not order a dish called “Vegasm”. I think you will agree with this policy.

What we ate

“Teasers”

  • Bacon and Egg, fried egg, avocado, hot jam: I don’t know if this dish is evidence of a Travail effect but it showed off technique more or less for its own sake. It wasn’t bad but it seemed mostly about the presentation.
  • East Fried Pride, pork belly, sesame, peanut: This was quite good; delectably cooked pork belly set off nicely by the other elements.
  • Goldi-Lox, salmon, horseradish, dill, avocado: This was fine too, if made unnecessarily difficult to eat by the cutesy presentation. It’s all but impossible to mix in the stuff on the top without spilling everywhere.
  • Berries & Bubbly, blueberry sphere, sparkling wine: This again was cutesy but utterly pointless.
  • Burrata Cheese, everything bagel flavours: I would have been happier if they’d just set the burrata off more simply instead of hitting it with multiple toppings.

With the exception of the “Berries & Bubbly” the above were all easily shared by four people (our server had warned us that would be the case with that dish).

“Small Plates”

  • Daily Market Salad: The overly loaded burrata paled, however, in comparison to what had been done to what turned out on the night to be a heirloom tomato salad. There were three thick slices of what might have been very good tomatoes but it was hard to tell under all the cheese and the multitude of chopped up bits. It’s August, tomatoes are finally in season in Minnesota: give me tomatoes at least as good as the ones I grow and don’t make it hard for me to taste them, and please, please don’t put things on them that make them soggy. It’s not hard.
  • “Peanut Butter & Jelly” Faux Gras: I was a little worried about the “faux gras” part but it turned out to be chicken liver. The liver itself was done creditably but the dish as a whole was done in by the utterly unnecessarily and cloyingly sweet peanut butter and jelly component.
  • Beef Tartar with Caper, Pine Nut, Egg and Toast: The beef tartare on the other hand was quite good.
  • Two Steamed Pork Buns with House Pickles: The pork filling was decent, the steamed pork buns were not (rubbery texture).

“Large Plates”

  • Roasted Cauliflower, avocado, parmesan, chipotle, feta: Even though this was covered in a predictable foam (please, can we stop with the foams now?) this was actually quite good, perhaps the best of the large plates we had. A lot of elements here too but they worked together.
  • Pork Belly, grits, mustard, soy, sweet corn, chervil, Asian pear: Here, however, was element overkill. The pork belly itself was fine and it was very nice on the grits but I don’t know that it needed all of the rest of the laundry list.
  • Beef Short Rib, mashed potato, pickled red onion, horseradish: More focused and quite good.
  •  Scallops, asparagus, chorizo, cauliflower, achiote bbq: The scallops were nicely cooked but jebus, the presentation! The plate looked like a crime scene, one of our friends said, and a pretty gory crime at that. (I’m not exaggerating: take a look at the picture below.) The intended effect may have been Jackson Pollock, I suppose. And, again, a little too much going on on the plate.

“Let Them Eat…” (this for some reason is the name of their dessert section)

  • Chocolate Ode to the Dome: Take a look at the picture below and please tell me if you can figure out what the hell this dish is supposed to look like or evoke. Anyway, it was blah.
  • Triple Cream Pannacotta: Another overly laden dish (with the bloodshot eye of a giant squid smeared on the side) and another that was blah.
  • Apple Cider Shaved Ice: This granita, however, was quite nice.

More comments after the large slideshow.

Service was fine—it’s hard to say what it might be like with a more crowded dining room.

I guess I liked more dishes than my initial comments might have led you to expect. I do think I would have liked even more of them if the kitchen were not quite so maximalist in its approach. The menu we ate is, by the way, still listed on their site as of this posting. I’m not sure if the actual menu at the restaurant is the same (websites are not always updated regularly) and if you’ve seen entirely different menus there please let me know if the sins I note here are not par for the course. And a lot of it may work much better at brunch, I suppose. As it is, if I lived in the neighbourhood, or close by, I could see popping in occasionally for the snack’ier ends of the menu but that’s about it.

On the whole, while I wouldn’t steer people away from Tongue in Cheek, I can’t come up with very many reasons to go here over many other places in the Cities. I probably liked this dinner more than our outing at Heirloom but not as much as Grand Cafe. It’s certainly very far away from the top tier. And at $60/head with tax and tip (we also had a few beers and cocktails) it’s not an inexpensive night out (and quite a bit more than Grand Cafe). I hope it succeeds, and I hope it helps the neighbourhood but I also hope they might consider a little more restraint in the kitchen. Then again, they’re probably packing people in every week who love everything they do and if so, who cares what I think.

3 thoughts on “Tongue in Cheek (St. Paul)

  1. Another comprehensive and interesting review MAO, also humorous. Thank you.

    Am now poking you again to check Babani’s (been many times) and Revival (never been).

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  2. I was one of the recommendees in your Grand Cafe post – sorry to hear you didn’t have the resoundingly positive experience we’ve always had. I agree they can be overly clever with their dishes and I swear there are dishes they conceive on pun-potential alone. But when they put the focus on food, like the pork belly (sounds like they changed the recipe a bit), short ribs, burger (I know) they really shine.

    I should mention the neighborhood thing – that this sort of restaurant exists in that neighborhood is incongruous and a bit amazing, frankly. Payne Ave has a colorful history to say the least, dating back to the mid/late 19th cent when it was the commercial hub supporting the influx of Scandinavian immigrants. More recently the area supported thousands of factory workers, but by the 80s 3M, Hamms, and Whirlpool had all left the East Side, and Payne fell on hard times. Even 6 or 7 years ago there wasn’t much investment or development on Payne, and the City still seems to find ways to ignore the East Side, but restaurants like Ward 6 and Cook have helped to revitalize the area. Tongue in Cheek too – with all their foams and micro greens and wild plating – in a fiercely blue collar part of town. I was skeptical it would survive, and still am to a degree, but I do think it’s interesting that a restaurant of those ambitions is located there.

    None of this backstory really matters when it comes to judging the food, of course, but maybe I view the place through rose-colored glasses as a quasi-local (and history dork). Anyway. Glad you made it over to the East Side for a meal.

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