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Muffuletta manages to balance
old and new

It succeeds where so many others have failed

Kathie Jenkins, St. Paul Pioneer Press
January 13, 2005

Half of all restaurants that open will close within six months. Those that make it have an average lifespan of five years. Some survive longer by doing one thing particularly well. Others live off old reputations. Then, there are those rare places that manage the delicate balance of pleasing regulars and keeping up with the times.

Muffuletta is in the latter category. The relaxing and unpretentious neighborhood restaurant, named after a sandwich invented in New Orleans, has been one of St. Paul's favorite dining spots for 27 years. Sure, it has gone through an ugly-duckling phase, but now it's better than I remember and shows no signs of slowing down.

The longevity can be attributed to the owners, the same group of guys responsible for longtimers Manny's Steakhouse, Figlio and the Good Earth. They have the uncanny ability to stay one step ahead of their customers. In Muffuletta's case, earlier this year, they spiffed up the room with a coat of paint and some new art and moved a chef over from one of their other restaurants to tweak the menu.

JD Fratzke, former sous chef at the mega-popular Asian-influenced Chino Latino in Minneapolis, added such dishes as Moroccan tagine and mahi mahi with curry sauce to the roster of American-bistro favorites.

If you aren't hungry when you come in, you will be after reading the menu. The green salad with roasted pear, spiced walnuts and warm goat cheese tastes even better than it sounds. Same goes for the salmon salad, which is perfectly dressed with a citrus and honey vinaigrette and served with crunchy slices of fennel on a bed of greens.

The shrimp cocktail is just what it should be, terrific-tasting shrimp and sauce that's neither too spicy nor too sweet. The New England-style clam chowder actually tastes like clams. The beer cheese soup, which has been on the menu since day one, is still a fine way to start a meal.

The main courses are just as appealing. Some nights, there's a chicken saltimbocca, a salty, crusty fried breast with a layer of prosciutto underneath, served with asparagus and mashed potatoes.

There's always some kind of grilled steak. I've had the juicy bone-in rib-eye with fries and a couple of tiny tenderloins stuffed with lobster and drizzled with a creamy b├ęchamel sauce. The thin slice of broiled sole with mushrooms and sliced potatoes could be served at any spa.

The pan-seared salmon, listed under the fish special, was nicely done, but the lentils were soggy and the yellow curry didn't have much flavor. The Moroccan chicken tagine could also use some fine-tuning, cooking the chicken a little more and the couscous a little less.

At lunch, entrees always include some sort of wonderful omelet. The grilled eggplant sandwich is much better than it used to be, topped with mozzarella and spicy ratatouille and served open-faced. The rich and filling mac 'n' cheese with bacon and four types of cheese (brie, fontina, cheddar and parmigiano) is definitely not your mother's.

The namesake muffuletta, a chewy sandwich stuffed with cold cuts and cheese, slathered with salty olive salad, is as good as ever.

The garlicky grilled Alsatian sausage is excellent. My only complaint is that there wasn't enough. The menu says "sausages," but what you get is one sausage sliced in thirds. Sure, it comes with cabbage, mashed potatoes and a few green beans, but still isn't enough to justify its $11 price tag.

Sunday nights might be the best time to eat at Muffuletta, when the restaurant offers a prix fixe menu. For only $20, you get three courses, with about four choices in each course. The menu changes every week, so it pays to call and ask.

Desserts offer something for everyone. Personally, I'll take the grown-up sundae with vanilla ice cream and warm strawberry amaretto sauce. Those who want something more retro can have the apple cranberry cobbler or pineapple upside-down cake. For those with more exotic tastes, there's "la bete noire," which our friendly server said, "is to chocolate cake what espresso is to coffee."

It's never easy when a new chef has to fit his dishes in with the old faithfuls. But here it seems to be working. With a combination of good food and good service, Muffuletta is bound to be around for many more years.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Stars (out of 4)

p. 651-644-9116 | Milton Square, 2260 Como Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108 | Employment
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