"When I’m eating, it’s a soft, familial experience and doing it in fine dining is uncomfortable," says Sarah Schrantz, one of the partners at Dark Horse, the latest restaurant to open in Lowertown St. Paul.
Naturally, that comfort extends to the menu at Dark Horse, focusing on international comfort food that draws influence from Eastern and Western Europe, Northern Africa, Asia, and South America. "Comfort food in America goes so far," she says, "and you have to expand." There is also a touch of Minnesota to the offerings, including apple pie with cheddar cheese.Other dishes include Singapore-style noodles, Chinese steamed buns,Turkish fig balls, a burger, pizzas and more.
To run the kitchen they’ve hired chef Gerson Gerold, formerly of Bluestem Bar, and Matthew Fife as sous chef, formerly of Coalition in Excelsior. The two were brought in based on experience and talent and, most of all, their fortitude for dealing with volume. "You can teach people technique and finesse," she says, "But if they can’t handle that kind of pressure you can’t teach it." Despite the industry labor shortage, they’ve been able to hire a full staff and just opened doors this week, serving comfort foods sourced as locally as possible with plans to rotate the menu two to three times per year, switching it up seasonally based on ingredient availability and dining patterns.
Embracing all walks of life, Dark Horse offers a place where business and blue collar sit side by side. "We’ll be able to give you a $450 tab or a $12 tab and you’ll be happy either way," Schrantz says. "You can have dinner and beer and be full, but if you want to run up a $500 tab we can help you do that too." Moderate prices are at the core of the menu, but there are also rare whiskies or spendy fish for special occasions.
Partnering with Paddy Whelan, Dark Horse brings two of the three owners of Uptown’s Muddy Waters across the river. While some names are the same, it’s a new venture and one that emphasizes what Lowertown means to them. For Schrantz, that is the architecture that lines the area, reflecting trials and accomplishments over the past century.
The location at 250 East 7th Street was constructed in 1900 boasts exposed brick walls and open ceilings. The open layout shines a light on the bar at the door and the kitchen beyond it. Windows overlook the 1880 neighbor next door, a currently vacant space that promises a view from the bar once occupied.
While the bar is a natural point of attention, with 40 taps dedicated to American craft beer and shelf space for 88 varieties of whiskey—including a separate shelf just for Powers, the room itself blends warm welcome with a storied history. With a mixture of wooden booths and low top tables of varied sizes, the natural light form the street shines in on the foliage spread throughout.
"We want everyone to be in here and be totally comfortable," Schrantz says, returning to the key atmospheric element of Dark Horse. "I think clients enjoy having an experience with another person they don’t necessarily see in their day to day life," adding that it’s what she also enjoys. "The essence of a restaurant is the kitchen, the food, and the beating heart," she concludes. "You have to listen to what the neighborhood needs. I believe we fill a niche that’s not hit here yet."
Dark Horse is open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
-by Loren Green