As if we would ever use the word “pivot” again. Let’s just call this: Phase 2.
When the Morrissey Hospitality Group first decided to re-open the closed Pazzaluna space in downtown St. Paul, they had to look at the landscape and make some decisions. It was early 2022, and the restaurant industry was still finding its footing. The prior “Hot Vax Summer” had not really panned out like people expected, and everyone was still waiting to see if people would ditch delivery and return to dining rooms in force. In April of 2022, Momento was launched in a re-jiggered space that kept the bar but only used a portion of the huge former Pazzaluna footprint. They painted it brightly, commissioned an Adam Turman mural, and went for American fare in a casual setting. The kitchen still kicked out the wood-fired pizzas from that oven, but then also everything from wings to salmon perched on asparagus and potatoes.
For my part, I couldn’t really tell what it wanted to be. Turns out, neither did they.
“Everyone was doing pizza and casual, so we thought that was the way to go. But it’s just not right for us in this location. We saw the signs in the first part of the year,” Elizabeth Morrissey Brown, vice president of business development and marketing at Morrissey Hospitality told me last week, “and we listened to what our guests were telling us. So we really started trying to figure out what we needed, what we wanted, and then what does that team look like? If we didn’t get the team right then, we weren’t going to get the timing right. We knew we were always going to reinvest in this corner. There’s a lot of family history here. We’re not willing to give up on St. Paul and we still love this entertainment district. It’s a great location.”
And so, Momento was shut down in order be reborn as: Momento.
“The name is good! And really, it’s about creating a moment,” Brown said. “Because for us, this is about being an incubator for food and beverage and energy. This is our first fully owned concept, we’re not just the management company like we are with many other properties. So we really get to take a look, maybe take a few more risks, because this is ours. We hope to push ourselves more here, and learn things that we can take to our other spots.”
The plan is Mediterranean, with a bit of a higher profile while still not being fine dining. And the team is chef Aaron Uban and beverage manager Kevin Tester. There’s a nice synergy between them, and they are working the menus for the kitchen and bar together, complementing ingredients and seasons to flow between dish and drink. While Tester is an OG from the early days, Uban has spent time in St. Paul kitchens such as Strip Club Meat & Fish and Heartland, but was down the street working in Kincaid’s most recently. “I took that time off that the pandemic gave us, but eventually needed to get a job again, and Kincaid’s was where I landed,” Uban told me. “But I’d always had my eye on this spot and when they came to me and said Mediterranean, I was in.” I remember Uban had been putting up some nice Italian plates at Tavola in the Eliot Park Hotel right before the pandemic.
And so they’ve landed with some brighter ideas than the past iteration of Momento. It’s not just pasta and pizza, there’s a real sense that they want to bring the full flavor of the region to the menu, including the dishes that lean into the Middle Eastern part of the region. So you’ll find a tuna crudo with avocado, sun dried tomato, and serrano peppers, along side a plated smoky baba ganoush and a smashed fava bean foole.
Yes, still pasta, but this tortalloni le marche stuffed with chicken, short rib, and mortadella bobs in a saffron brodo with bits of pistachio.
And of course, they know their neighbors (St. Paul Grill, Meritage, Kincaid’s) so there are some beefy dishes as well. Pomegranate braised short rib lands on parsnip puree with fennel and crispy mushrooms. The 378 Maria is a chargrilled midwest grass-fed New York strip with duck fat poached carrots (ooooooof yes), parsnips, and grilled lemon. The name is an homage to an address some might remember as the former home of the Strip Club steak house, in whose cramped kitchen Uban spent many years.
Tester’s drinks are of the same quality, bringing a playful sense of ingredients with a commitment to craft. Particularly charming for me was the saffronac, a play on the Sazerac which employed date infused whiskies, saffron honey, and fennel pollen with the absinthe. But I have to admire the fiori (above) which took reposado tequila and loved it up with orange, sage, lime, and a wisp of sherry. And to finish off, there’s some classic ‘cello. Not just limoncello, but how about meloncello? They’ll even use it to make a spritz for you.
Despite the name being the same, there’s no chance you won’t know it’s a fully different restaurant. The deep blue and softly warm wooden tones employed throughout are a huge improvement. The Turman mural is staying, but it’s getting some retouching in the coming months to match the tone of the new decor. It feels like a destination restaurant on a block full of destination restaurants. It’s nice to know that kind of pivot is once again an option for restaurants. It definitely gives me hope.
The new Momento is in practice this week as they ready to open for dinner to the public on Sept. 6, reservations are open.