Discover down-home French cuisine at St. Paul tavern Bar Brigade

French food sans the fuss

French food sans the fuss Lucy Hawthorne

Good restaurants make good neighbors.

We mean the walkable, walk-in joints, those cafes and candlelit nooks flanked by tree-lined residential streets. Seek comfort here from the deluge of sleek concept restaurants. Find the perfect antidote to strip malls and miles and miles of commercial zoning pimpled with chain restaurants and big-box retailers.

Bar Brigade, in the former Luci space in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, is such a place. The charming French-inspired tavern with a tiny footprint (just 40 seats!) cherishes regulars by saving half of the tables for walk-ins. If you can spot the big Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, with its tiny “Brigade” print underneath, venture inside, where a large bar serves as a greeting and a reminder of one of Brigade’s best features: a full liquor license.

Order up a few cocktails and have a glance around the room. Don’t the dark wood accents, tables, and church-pew booths feel like a warm, intimate invitation to linger? A candle flickering at each table adds a sweet touch of ambiance, but the mismatched vintage tableware marks this place as more homey than fancy.

And that suits the menu nicely. The very manageable bill of fare is centered on rustic French cookery, with few frills or distractions. On a recent visit, there was one soup plus two salads, a simple gem lettuce variety, and a lively lentil and broccoli salad brightened by lemon vinaigrette and feta. Or you may start heartier, with a basket of warm rolls and butter, or richer, with prepared oysters or a bowl of mussels in herbed white wine broth, all very French indeed.

“Matty and I wanted this to be an approachable French restaurant,” says chef JD Fratzke, who co-owns Bar Brigade and Red River Kitchen with Republic’s Matty O’Reilly. “When most people think of French restaurants they think of a guy in a black bowtie and a long apron serving you food you can’t pronounce. Most of the restaurants you go to in France aren’t like that at all.”

Drinks are as important as food here.

Drinks are as important as food here. Lucy Hawthorne

There’s nothing intimidating about the crowd-pleasing trout rillettes. Like the classic smoked fish dip at a Midwestern party, this spread will vanish from the plate, smeared on grilled bread and devoured for all its char and smokiness. We loved both preparations of oyster we tried (they also come raw if you prefer). One was topped with a rich Hollandaise and another with Dijonnaise and flying fish roe, which, mercifully, stayed put, while each oyster glided out of its shell with buttery ease.

With just five entrees, the menu nevertheless ticks all the boxes: a hearty red meat dish in the wild boar bourguignon or lamb porterhouse; lighter fare in the roasted chicken thighs or grilled trout; and a vegetarian option in the beggar’s purse pastry with mushrooms, tomato, and chevre. A quail special was also on offer on a recent visit.

Between the boar and the quail you may be sensing a pattern. Fratzke enthuses about wild game, which is typical of French country cuisine and, he says, “goes well with wine.”

Wine is a central focus here, so much so that Fratzke says they almost considered calling Brigade a wine bar, but thought the term might curb its appeal. Instead, they opted for a sizeable wine and cocktail menu, rosé on tap, and smaller portions for people to snack on if they weren’t looking for a full meal. They wanted drinks to be as important as food, and they have been so far—particularly that tap rosé.

“It’s ridiculously popular,” says Fratzke. “We probably go through two to three kegs a week. It’s accessible like the box your mom has in the fridge, but it’s really good stuff from a small purveyor in Provence.”

As mentioned, portions are not large, though the dishes are priced accordingly. An entree will run you between $15 and $17, or $24 for the lamb porterhouse. Diners desiring fullness may course out their meal, as the French would, rendering a gut-busting entree unnecessary. That sort of pacing allows you to stay a while, taking each dish as it comes, and easing into the next with grace.

To that end, we love any kitchen that ferries us from the entrees to the desserts via an impressive cheese plate. Bar Brigade does so with Le Grand Fromage ($25), a handsome array of camembert, bleu, and sheep’s milk cheese, speckled with nuts and marmalades and chutneys.

Our only quibble with the smaller portions arose from the boar bourguignon. A hearty roast with gravy and carrots and potatoes, this tender, perfectly seasoned hunk of meat could have used a bit more mash. Adding potatoes is a cheap and easy way to bolster the meal without adding considerably to the price point, and it would have given us more of a base to sop up the rich gravy. Still, it’s a dish Fratzke says he could never remove from the menu. It’s that popular.

Other entrees were a delight: well seasoned, cooked properly, thoughtfully composed. There is nothing off-the-wall about the flavors or presentations. The Norwegian lake trout—very much like salmon in color and meatiness—is served with a simple beurre blanc lemon sauce. Chicken thighs come with spinach and potatoes. In a French tavern like this, simplicity shines.

Take for instance the heirloom tomatoes offered as a side dish. Five or six slices of vibrant, juicy tomatoes are topped with olive oil and salt. That’s it, and that’s all there needs to be. When the season is right, ingredients can speak for themselves.

Other sides are similarly unfussy and delicious, from the grilled artichokes with romesco to the lightly pickled carrots with almond dressing. Fingerling potatoes with a smear of chevre were served slightly al dente, but no one seemed to mind. These small plates taken together were a palette of late-summer treats, all prepared with minimal interference.

Unfortunately, the feast faltered a bit with the dessert menu. A citrus scone with rhubarb sauce was face-puckering, simply too sour, the rhubarb much too powerful for the mild cream scone. Chocolate pot de creme was fine, but missing the deep, rich cocoa flavor that makes a simple dessert like this really stand out. Peaches-and-cream crepes fared the best of them all, though we found ourselves pining for fresh peaches—the most heavenly fruit on earth—instead of baked.

You might be happier bookending your meal with cocktails. Dan Oskey of Tattersall Distilling has put forth a cocktail menu as polished and sophisticated as any at your North Loop mixologist’s den, based on classic French cocktails like the French 75. A dozen or so drinks round out the list, which will change with the seasons and the whims of the bar staff.

Much of Brigade comes across as a passion project for Fratzke and O’Reilly. (Fratzke even started a Bar Brigade blog, replete with essays and thoughts about what inspires him.) The pair took Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as their inspiration, bringing 1920s Paris to life in a mural that fills the stairwell down to the bathroom. Local artist Lisa Troutman listened to the audiobook while painting the mural, and the result is a visual feast.

As for that negligible signage outside, the fine print that tips you off to Brigade’s presence, there’s meaning behind that, too.

“The last thing we wanted to do was make a lot of noise about Brigade,” says Fratzke. “I’m sick of press junkets and social media blasts where people take photos of the food without even tasting it first. We wanted to continue to honor the legacy that Luci created for all those years. It was this beautiful, humble place that made amazing food.”

Bar Brigade
470 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul
drinks $7-12, entrees $15-24