St. Paul's Gray Duck Tavern is an odd bird with some bright feathers

The Animal Burger and the Beatrice

The Animal Burger and the Beatrice Alma Guzman

At first blush, Gray Duck Tavern channels every restaurant concept you’ve seen in the past decade.

There’s the reclaimed shiplap ceiling from which chic, crystalline light fixtures descend; plush velvet booths mixed with modern industrial touches; a craft-cocktail-forward drink menu that invites you to indulge in a bit of playful mixology.

But while many a gastropub, eatery, and kitchen has trotted out the hoary promise of an “eclectic” menu, Gray Duck actually delivers. “It’s who I am,” says chef Donald Gonzalez. “I’ve traveled tons and I’ve lived in very interesting places. That’s the food being presented daily.” 

Situated in the Lowry Building in downtown St. Paul, Gray Duck—the name references the Minnesota-only title for the circular chase game—is the newest concept from Madison Restaurant Group, backers of seven other St. Paul restaurants, including Handsome Hog, Ox Cart Ale House, and Fitzgerald’s. For Gray Duck, the group called in the culinary chops of Gonzalez, who has a pedigree to lend the infant restaurant. Gonzalez toiled in the kitchens of the Waldorf Astoria in New York and French Laundry in California before putting in seven years as the chef at Forepaugh’s in St. Paul. He also has an interesting culinary perspective gleaned from the kitchen of his Puerto Rican grandmother. “My grandmother was an exquisite home cook,” says Gonzalez.

How that manifests is a boon to the relatively underwhelming downtown St. Paul dining scene (Meritage and the nearby Lowertown scene notwithstanding), though it comes with its ups and downs.

The dinner menu is a choose-your-own-adventure of “comfort food from all over the world.” You can stick to the standard appetizer, salad, entrée format; venture into family-style dining with steakhouse-sized meat plates and sides; or do a mix of the two. Your adventure’s hidden cost is that everything is a la carte, which means individual prices instead of meat-and-three value. There’s some budgetary wiggle room, in that you can order a small portion of mashed potatoes for $6 instead of a large for $15, but that’s about it. Even the burger is all by its lonesome. We can’t help that our Midwestern sensibilities bristle a bit at the words, “Fries are extra.”

Mediterranean Bowl

Mediterranean Bowl Alma Guzman

At times, pivoting from Pan-Asian to Mediterranean to Germanic to Italian to American cuisine over the course of one meal can feel herky-jerky. If you prefer to pair like with like, there are trails to follow. For instance, move from the delectable, spicy Chong Qing Chicken appetizer to the Singapore Broil carved meat with a side of chow mein. Or go full-on Sunday roast with a serving of prime rib and sides of mac and cheese, creamed kale, and mashed potatoes.

Of the carved meats, which are served in roughly seven-ounce, 14-ounce, and 21-ounce sized portions, the one most recommended was the Singapore Broil. Rightly so: This tender cut infused with ginger, garlic, and chile is swimming in a caramel soy sauce you’ll want to lap up from the plate. Though the chow mein, the side dish we were encouraged to order alongside, didn’t quite stand up to the powerful flavor of the broil, it offered a starchy palate cleanser between bites.

Other side items were hit or miss. The mashed potatoes were bland and grainy; the creamed kale was thick with cheese but not enough balancing bitterness from the greens. Broccolini, though, proved an unexpected winner, perhaps most for its simplicity. Five long-stemmed florets were perfectly seasoned, cooked tender-crisp, and edged with a bit of char. We were similarly swayed by the mac and cheese, a blend of half cheddar and half Velveeta. Don’t snub the magic of Velveeta; it’s popular for a very melty reason.

“You just have a burger too, right?” asks a man in a booth behind us, betraying his hesitation with the complicated menu. But of course. This one, inspired by the cult favorite In-N-Out burger that transfixes the West Coast, is a two-patty behemoth wrapped in fast-food-style foil, its gleaming milk bun begging to be squished. If you’re a fan of other smash burgers in town, you’ll find this one is more restrained in its salt use. The restraint ends there. Gobs of American cheese ooze out the side when you squeeze the burger into a mouth-sized package. Dubbed the “Animal Burger,” it’s an homage to getting your In-N-Out burger “Animal Style” with extra Thousand Island sauce, caramelized onions, and extra pickles.

One of the most appealing ways to approach Gray Duck is for a drink and a snack. The starters and snacks are a smattering of bite-sized items—many of which get knocked down to a very reasonable price during happy hour.

Included in that list of happy hour items are the spot-on tamarind wings, cooked crisp and dredged in a tangy, vinegary sauce. The Cuban “Cigar” is a wink-wink presentation of pork lechon wrapped in dough, fried, and served perched like a stogie on an ashtray, with a pool of mustard dipping sauce below. There are two more variations on minced meat in fried dough: the East African samosa carried by its spicy cilantro yogurt dip; and the Cheeseburger Roll, an eggroll stuffed with ground beef and cheese, served on a bed of romaine with dollops of ketchup, mustard, and special sauce for dipping. None of these items is particularly challenging, but at $2-$3 a pop on the happy hour menu, they’re meant to be just that: a little bit of happy to accompany your quaff.

The cocktails are probably the most focused selection of all of Gray Duck’s offerings. The eight-drink set is tidy and well executed, from the vivid ginger-berry Beatrice to the unexpectedly dark Peachy Keen with rye whiskey and charred peach. We loved the Quack Attack, a honey-lemon rum flip made with a whole egg. Unsurprisingly, given the restaurant’s name, eggs pop up here and there on the menu, including the stunning little Humpty Duck, a deviled duck egg. It arrives like a sculpture, with slivers of radish and pickle sticking out from its impossibly rich, almost pâté-like filling.

At lunch, the menu transitions toward sandwiches (a Cubano, a French dip, a turkey club), salads, and bowl options. The Mediterranean Bowl, a combination of crispy fried falafel, smooth hummus, harissa, crunchy cabbage, and cucumber, mixes up into a flavorful and texturally interesting vegetarian option. At dinner, the mushroom tortellini brings herbivores a plate of house-made pasta, swimming in a rich Parmesan broth and filled with an assortment of earthy mushrooms.

The afters are more of an afterthought. “We didn’t want to take on a pastry program ourselves,” says Gonzalez, a chef smart enough to know you have to build up to things like that. Instead, find a small assortment of pastries outsourced to Patisserie 46 and ice creams from Izzy’s. As all humans with taste buds do, we love Patisserie 46, but we’d just as soon get our pastries straight from the source. If you crave real-deal dessert, save your pennies and head to nearby Meritage for a flashier finish to your meal.

As St. Paul eyes culinary parity with Minneapolis, Madison Restaurant Group will be here, trying to fill the gaps and seize upon trends. Gray Duck has some key elements — solid cocktails, variety, great happy hour deals — that could give it staying power. But in the restaurant business, seeking success can feel like chasing fast little kids running in circles.

See more images of Gray Duck here

Gray Duck Tavern
345 Wabasha St., St. Paul