Photo by Bill Lindeke
The newest actor on Saint Paul’s stage of music and dining venues is Vieux Carré, French for “Old Quarter.”
Opening to the public on July 14, it inhabits the former Artist Quarter space on the lower level of the glorious 1915 Hamm Building. For those devotees missing the venerable AQ, Vieux Carré should be a welcome tonic for aficionados craving an inspired food-music mix. Through simplicity and taste, the space artfully channels the ambience of a New Orleans club with a menu and cocktail program to match.
|Vieux Carré. 408 St. Peter Street. Saint Paul, MN. 651.291.2715. Tuesday-Friday 4pm-closing. Saturday 5pm-closing.|
“We want Vieux Carré to have a classic New Orleans, speakeasy vibe,” stated co-owner Lowell Pickett who is also co-owner of Dakota Jazz Club. “It’s a place to have great food and great music all in one spot. It’s not too fancy. We want it to be just there for you. A place to just stop in.”
Pickett’s ties to Saint Paul run deep. In 1985 he opened the Dakota Jazz Club in Bandana Square before moving the venue in 2003 to Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.
Pickett’s keen ear for music will be reflected in a Jazz lineup on Tuesday and Friday nights, a cache of Acoustic, Americana and Folk music on Wednesday nights, and Thursdays and Saturday nights will be a “mixed bag.” The talent will all be culled from a pool of area musicians and a $10 or lower cover charge will be de rigueur.
As a Vieux Carré guest one evening last week, I can confirm the cave-like Artist Quarter has received a well-conceived and respectful facelift without sacrificing its hide-away chops. It’s still dark and intimate. The black ceiling and walls complement the rear brick wall. But the old AQ floor covering is gone, exposing the building’s original concrete floor mottled with aggregate, and rogue patches of white marble tile. Discreet pendant lights and candles illuminate the space. And the piano still anchors the stage.
The original L-shaped bar will satisfy thirsty patrons as always, but now with specialty and classic cocktails ($7-$10). The aperitif Heart of Glass, the signature Vieux Carré, an always-drinkable Sazerac, and the digestif Mary Rockett’s 1711 Punch are all christened with Big Easy flair. Twelve beers, many of them local, and a selective list of wines are offered at affordable prices ($7-$10 a glass) and the daily Happy Hour should make Vieux Carré a popular destination point. Equally important, Bar Manager Ryen Goldsmith and Assistant Bar Manager Teigen Leonard deliver efficient and friendly service.
In the new small kitchen, Executive Chef Derik Moran crafted a compact but noteworthy menu of eleven offerings that range from Basque Olives at $5, to a Muffuletta at $10, to a Glazed Short Rib that crowns the price list at $18. I can personally attest to a solidly good Oysters Rockefeller ($12), an I’ll-have-seconds Crab Maque Choux ($13), and a smartly balanced Jazz Fest Gumbo ($10) of pheasant, quail, smoked sausage, andouille, and rice that dances with flavor and texture. Four sweets include Lemon Posset Tart ($7) and a Sweet Pea Panna Cotta ($7) of crème fraîche, sea salt Madeline, and candied roots, all of which can be paired with a classic French Press coffee or tea.
And, with a light but capable touch, Operations Manager, Martina Priadka has everything at Vieux Carré under control.
Reinforcing the musical ambience are historic black and white photographs of New Orleans, many by the acclaimed photographer Michael P. Smith (d. 2008), that grace the entryway and the walls of the club proper. Known for his iconic images of musicians, jazz funerals, cemeteries, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Smith captured a particularly decisive moment in his photo of a young Trombone Shorty sitting on Bo Diddley’s lap. Nice.
Why did Pickett and Dakota co-owner Richard Erickson want to take on another club?
“We thought it was a good thing to do for several reasons,” explained Pickett. “We are not trying to duplicate the AQ, but Saint Paul is undergoing such a wonderful revitalization with the Ordway, the Palace Theater, the Amsterdam, the 7th Street Mall, and Lowertown, and we wanted to be a part of it. The Vieux Carré is a great space for music with a great history. And, seriously, who can say ‘no’ to the amazing Hamm Building? We couldn’t.”