High Hopes

Barley-fed lamb, seared cabbage, coriander cream. Photos by Mike Hnida
Barley-fed lamb, seared cabbage, coriander cream. Photos by Mike Hnida

Shame on me. Karyn Tomlinson deserves our attention, I told myself (and her, and my readers) back when I was enjoying the culinary statements she brought to the kitchen while working for the bosses of Corner Table.

Then life, and the pandemic, happened, and I failed to follow her to the launch of her very own digs close to two years ago, when she took over a tiny, tiny (maybe a dozen-table) establishment in St. Paul’s Highland Park that (I now recall) had originally lured the twin towns’ foodies as an authentic Italian trattoria with a set four-course menu—a breakthrough, back then. Today, it’s a breakthrough of another kind—home to Tomlinson, who is one of the nominees for Best Chef: Midwest, striving for that coveted James Beard award this spring.

Back in the day, the room was shadowy, warm and cozily packed with a cult following. Today Tomlinson’s Myriel is bright and cheery and still just as crowded, serving folks who’ve achieved one of the café’s hard-to-snag reservations (It’s open evenings, Wednesday through Saturday), sending “Finish that darn dessert and clear out” thought waves across the hall from the jam-packed bar as they wait for the evening’s first seating to clear.

Two choices here: a tasting menu to reserve ahead at $145, or the a la carte list, which we chose. The tab for our duo, including one glass of wine each, was $138 before tip. Worth it? I’ll describe what comes out of the kitchen and let you decide. Service was uniformly friendly and helpful, advising us that items were designed for sharing. 

Begin with a plate of charcuterie ($16 small, $29 “large”—a euphemism for somewhat bigger) or bread and butter, $6.

Small charcuterie plate

We didn’t. Instead, we skipped to what might be considered appetizers—a list of rutabaga soup, green salad, dirty red beans (sounded good) and our choice, heirloom beets ($15). The composition stars the ruddy vegetable cubed in both raw and roasted form—a contrast which only served to prove, to our palates, that roasted is the way to go. The plate includes mini-mounds of fresh, ricotta-smooth, cheese of modest flavor. A sprinkle of salt might have livened the milky clouds—a suggestion you’ve never heard from me before, ever. The welcome crunch of walnuts brought life to the composition.

We paired it with an order of rye gnocchi ($18)—another app-sized serving, this time of lovely, ultra-tender yet chewy marbles of dough dressed lightly in a creamy, cheesy Mornay sauce with tiny dots of cured meat.

The starters left us eager for a lusty main course (choose lamb meatballs, $26, duck breast, $29, or sablefish, $25). We chose the duck and planned to pair it with our server’s suggestion of lentils, $13. Those lentils—a modest portion—were cooked as one would at home (and that’s fine): simply spiked with mustard seed and bits of cabbage.

The duck arrived in a saucer, which seems to be the serving dish of choice around here. The flavor was supremely lovely—hints of fatty skin crunch atop the moist and tasty flesh, attended by a caramelized orange sauce—like the traditional duck a l’orange.

Naturally, we were ravenous for dessert. We ordered both of the options, $10 each—first a grandma-style apple pie boasting a thickish, tender crust and sweet chunks of fruit, topped by a golf ball of vanilla ice cream. Standard. And fine. Next, a chocolate pudding visited by pumpkin and meringue.

The pudding itself proved nicely rich in texture but underwhelmingly chocolate-y. Diced pumpkin served as an odd companion.

Maybe that sums up the evening’s fare: odd. Saucers, rather than plates, of food that, frankly, left us hungry and ready to head elsewhere for a snack. (OK, we didn’t.) As we left, we peeked into the kitchen, but Chef Karyn wasn’t in the building tonight.

470 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul
(651) 340-3568

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