The weekend brunch features perfect dishes created by Puerto Rican native Tony Panelli.

It was on one of those awful, damp, blurry days in May that I went to Caribe. The restaurant is surrounded by little vintage shops and the like, but compared to its neighbors, Caribe’s fantastically cheery exterior almost made me wonder if I was hallucinating. Or, perhaps it was some sort of tropical Narnia, and no one except foodies could see it. Once inside, I favored the latter. It’s almost impossible not to be happy here. The elaborately painted walls and bright fiesta ware transport you to some far-off Caribbean island where amazing food is a birthright, and the servers burst into song whenever anyone orders Sangria.

Puerto Rican native Tony Panelli dislikes the title of Chef—associating the term with hierarchy and ego—and prefers instead the whimsical “Grand Poobah.”

Coconut French Toast; Caribe Eggs Benedict. Photos by Mike Hnida

I’d be happy calling him Maestro, The Egg Man, or Mr. Wizard, as long as he’ll continue to cook brunch on weekends, beginning with the Pan de Majorca ($3.50). It is a large, traditional Puerto Rican sweet roll that is either lightly toasted or grilled with butter (as it is served at Caribe), or sliced and used to sandwich ham and cheese. Sweetened with a judicious dusting of powdered sugar, the dough is rich but light, and dangerously addictive. I’d suggest splitting one with a friend who is good about sharing.

We couldn’t resist the siren song of a refreshing white wine Sangria, but we also tried the Pomegranate and Blueberry Mimosa, which was pleasantly tart. Some horrible person made up a rule about imbibing alcohol before a certain hour. While I understand the logic behind the taboo, Caribe is one of those places where you should break the rules. Both the sangria and the mimosa were delicate and summery, and went with everything. Just try, try, try to pace yourself. It’s a difficult thing to do when the cocktails are this good.

If neither of the above seems tempting, the Belgian Rodenbach ($12) offers yet another reason to be naughty before Noon. The large bottle can be shared, and the red beer is perfect for brunch. Fragrant with cherries, but dry on the finish, it seems to have more in common with a semidry sparkling rosé than a beer.

The Coconut French Toast ($9) and the Caribe Eggs Benedict ($9) couldn’t be more dissimilar—the only similarity is in their degree of perfection. Most restaurants offer brunch out of necessity, as opposed to culinary inspiration, but Panelli’s brunch is simply that—inspired. His French toast begins as a thick slice of ciabatta, and is prepared in the traditional way. Before it heads to your table, however, it is also drizzled with coconut cream, sprinkled with roasted coconut flakes, and topped with a dainty dollop of whipped cream. In any other restaurant, this dish’s arrival would be greeted with howls of envy from everyone else at your table. At Caribe, every dish we tried was easily its equal.

If you’re looking for something more unique, order the Eggs Benedict. Remember when I joked about calling Panelli the Egg Man? Cooking something as simple and mundane as an egg may be easy to learn, but not everyone masters the perfect poached egg. Panelli has, and it makes an incredible difference in the texture. In this dish, poached eggs are perched atop curried chickpeas, sautéed spinach, sweet potato, and tomatoes. Indian-style roti, which forms the base of the dish, helps soak up the incredibly fragrant Creole hollandaise ladled on top. Caribbean food sometimes has a false reputation for being spicy. This dish was actually very mild, but if you want a little more heat, housemade pique (a Puerto Rican-style hot sauce) is available.

If you’re looking for something a little more conventional, order the Jibarito ($6), which tucks adobo-seasoned fried eggs, smoked ham, and cheddar cheese into sobao bread, and includes a side of house fries. The sandwich may be simple, but the quality of each ingredient is what makes it exceptional.

Panelli also whipped up a dish of poached eggs and tangy, slightly sweet crab rundown stew (coconut, carrots, onions, peppers, pumpkin, and potatoes) over plantain tostones. A similar dish is featured on the menu with fried breadfruit, but because the quality of imported breadfruit is unreliable now and then, the kitchen often makes do without it, rather than lowering its standards.

It was such a pity to venture back into my dreary Minnesotan reality, but a relief to know Caribe exists whenever I need to escape. Or…almost whenever. While both lunch and dinner are served Tuesday through Sunday, brunch is only available on weekends.

791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul
(651) 641-1446

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