It’s 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in a quiet part of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. The lights at nearby St. Catherine’s University throw lonely shadows on the sidewalks and the usually busy street is empty. Inside a small storefront, though, the sounds of a lively dinner party spill out onto the concrete. Rose is on tap, the sound system is playing Morphine and every table is filled. It’s just a typical night at the newly opened Bar Brigade just off the intersection of Randolph and Cleveland Avenue.
The purple plant installation above the door reflects the final streaks of sunset and co-owner and chef J.D. Fratzke steps outside to greet old friends. It’s a slightly different role for the man who most know as the driving culinary force behind The Strip Club Meat & Fish, but the role suits him. He smiles easily, like it’s all old hat, and hugs intensely.
This new restaurant is the result of hard work and a lightening fast turnaround as he and business partner Matty O’Reilly spun an old Italian restaurant into this new French-influenced bistro.
The name is derived in part from Escoffier’s brigade hierarchy in the kitchen and in part, because there is a bar and who doesn’t want to be a part of the brigade storming those stool?
The restaurant is small, with just 40 seats and it carefully utilizes every space possible. There’s a small counter near the front where bar guests can look out over the street.
The dining room is long, slim and dimly lit.
Like the dining room, the kitchen space is also tight. That means a focused menu with several sides, starters, salads and just a couple of entrees. Meals begin with freshly shucked East Coast oysters and progress to potatoes over a creamy chevre before rounding the entree corner into comforting plates of wild boar bourguinon or buttery sauced trout over threads of spaghetti squash.
The wine list is short, but filled with affordable choices that will please even the wine snobbiest, including a rose on tap. Cocktails also affordable, under $10. The beer and cider list, like the wine, is short, but sweetly filled with a good selection of brews.
Matty O’Reilly of Republic first partnered with chef Fratzke for his Red River Kitchen at City House project last summer. Their food truck rolled into the city-owned building on the Mississippi River and serves an outstanding Cubano. The duo are still enjoying working together and discovering more and more their kindred souls. Turns out both used to be skater boys in their day. O’Reilly added his board to the restaurant’s decor, on a shelf back near the kitchen.
It’s personal touches like that, and the restaurant’s opening to the neighborhood before welcoming the wide world through its narrow doors, that make Bar Brigade such an intensely personal expression of this crew’s intent and hospitality.
Bar Brigade is open for dinner 4:00 to 11:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.