Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pure Imagination: A holiday staycation in St. Paul

[Originally posted at]
by Jahna Peloquin

[Downtown St. Paul at dusk. Image by Chase Turner.]

There’s not a more magical, classic setting to the holiday season in Minnesota than our capital city. Being surrounded by St. Paul's historic architecture like the neoclassic Landmark Center, the St. Paul Hotel, and the Fitzgerald Theater seems to inspire some sense of childlike wonder, particularly when trimmed with fresh snow and twinkling lights. For the first time last weekend, I had the chance to experience the best the city has to offer during the holidays.

After checking into the St. Paul Hotel, we headed across the street for cocktails and a four-course dinner at “urban Italian” restaurant Pazzaluna (360 Saint Peter St. 651-223-7000). Classic crooner tunes - think 1950s Sinatra and Dean Martin - played overhead as we sipped a couple of Pazzaluna’s specialty cocktails: the delectable “Sophia Loren” (Grey Goose L’poire, amaretto, fresh lemon juice) and the “Mad Hatter” (maraschino- and clove-infused Maker’s Mark bourbon, Italian sweet vermouth, cherry juice), a delightful twist on the classic Manhattan ($8). For the first course, we settled on the beet carpaccio salad. A beet lover myself, I found the beets to be especially rich with flavor and thinly-sliced to perfection, and the strong flavor was balanced with the mild combination of sliced endives, capra sarda cheese, and white balsamic ($8).

Next up, we took on Pazzaluna’s mozzarella and artichoke fondue. During the ‘90s, the fondue craze watered down what was once a classic appetizer. Though its since lost its hip appeal, take the chance to rediscover what true fondue is supposed to taste like with Pazzaluna’s true-to-form version. The spinach wonderfully offsets the artichoke, underlined with just enough garlic and served with a toasted focaccia ($8). Plus: what more romantic appetizer could you share with someone special?

Pazzaluna is known for their pizza, so we had to order one (though we were already getting full by then). Baked in a wood-burning oven, the four-cheese pizza had a chewy yet crispy crust, slightly blackened by the fire, topped with a flavorful combination of fresh mozzarella, goat, fortina and gorgonzola cheeses with arugula ($9).

For our main course, we had to take up the server’s recommendation of Pazzaluna’s specialty, risotto. Combined with the filet mignon in one dish, we were sold. Grilled to a luscious medium rare, the filet mignon was perfection - but the bed of creamy herb risotto with green peppercorn sauce was the hit of the evening. It was everything risotto should be - soft and creamy yet distinctly textured ($36).

Next, we headed up Wabasha a few blocks on foot to the Fitzgerald Theater for the sold-out New Standards Holiday Show, presented by the folks at 89.3 The Current. It was my first time experiencing the charming theater lovingly nicknamed “the Fitz,” the oldest existing theater in St. Paul. Built in 1910, the theater combines American Art Deco “Skyscraper Style” architecture on the exterior with a dramatic, vaudeville-esque interior. It’s also famously the home of A Prairie Home Companion and named for St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald (10 Exchange St. E. 651-290-1200).

The fourth annual New Standards Holiday Show is by now a seasonal tradition for many, genius in its combination of mixing timeless holiday classics and jazz-infused pop songs performed by an all-star ensemble of local musicians. It’s a truly special, one-off night, and I can’t imagine it happening anywhere but the Twin Cities - a sentiment echoed by New Standards stand-up-bassist John Munson, who likened Minnesota to a cocoon-like breeding ground for talent.

Take the New Standards themselves. The jazz fusion group’s core three members - Munson (Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic), pianist Chan Poling (The Suburbs), and xylophonist Steve Roehm (Electropolis), are now godfathers of the local rock scene, having birthed some of the Cities’ biggest acts in the past 30 years. In the New Standards, they’ve established themselves as brillant masters of the art of jazzing up the pop song.

For their annual holiday show, they play their jazz interpretations of pop tunes - including my personal favorite, a darkly twisted take on “Toxic” by Britney Spears and Suburbs classic “Love is the Law” - alongside holiday classics like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with an all-star lineup. They mix the song selections and musical guests up each year; this year featured the likes of Dan Wilson (of Semisonic fame) with Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, who performed an amped-up cover of the Kink’ “Father Christmas" together. Other performers included Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, Janey Winterbauer of Astronaut Wife, Prudence Johnson, Kirsten Mooney, Eric Heywood, and Jeremy Messersmith, who reprised his own song “Miracles” (not actually a holiday song, but it made sense in the context of the show).

Poetry and dance were interspersed throughout the evening, which added to the charm and texture of the show without distracting from the main event. Poetry readings were done in honor of recently deceased poet Bill Holm, who was set to read himself at the show, as well as live tap dance accompaniment from Joe Chvala, my pick for best tap dancer in the Twin Cities. His tapping added just the right amount of percussion to the sound.

Here's a video clip of The New Standards and Friends - Pure Imagination from Chase Turner on Vimeo.

The night was rounded out with the entire roster of musicians performing inspired versions of “Do You Realize?” by The Flaming Lips - complete with Wurlitzer organ - and an impromptu-feeling “Pure Imagination” from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film - easily the highlight of the night.

After the show, the walk back to the St. Paul Hotel was made all the more magical with the holiday light display in Rice Park. Thousands of twinkling LED lights clustered on trees and classic nutcracker and angel figures transformed Rice Park into a winter wonderland. Though I didn’t partake in it this time around, Rice Park is also home to the Wells Fargo WinterSkate, downtown St. Paul’s free outdoor ice skating rink. Skate rental is only $2 a person, and it’s open every day through January 31. (Rice Park, W. 5th & Market Sts., St. Paul. 651-291-5608.)

The only way to cap off such a magical evening had to be a stay at the St. Paul Hotel. Though its charming English-style garden at its entrance is now faded, the luxury hotel opened back in 1910 with a grant ballroom, roof garden, and guest rooms with scenic views. In 1982 it was refurbished with modern amenities, but its classic feel and many of its original architectural elements and decor - -including decadent chandeliers and façades - remain intact.

Before heading to bed, I suggest snagging a drink at the hotel’s bar or the St. Paul Hotel Grill bar and lounging in the lobby. On a Saturday night, the joint was jumping with businessmen, bar hoppers, and college-aged girls alike. I ordered the chocolate fudge sundae on the dessert menu, and it was the largest sundae I’ve ever seen, so heavy it required two hands to carry it ($8). It was the cherry on top of a decadent night.

[All photos by Chase Turner /]

A new season of A Prairie Home Companion kicks off February 4 at the Fitzgerald and continues February 13 & 20. Also coming up at the Fitzgerald is The Pink Floyd experience on February 11. Visit for more info.

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