The trouble with restaurants is that they often do not remain the same animal.
Day after day, month after month, they morph, evolve, and sometimes regress. Consistency is key, if not also the most difficult point to nail. It's why McDonald's is such a success. The pinnacle of fast food may flag in some areas, but it has consistency down to a literal science.
Early visits to Ox Cart had us pegging it as the perfect intersection of pre-and post-game repast (housemade sausages, fancy burgers, and wings) and forward-thinking cooking for the neighborhood (sweetbreads, oxtail soup, roasted game hen). But now that CHS Field is in full swing for the season, it seems the latter has been all but sacrificed for the former.
When it opened a year ago, Ox Cart hit all the right notes for the 'hood. It offered scratch-made pub fare that didn't aim too high or too low, in a space that also struck a similar balance — TVs for those who wanted to see them, floor-to-ceiling windows for sidewalk-gazers, plush booths, impressive service.
But that was when the planned rooftop bar was still only a plan, and not a complete second restaurant with a full second kitchen and outdoor dining room. The result is that the original restaurant is buckling under the overwhelming rooftop business, and those of us who might come to dine on the progressive pub fare that was once the restaurant's calling card are pretty much out of luck.
As the only rooftop in downtown St. Paul, overlooking CHS stadium and Lowertown, Ox Cart's upper deck is its own calling card. If all you require are a view and a drink and perhaps a mindless bite, then you'll be as happy as everyone else seems to be — the place can get as crowded as standing-room-only. With all the beers you've come to know and like on tap, plus shuffleboard, plus the views, it's an instant party, if that's what you're after.
And when it's time for some party food, remain on the safe side and you might not be disappointed. The house-made sausages on puffy, luxurious toasted buns are best bets. Smoked cheese bratwurst are cheddar wieners that grew up, infused with irresistible rivulets of liquid cheese, and finished with kraut and beer mustard. The Coney Island is a decent rendition of the old classic, with rich beef chili, handfuls of shredded cheddar, and pretty red rings of Fresno chili. But what should have been little crowning glories of potato crisps were stale.
More ambitious efforts backslide further. Shrimp ceviche was watery and under-seasoned; a fried chicken sandwich with spicy aioli, dill pickles, and a milk bun would have been fine had the chicken not spent way too much time in the deep fryer; and the fresh-sounding spinach-pea-mint risotto was a gloppy and oily mess. Ox Tail Soup, a stew that makes luxury out of off-cuts (so long as the imperative of low-and-slow cooking is carried out) was weak, watery, and wan.
These turns of events are especially depressing because the talents of Ox Cart's executive chef, Andy Lilja, are being squandered on the likes of buffalo chicken wings and cheese curds with spiced honey. Lilja is an accomplished butcher in addition to his culinary chops, with impressive Italian cooking experience honed at Lilydale's great but under-sung Osteria I Nonni, and the late Il Vesco Vino, as well as a couple of years at nearby Heartland. The guy can cook. But at the Ox Cart of the moment, it's tough to notice.
With the current local and national culinary talent shortage, it's almost reckless to open what amounts to a second restaurant on the premises of the first. Most restaurants are lucky to fully staff one kitchen, much less two or more. I recently spoke to a restaurateur who has closed some of his restaurants just to staff others. He has also postponed re-opening an old favorite restaurant; there just isn't enough help.
When a place grows too quickly and spreads its staff too thin, we begin to see consistency issues. We can't say for sure that is what's afoot at Ox Cart, but the shortfalls feel familiar. And even with his strong culinary leadership, Lilja is only one man.
Front-of-house staffing is an issue here, too. While servers are friendly and admirably swift considering the circumstances, you'll seat yourself in the dining room, wait long minutes for acknowledgement, and generally feel the lonesome emptiness of a short-staffed room stretched way too thin.
Even the mixology tastes hollow. The off-balance flatness of cocktails made in haste had us pushing drinks aside in favor of glasses of wine — which, by the way, you'll pay a premium for on the roof. We noticed that a glass of Sauvignon Blanc was priced $2 more upstairs than it was in the dining room.
The middling food and high prices don't seem to be offending the throngs crowding the restaurant-in-the-sky. And while they're slinging standard renditions of burgers and wings with head-spinning speed, neither of those dishes could possibly justify their $15 price points — even if the Saints happen to be hitting a home run as you dip your fries. (On a high note, Ox Cart does wonderful things with hand-cut fries if you push aside the truly unfortunate curry ketchup.)
So, what price is a pretty downtown view? About $50 (post gratuity) for one round of drinks, a half-dozen chicken wings, and a pickle plate. Also note that to maximize seating capacity, there is a significant swath of the roof that offers little in the way of views other than the oft-swinging kitchen doors.
Compare this experience to the growing number of excellent eateries in Lowertown (Big River Pizza, Saint Dinette, Dark Horse, etc). Their dining rooms may be planted firmly on the ground, but so are their aspirations, their value, and their consistency.
Ox Cart Ale House
255 E. Sixth St., St. Paul