Four years of Fancy Dinner Club has all led to this — Gray Duck Tavern. Is this a proudly defiant nod to Minnesota’s status as the only state that plays the beloved children’s game, Duck Duck Gray Duck, correctly? Or is it a cynical ploy aiming to appeal to the worst of our Minnesota pride? OR… did they just name it after the owner’s street name or something? Ugh. If only they had a website with an “About Gray Duck” section…
Anyway, I think it’s Option B, a bit of pandering to our hometown pride. When I imagine the menu from a place called “Gray Duck Tavern” I’m thinking Minnesota bar food — or rather, since this is downtown St. Paul and a place on FDC’s radar: elevated Minnesota bar food. Instead, a budding St. Paul restaurant conglomerate created a place that serves comfort food (so far so good), from around the world (huh?). But we were intrigued, so four of us forded that big scary river and met in downtown St. Paul to wrap ourselves in the cozy quilt of global comfort. Would these dishes all come together to create a beautiful tapestry that we could pass on to generations of FDC grandchildren? Or would it become a thing you’re forced to brush the dust off of and pretend you like every time grandma visits? Let’s find out…
Firstly, the menu was a lot to take in. We had our pick of dishes from six sections: Starters, Snacks, Soup/Salads, Sides, Sentrées, and Scarved Meats. (Sorry, noticed an “S” theme going — but now you’re thinking about meat wearing scarves aren’t you? You’re welcome.)
A few things stood out immediately: the East African samosa, the “cheeseburger roll,” the crema de elote, the duck schnitzel, and the animal burger. Our server also suggested the Singapore Broil in the scarved meats section, and after throwing in sides of mac and cheese, chow mein, broccolini, and Caribbean style beans (for that Authentic Taste of the Caribe you can only find at Gray Duck and the Minnesota State Fair), we were set.
We started with what turned out to be the highlight of the night: the crema de elote. It was a rich sweet corn soup, with the tiniest bit of kick from some Aleppo pepper, and the perfect amount of creaminess. The four of us split two orders, but I wanted way more than that. If the rest of the meal was going to be this good, we were definitely going to have a quilt of the treasured heirloom variety.
We moved on to the two snacks, the cheeseburger roll and the samosa. First thing you gotta notice is that they came on some weird flute plates. Why? Comfort, presumably. We basically got a cheeseburger egg roll, although we all forgot there was supposed to be cheese in there until Matt said, “Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a cheeseburger?” #quoteofthenight #QOTNnominee. Like the cheeseburger roll, the samosa was… fine. Our server did try to warn us off the snacks, intimating they were more, you know, snacks than appetizers. But they were on the menu, and “cheeseburger roll” sounds super weird, so we ordered them anyway. And you know what that means (you don’t, but I’ll tell you)! They go on the comfort quilt!
Out next came all the entrées and sides. It was a lot all at once, but not quite Jefe level madness. We’ll start with the duck schnitzel, broccolini, and mac and cheese. All were fine. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from four years of Fancy Dinners, duck is hard to get right. Brewer’s Table (rip) did it; everywhere else seems to miss the mark. I get why it was on the menu. Whether you call it “fried,” “chicken fried,” “panko crusted,” or “schnitzel,” breaded and fried meat is classic comfort. It just was a bit dry and bland. The accompanying sauces, though — the grebiche and seasonal berry purée — were both excellent and very much needed! The broccolini and mac and cheese were also just OK. I was hoping for better things from the mac, considering it is the epitome of comfort food, but the sauce was too runny and the flavor not punchy enough for it to really be a hit. Honestly, I really only wanted to mention the sides so that they could both… go onto the comfort quilt!
Onto the remaining three savory dishes… the animal burger clearly had its sights on In-N-Out (where you can get their standard burger “animal style” if you’re hip to the least-secret “secret menu” item anywhere), and it mostly got there. A classy St. Paul bar can’t duplicate those sun-washed vibes and the unchanged 50s decor that makes In-N-Out In-N-Out, but the burg was a good burg.
Next a study in contrasts: the Singapore Broil, scarved and ready for its close-up, was delicious. The meat was tender and flavorful, and the accompaniments added flavor and texture in a truly, truly comfortable way. That and the soup were easily the highlights of the meal. The chow mein, on the other hand was, dare I say, uncomfortable. Granted, we probably didn’t need to order it in the first place, and we ordered too large a portion. But it was bland and super oily. It needed two things: salt and MSG. Needing salt was a common theme among the entire meal — the blandness of all the heretofore named “fine” dishes could have been largely rectified with some dashes of salt folded in during cooking. And there was a noticeable lack of umami, which is a sin for anything labeled “comfort food,” but especially for chow mein (unless you’re my mom, who likes to personally insult me by ordering Chinese food “low oil, no MSG”). But hey — we ordered it, we ate it, it goes onto the quilt!
Oh yeah! We also had some authentic taste of the Caribe!
The quilt is looking super uncomfortable right now, with it being so uneven — so luckily we ordered two desserts: a flourless chocolate raspberry cake that put tears in my eyes and opened my cold heart to the lord, and a milk chocolate pound cake that Chris insisted we order (“I just love pound cake.” #quoteofthenight #QOTNnominee) which was good but not as much my style. Both were from award-winning bakery Patisserie 46, which was probably all I needed to say to begin with.
And with that, our quilt is complete! Go sleep off your food coma snug underneath what is sure to be… not quite an heirloom, but… fine. Basically, Gray Duck is a place you’ll curl up with for a few years, but it probably won’t make it into a box next time you move.