Happy Gnome (St. Paul, MN)
By Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
Beer is the new wine. Wine has always exhibited a classy mystique, while beer has been the low-rent cousin from across the tracks. These days, what are called craft beers are in the spotlight, as American beer drinkers rediscover dozens of different brewing styles from around the world. Regular guys compare porters and stouts with authority, and discuss their favorite small breweries just like the wine geeks compare appellations and grape varietals.
498 Selby Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102
Cuisine Type: American Bistro
Reservations: Recommended for large parties
Diet Choices: The menu is varied enough to accommodate everyone.
The Happy Gnome is happy for a reason. They serve 150 different beers, including 30 on tap. They specialize in American craft brewers, especially those from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but offer great beers from all over the world.
Good beer alone doesn't make a great evening out, so the Happy Gnome is also one of the food-forward bars in our local bar scene lately. Don't think of this as typical bar food. We're wowed by top-notch ingredients and interesting preparations.
All this food is choreographed by Chef Matt Hinman. An alum of Craftsman and W.A. Frost, Hinman's creations feature locally grown, sustainability farmed, organic food. His goal is to take a basic dish and spin it around somehow, making it something unique but still accessible. "Eclectic American nouveau cuisine," he calls it.
The best appetizer was a special that day: apples and roasted pheasant served in a philo pastry, with greens, sunchoke puree, and a hint of chili oil. Every flavor and texture here was great except the sunchoke puree clashed a bit.
The onion tartlet, with goat cheese and wine-poached pears, was delicious. Get it without the duck, though; the meat is overcooked, and doesn't really add. That was the problem with the duck satay, too: overcooked.
The sea scallops came with a maple-sugar glaze and butternut squash puree. Maple gave an interesting, pleasant accent to the scallops, but we wished the squash were a little less sweet.
The crab tart was better, with plenty of crab, mascarpone cheese and roasted red peppers. Try the bison popsicles. The name is meant to startle and amuse, but it's just spiced bison meat on a stick served with a couple of tasty sauces.
The only app we'll avoid is the polenta fries. The onion tomato puree was a fine dipping sauce, but the fries had nothing but the taste of corn dog breading to recommend them.
The mains were more uniformly good. Our favorite was the vegetarian dish: fried eggplant and wheat berries. Served with Parmesan-tomato ratatouille and broccoli rabe, we'd offer it to any of our carnivorous friends.
Also delicious was the walleye covered with pistachios, although we want the wild rice cake to taste more like wild rice and less like starchy filler. The shrimp and green bean pasta is another winner; we warn you that it's a bit spicy.
Their bouillabaisse -- listed on the menu as "seafood tomato stew" -- is delectably rich in the seafood. The beef short ribs are tender and perfect, served with a root vegetable puree and pearl onions. We wished the cooks went lighter on the salt in these dishes, but otherwise they were fine.
Happy Gnome also serves burgers (good), pizza, (OK) and salads (fine). And some nice desserts, too.
We might seem to nitpick every dish but overall, we're happy to make the Happy Gnome a dinner destination. We love the food, the beer and the outdoor patio. And summer's the perfect time for a few beers and dinner out.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
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