Eat The Menu: Flower Power


After last night, I know another good reason how St. Paul’s premier dining stretch, Grand Avenue, earns its name. “Grand” is the perfect descriptor of the dining experience a pal and I enjoyed at Hyacinth, a café that punches way above the weight of its real estate—at 40 seats, tiny even by the standards of NYC, where chef/patron Ricky Giambruno gained his culinary cred.

Those 40 seats were filled all night by—it seems—knowing locals, who conspired to keep this neighborhood gem a secret from me for over four years (or so I’ll try to prove when I sue them). Its simple white walls that soar to a high ceiling require no fancy décor to draw attention from the cadre of cooks visible behind a row of bar stools, and there’s no throbbing Muzak to render conversationalists mute. It’s simply about the food—presented on a menu sheet not much larger than a bookmark.

The list, honoring the chef’s Italian heritage and stint in Brooklyn, leads off with an assembly of antipasti ($8-12)—shareable all. Begin with homemade flatbread or, our choice, farinata di ceci—a thin, supple round of carbs born of chickpea flour, enhanced with sesame, nutty cheese, and subtle spices. Definitely a signature starter.

The flatbread, however, serves as a sturdy yet yielding base for several crostini renditions—chicken liver with shallot marmalade or, our choice, generously laden with tender, sweet butternut squash, even sweeter bits of roasted apple, nutty and creamy Adarre cheese, and a balancing crunch of pepita seeds. Comfort food at its finest.

The app list continues with roasted cabbage, bagna cauda style; an inventive beet salad (just when you think you’ve tried every possible rendition) and, our choice, a celery salad. It’s composed of crunchy celeriac partnered with pears, sweet-savory candied walnuts, a subtle, creamy blue cheese and a sharply astringent sherry vinaigrette.

On to the short list of primi: bucatini, fusilli and tagliatelle ($18 small but generous enough for sharing, or $28 meal-size). Do order the bucatini, or you’ll miss out on one of life’s primo pleasures. These husky but supple noodles come dressed simply in cheese and pepper—no hot-dog kitchen tricks needed. The cheese is strongly nutty and sweet-savory, and the fresh, fresh pepper bursts bear a welcome, sweet-hot bite. A simple-as-it-comes dish like this succeeds or fails upon the character is its ingredients and the timing of the kitchen. This one’s decidedly a winner.

Our order of tagliatelle carbonara delivered to us tender, thin and lissome noodles, but the dish’s standard bacony lardons, cheese and egg may have been tossed on too early because they formed a stodgy instead of a simply rich and creamy sauce.

Three choices ($28-38) vie for your vote as secondi: a vegetarian risotto heralding shiitakes and hazelnuts; a lamb duo of roasted loin and braised shoulder served with chickpeas and almonds (sounds intriguing and certainly unusual, right?); and our choice, orange-glazed pork short ribs paired with oranges, radish and peanuts. The fat-kissed meat proved succulent indeed and gladly yielded to our forks. Oranges with it, fine—also maybe peanuts, as well as slices of raw radishes—a somewhat jarring novelty.

I wish we’d had room for dessert, but I’ll know better next time: panna cotta, siringate (sort of an Italian take on churros) and chocolate semifreddo, all $10. We began our feast with cocktails (mine, a Logan Roy composed of orange-infused scotch with spiced vermouth, my companion’s a classic Old Fashioned ($14 each). Wines BTG are mostly Italian and Californian, $13/20). Parking is a challenge in this neighborhood, but we lucked out with a spot just steps from the welcoming front door—a very good omen, indeed.

790 Grand Avenue, St. Paul
(651) 478-1822

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