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New restaurant review: Gus Gus

New restaurant review: Gus Gus

The cheeseburger with caramelized onions, mustard aioli and french fries

Photo by Kevin Kramer

Frabout the first few steps into the basement of the Laurel Flats Apartments in St. Paul, you are overwhelmed by charm: the experienced service staff who welcome you in, the rich deep blue walls and brass lighting, the low ceilings that are a counterpart to the high ceilings we see in most restaurants.

Gus Gus feels right.

Owners Anna Morgan and Kevin Manley
Owners Anna Morgan and Kevin Manley

Photo by Kevin Kramer

It’s no surprise considering that it’s the creation of a couple of lifeguards from the restaurant industry – the charming Anna Morgan and her husband, Kevin Manley. They met when he was head chef and she was the general manager at 112 Eatery. Now they are married, they have a son named Magnus, and Gus Gus is his nickname. You will be reminded of both backgrounds when eating here.

Brussels sprouts with a Jello-O-shot
Brussels sprouts with a Jello-O-shot

Photo by Kevin Kramer

You will want to start with a Jell-O shot. It’s a fancy Jell-O shot, naturally enough, made with bitter orange and Aperol and bubbles and dust in gold. $ 7 whimsy sets the stage for an absolutely delicious menu, built around small plates. My immediate thought was how similar this felt at Isaac Becker’s Snack Bar, where Manley was the chef, and Saint Dinette, where Morgan was the manager. They all offer super accessible food with layers of flavor.

Fries made with boquerones ($ 6) really give you a full dose of salty anchovies. The homemade chips are so addictive that I could have eaten six bowls of them. Inspired by Lays, they are topped with thin slices of stain and another dose of richness from sour cream ($ 8). Balance the ball with chips with a lively pearl lettuce salad ($ 8). The fennel and pistachios give crunch, watermelon radish gives it color, and it’s a delight.

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The poutine dish with fried gnocchi, fried beef tail and curd together with Baby's First Vacay cocktail, with spicy tequila and mezcal
The poutine dish with fried gnocchi, fried beef tail and curd together with Baby’s First Vacay cocktail, with spicy tequila and mezcal

Photo by Kevin Kramer

Are you tired of Brussels sprouts? I did not think so. These are unlike any I’ve tried, in a good way, thanks to the funk of a fish sauce vinaigrette ($ 11). And you’ve never had a poutine like this either. Instead of french fries, Manley fry small pillows with gnocchi and top them with tender, meaty beef tail and fresh curd ($ 15). It’s a dish our group of four shared – and shared quickly – but it would have been a great meal in itself.

“We wanted snacks and plates that could be shared, because that’s the way we eat,” Morgan told me. “We considered not putting main courses on the menu,” she laughed.

Sea bass with white bean stew, plus the Tea Swift cocktail
Sea bass with white bean stew, plus the Tea Swift cocktail

Photo by Kevin Kramer

I’m glad they did, because you want to try the brilliant sea bass ($ 25), a dish I almost skipped because, well, sea bass. It goes well. It’s everywhere. But this is a perfectly cooked fish topped with canned lemon and fennel pollen, resting on top of a dreamy, richly flavored white bean stew. It turns out that ragout is Morgan’s specialty at home, where she cooks the beans until they are impossibly creamy with onions, carrots, thyme and rosemary. Manley boiled it up by adding kale cooked with lemon, chili and anchovies to the mixture.

The chips on Gus Gus (plus a cocktail)
The chips on Gus Gus (plus a cocktail)

Photo by Kevin Kramer

In a nod to Stewart’s, the previous restaurant in this place, there’s a cheeseburger worth $ 17. With melted cheese, the burger contains caramelized onions and a rich mustard aioli, and it is served with fantastic french fries salted in white vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.

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Cocktails are as smartly designed as they are smartly named. Yes, I knew Tea Swift was a problem when I walked in. Gin is added to Earl Gray tea as a more complex gin fizz. Baby’s First Vacay is a legitimately spicy tequila-and-mezcal margarita. Both are $ 13 among a dense list of drinks worth returning for in themselves.

The interior of Gus Gus
The interior of Gus Gus

Photo by Kevin Kramer

If this place feels like home when you sit down, it’s no coincidence, too much of the decor is from the couple’s own home. “Our design budget was pretty much nothing, so I had to do what I could and make it cozy and eclectic,” says Morgan. The day before the opening, she actually took pictures and a deer party from their apartment and hung them in the restaurant.

In many ways, what Morgan and Manley are creating here is just beginning to show its potential. They have hired one of the most talented chefs in town, Kenzie Edinger, who ran Mucci’s in St. Paul. Gus Gus is named after a toddler, and we look forward to seeing this gem in the neighborhood as it grows.

Gus Gus: 128 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul, 651-645-4128, gusgusmn.com

Reservations: Need for. The place cracked in the seams the Wednesday we visited.

Opening hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 16-21; Friday-Saturday, 16.00-22.00; Sunday at 10-14

Instagram star: Cheeseburgers

Parking: There is street parking near the University of St. Thomas campus, but beware of one-hour boundaries and permitted areas only.