How many remember “the bear store,” technically White Bear, on the northeast corner of 15th Street and Peoria Avenue?
It’s hard to believe it has been almost 14 years since Palace Cafe took over the spot and that the restaurant recently underwent its second remodel. It always looked nice to me from the beginning.
“It has been five years since our major remodel in 2011,” chef-proprietor James Shrader said recently. “Most of my customers’ response has been: ‘Why do you need to do another remodel already?’ Which is a fair question.
“Actually, the 2011 remodel was a bit rushed and a few items got left off the list that the average customer wouldn’t notice.”
Shrader started catching up with those plans when he replaced all of the tabletops, changed the way tables bridge together for large parties, changed table bases to prevent uneven wobbling and repainted the entire restaurant.
“That was it for the minor details,” he said.
More major stuff included three cozy, high-backed booths in the bar area, utensil drawers under the tabletops in the main dining room to improve efficiency of the servers, new china to accommodate specific food items and a display wine rack in the bar area.
Owner Joe Staskal of Fat City Clay (along with Palace employee Hannah Bell) designed new espresso cups, condiment ramekins and creme brulee cups, and Eric Fransen of Fransen Furniture built the wine rack, utensil drawers and custom cutting boards to present Palace Cafe’s $20 steak burger.
The cutting boards are just plain awesome. They have slots for ramekins that hold mustard, mayo and ketchup, a slot that fits a metal pipe that holds a serving of rosemary-truffle fries and plenty of space for the monster burger that includes ground prime rib, brisket, beef tenderloin, onion marmalade, fontina cheese and arugula on a challah bun. One of the top burgers in town, hands down.
We went by recently for dinner and ordered a couple of new items off the summer menu, as well as a couple of holdovers.
We started with a “bento” item, shrimp-shiitake potstickers (the bento section includes seven small bites for $3.25 each), and a new appetizer, fried green tomato caprese ($8).
The four wonton-shaped potstickers held bits of shrimp and mushroom and were served with a sake sauce that delivered a lemony flavor and a bit of a late kick.
The fried green tomato caprese was delicious. The sliced tomatoes were fried in cornmeal and layered with fresh basil, arugula and mozzarella and served with buttermilk-herb dressing and cherry tomato relish.
For our entrees, we chose seared sea scallops ($26) and the new wood-grilled tenderloin ($35).
The scallops were big, fat ones and barely seared to a light-brown finish. It’s a personal and subjective thing, but for scallops that large, I prefer a longer sear that penetrates maybe a quarter-inch on each side but not so long the texture turns rubbery. Tricky. This was closer to sashimi.
The scallops came with good quinoa tabouli and garden pesto. An extra order of grilled asparagus ($7) with preserved lemon and Parmesan was similar to all large stalks of asparagus we’ve had recently — tender and flavorful on the tip end and fibrous on the thick end. Shaved sauteed Brussels sprouts ($6) with lemon and Parmesan were tender and flavorful.
Our summer dessert — strawberry shortcake ($7) — almost stole the show. Fresh strawberries were served on house-made vanilla pound cake with strawberry jelly, strawberry “dust” and mascarpone cream, along with scoops of strawberry sorbet that tasted as though they might have had a touch of alcohol. We’re not big dessert people but not a smidgen was left on this plate.
Palace Cafe has full bar service, including a nice selection of wines and specialty cocktails.
Our server, Lauren, was excellent. She knew the menu and wines, and she had the knack of being there when needed and invisible when not. None of that “How’s that tastin’?” nonsense.
Also, I would recommend Palace Cafe’s Sunday brunch. It’s one of the nicest in town.
“All of the changes we made were designed to improve the customer experience,” Shrader said. “We wanted to make it more refined, yet more comfortable at the same time. I couldn’t be happier.”