First Look: Elephant Bar brings South Asian spice to Lowertown

At Elephant Bar, small plates take no prisoners.

At Elephant Bar, small plates take no prisoners. Sarah Chandler

Surveying the vast, high-ceilinged bar and dining room, its new faux pressed-copper tiles throwing buttery light on its industrial-chic interior, proprietor Nabeel Ahmad declares: “This is an intellectual exercise twenty years in the making.”

“This” is the Elephant Bar, a two-week-old newcomer to downtown St. Paul’s drinking and dining scene. True to its regal mammalian moniker, the former Hygga space is impressively vast and virtually unrecognizable from its previous incarnation. A many-windowed coffeeshop and daytime cafe fronts a quasi-separate dining room, bar, and chef counter, all which exudes a languid elegance that’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler

When Ahmad partnered with lauded chef Lucas Almendinger, formerly of the Third Bird and Tilia, the two forged an instant friendship while trading transatlantic food stories.

“We had a five-hour conversation about mangoes,” Ahmad quips. “It’s the one thing I crave from my childhood.”

That childhood––and that devotion to mangoes––began in Pakistan, where Ahmad grew up with two parents whose intense culinary avocations led them to build two separate his-and-hers kitchens in the family home.

“I would be cooking shallots in the kitchen, and my father would call out from another room, ‘You’re burning the shallots! And I would say, ‘No, I’m not!’ And he would reply, ‘You’re about to burn the shallots!’”

“And,” Ahmad admits with a laugh, “He would always be right.”

This is all to say that it’s time to rejoice, St. Paul foodies: The spirit of the subcontinent, with its dizzying flavors and phantasmagoric aromatics, has come to your fair Lowertown.

While Almendinger’s streamlined menu is divided into three parts––starters, shareable small plates, and entrees––the casual glamour of the space, with its ample bar seating, makes it a spot you’re as likely to pop in for an after-work cocktail and a bite as a full-blown dinner.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler

While the menu fits the space, then, why does the phrase “small plates” spark a tiny pang of existential dread? Lately, I’ve found the small plates concept to be frequently underwhelming. Paying upwards of $12 for a petite handful of scorched Brussel sprouts crowned by a hand-knit toupee of foraged microgreens, for example, makes me want to chuck a slab of avocado toast at any chef who dares claim this as culinary progress. Give me delicious food, give me fascinating food, but deliver me from your Instagram feed curated on a plate.

At Elephant Bar, fortunately, small plates take no prisoners. A smooth burrata’s richness is balanced by wild honey and fresh mint, while the accompanying paratha seals the deal: Imagine a delightfully chewy Indian flatbread made from corn that’s about the thickness of a homemade tortilla. Together, they make a sublime marriage of sweet, herbal, creamy, and salty, with each flavor emerging as distinct. A marriage, you could say, of equals.

“Most Western dishes are comprised of overlapping flavors,” explains Ahmad.“The Indian pantheon is composed of more juxtaposed flavors of any cuisine.”

I begin to see his point. While bold flavors abound, nothing gets muddied here. Glazed in a sticky lacquer of black garlic, a roasted cauliflower starter ($14) wows with a sweet-sour kick of freeze-dried strawberries. Like an Indian version of the traditional Italian arancini––pan-fried risotto balls––the braised chicken and rice croquettes ($14) are generously spiked with saffron and a tangy tamarind yogurt sauce. Even a gentle dusting of tart hibiscus powder on a pitch-perfect creamy coconut tart ($8) sends its flavor profile heavenward.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler

Some dinner items, like the Karachi street food-inspired kebab rolls, also appear on the daytime menu. To sample the Chargha-style whole roast chicken ($55, serves two)––a dish that originates from Lahore, capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province––or the halibut with foie gras, tamarind, and rhubarb ($28), though, you’ll have to come for dinner. Fans of Twin Cities cocktail kings Jesse Held and Jeff Erkkila will be pleased as rum punch to know they’ve devised the bar menu, drawing upon handcrafted elixirs and syrups from their Earl Giles brand.

Do these intriguing ingredients––tamarind and hibiscus, smoked pomegranate and saffron––leave you puzzled about the menu’s precise geographical provenance?

When Pakistan and India were separated in 1947, after 300 years of British rule, in a bloody division known as the Partition, their cultural and political trajectories dramatically diverged. While secular India remains the world’s largest democracy, Islamic republic Pakistan––despite a constitution that upholds a democratically elected parliament–– has struggled under an ill-fated series of military leaders and chronic periods of political violence and unrest.

Yet like twins reared apart, the cuisine of the subcontinent endures in a more singular fashion. Singular, perhaps, but far from simple. When asking a native of Pakistan, “What is Pakistani cuisine, exactly?” be prepared to kill the better part of an evening.

When I ask Ahmad this question, he laughs. Two hours later, I’m sipping the dregs of a turmeric margarita while my friend drains her second lime and coconut-scented gimlet. As we gather our coats, Ahmad invites us back the following week for dinner: he and Almendinger have wild plans in store.

“We plan to deconstruct a goat,” he promises.

Elephant Bar
213 Fourth St. E. Ste. 100, St. Paul

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler