When the saints go marching in

A bartender at Saint Dinette takes customers' orders on Thursday evening. The new restaurant recently opened in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul.

Christopher Wakefield

A bartender at Saint Dinette takes customers’ orders on Thursday evening. The new restaurant recently opened in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul.

Grant Tillery

Mid-soon is finally here. After a year of waiting, Saint Dinette quietly opened last week in Lowertown St. Paul’s Rayette Lofts. Blink and you’ll miss it because its signage is discreet. That makes the space feel like a clubhouse for in-the-know diners — everyone in the dining room recognized one or two faces amid the masses, myself included.
 
The room is fancier than the menu prices belie, and it feels like a fine dining joint, thanks to the modernist, neutral-colored furnishings and lighting, complemented by an exposed industrial ceiling and red concrete floors that speak of the building’s heritage. It’s clear that the team spared no expense in decorating the space, and the room alone was worth the eternal “mid-soon” opening dates posted on Twitter and Facebook. The open kitchen is one of the prettiest in town, making bar seating the steal of the house.
 
Thursday night dinner was quieter than I expected, given the preliminary hype. Diners packed in as the night went on, and the restaurant is designed with late-evening diners in mind. Whether it was due to the partially full dining room (at the beginning) or impeccable polish, service was courteous and convivial, and the conversations the wait staff made with customers were several steps above the polite small talk servers usually make. While the service’s knowledge of menu items and ingredients was hit-or-miss, I trust that they’ll polish it up as they gain familiarity with the food.
 
The food is what will bring diners back, though. Executive chef J.D. Fratzke (also of Saint Dinette’s sister restaurant, the Strip Club) and chef Adam Eaton bring deft inventiveness to a menu of classics that sit on the nexus of Midwestern and European.
 
Smelt ($6) is the perfect fish to turn into a fry. They’re miniscule, flat and don’t taste too fishy, at least in the hands of Saint Dinette. Both the fish and fried breading have a moderate taste; they’re not flat or bland, but a tad lemony and not an over-fried disaster. Their subtlety allows the pungent tartar sauce to sing, and the mayonnaise used as the sauce’s base packs tang and zing. As a bonus, the side garnish of watercress soaks up the flavors of the smelt for a nuanced treat.
 
Crinkle cut French fries ($5) often evoke soggy cafeteria fare. But not at Saint Dinette, where they receive the same love and care as the other sides. The amount of salt sprinkled atop the fries is obscene and could cause instant hypertension in any healthy person. Yet the fries don’t taste over-salted, and the liberal dosage feels oh so right when it hits your mouth, especially after it’s swiped in ketchup. Everyone else who makes crinkle cut fries should give up: These are the best version in town (superlative intended).
 
The Parisian Gnocchi ($9 for a half order, $16 for a full order) embodied everything I look for in summertime pastas — a light greens-based sauce and a hint of lemon zest. Saint Dinette ups the ante by incorporating nettles into the gnocchi to play up piquancy. The nettle pesto was light and delicious, leaving me wanting to slurp up every last trace of it on my plate. Too bad plate licking is considered bad manners. The presentation of the pillow-shaped potato was also the best I’ve seen in a local restaurant this year, thanks to garnishes of nettles and nasturtium. Take note: This dish is primed to become the darling of local Instagrammers.
 
Simple cheeseburgers have dominated local restaurant menus as of late, beginning with Parlour’s bare bones iteration. Revival and Nighthawks followed suit with pared down patties and Saint Dinette’s ($12) is as good as the rest of the pack. While it didn’t overwhelm me with the first bite like Nighthawks’ burger did, the second bite made me wish that there was another burger sitting in front of me. Saint Dinette’s cheeseburger is intentional; it recreates the flavor of a Big Mac.
 
Homemade American cheese ties the two patties together and packs an extra bite thanks to the addition of champagne in the recipe. This is the ultimate marriage of highbrow and lowbrow. Careful attention is paid to each ingredient’s provenance. Saint Dinette’s cheeseburger belongs in the pantheon of the top five burgers in 
town. 
 
The pot de creme ($8) was silky smooth and topped with fried and poached candied carrots. I mistook the fried carrots for sweet potato chips, and the texture and taste evoke the much-loved Terra chips. Course sea salt joins the sweet duo as a finishing touch, and while it was too strong on its own, it tasted sublime when eaten together with the carrots. When I looked down at the bowl and found I had finished the dessert, I felt pangs of great sadness because despite the fault in salt, the dessert’s luxuriant creaminess reminded me why Saint Dinette succeeds right off the bat; everything is simple, refined and good. No crazy garnishes, no recipes with 1,000 ingredients, just bistro and diner classics updated for sophisticated palates that understand that subtle, understated excellence trumps explosions of flavor.
 
3.5 out of 4 stars
 
Saint Dinette
 
Where 261 E. Fifth St., St. Paul
 
Hours 5-10 p.m. TuesdayThursday5-11 p.m. Friday9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
 
Cost $5-$40