Jay's Place

This cozy cafe may be easy to overlook, but its simple and stylish food is worth seeking out

JAY'S CAFÉ
791 Raymond Ave., St. Paul
651.641.1446 • www.jays-cafe.com

The restaurant business is a tenuous one. Many new ventures don't last a year, and even established places have to worry about drop-offs in business that could ruin the bottom line after years of popularity. Jay's Café, which is about to celebrate its third anniversary, has experienced some ups and downs. Owner Jay Randolph originally opened his café, tucked away in a corner of St. Anthony Park, as a breakfast-and-lunch-only joint, and his first attempt at adding dinner, last winter, was less than successful. He says now that he failed to have a clear plan. But Randolph didn't give up on serving evening meals, and last May he hired a chef to run his tiny restaurant's kitchen and come up with a clear vision for its food.

Chef Karl Gerstenberger devised a fiercely local menu for Jay's, seeking out nearby farmers using humane and sustainable practices. All the meat in Jay's dinner dishes comes from local farms, including grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills in Cannon Falls, which can be found lately on many upscale Twin Cities menus. He sought out exceptional regional cheeses, including organic chèvre from Donnay Farm (but still allowed for the crucial imported Parmigiano Reggiano on the four-cheese pizza). He came up with a short dinner menu that changes seasonally and makes the best of locally available ingredients. His efforts have resulted in meal options fit for a foodie but priced affordably, in keeping with the character of the cute little neighborhood café.

Breakfast is served: Jay's eggs Sardou
Alma Guzman
Breakfast is served: Jay's eggs Sardou

Location Info

Map

Jay's Cafe

791 Raymond Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55114

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Macalester/Groveland

So let's hope that Randolph can keep it up without him. Just last week I learned that Gerstenberger is departing Jay's. For financial reasons, Randolph is taking over again in his namesake kitchen. That shouldn't spell doom for the restaurant; Randolph successfully ran his breakfast-and-lunch kitchen before, and he has decades of professional cooking experience, including a stint as an executive chef at Medtronic, which he says was helpful in learning the business side of the restaurant game.

He's got a great template to work with now at Jay's. Dough for the pizzas, available at lunch and dinner, has been perfected: Made with Heartland Mill organic flour, it bakes into a lovely, crisp, light-golden crust. A pizza I had at lunch was superb except that a bit too much Black River gorgonzola was used: A little of that pungent stuff goes a long way, and in some bites it completely overpowered the delicious combination of bacon, apples, and walnuts ($8). The accompanying cup of rosemary-mushroom soup was deeply earthy and pleasingly creamy without being too thick.

Also at lunch, a meatloaf sandwich ($9.95) was served open-faced on very good toasted ciabatta that shows up on Jay's plates frequently. On the side, the American fries were excellent—large potato slices well seasoned and pan-fried, with a crunchy outer layer—and the carrots were sweet, tasty, and lightly cooked to retain their crispness. It made a fully satisfying meal, the kind of lunch you really want to take a nap after eating. Other sandwiches on the lunch menu include a roasted eggplant melt, turkey with chipotle mayo, and a BLT with avocado. A salad of lots of buckwheat noodles and organic mixed greens with tamari dressing ($7.25) was dotted with miniature crinkle-cut carrots and bits of diced tomato for a fresh yet hearty dish.

Jay's also offers a daily pasty (a savory, filled pastry served hot, still found in some parts of the small-town Midwest but rarely seen in the cities) with ever-changing ingredients, but the restaurant makes a limited number and they often run out fairly early in the lunch service; I haven't been able to try one. Anyone else in the same boat can rectify that situation soon. One of the café's anniversary-week special events is "Pasty Madness" on Tuesday, February 19, featuring a couple versions of the specialty to eat there for lunch or take home, frozen, to bake later ($12 for two).

At dinner (available Wednesday through Saturday), starters included a hearty but not too heavy winter soup of cannelinni beans and kale ($5), with onion, carrot, and celery. It was perfect on a bitterly cold night. Pacific oysters are sometimes available at $2.50 each, and there's an option of mixed lettuces with organic liver toasts, but otherwise no proper appetizers. The dinner salads, though, were wonderful. One was of mixed greens, in which avocado and blood oranges made a clean, refreshing backdrop for the saltiness provided by bits of creamy chèvre and crunchy sunflower seeds. Another featured super-crunchy, breaded, deep-fried portabello mushrooms on perfect organic baby spinach leaves with shavings of Parmiagiano Reggiano.

Here's one wholehearted dinner recommendation: Get the ribs. Falling-apart tender, scrumptiously succulent, braised beef short ribs are accompanied in winter by flavorful garlic mashed potatoes ($19). They're excellent. The chicken entrée ($18) was good, too: The organic leg from Schultz Farm had a crackly skin and was topped with a salty olive relish and served with sautéed kale and a crisp-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside polenta cake.

Two other entrées had mixed results. Porcini gnocchi ($15) were served dry and browned to a crisp, which seemed an odd choice for the delicate pasta; it was difficult to taste the mushroom. But the accompanying yams were perfectly cooked and delicious, not too sweet, and the spinach added a nice touch. At the same dinner, another entrée had another fantastic side and another imperfect main dish: The pork loin chop ($19) was tough and hard to chew. It may have just been too lean a cut; there were a few great, juicy bites near the fat. The second dose of pork on the plate, in the form of a bacon-studded potato cake, was thoroughly enjoyable, cooked crisp like perfect hash browns, the bacon making it wonderfully salty and meaty; and the accompanying red cabbage was flavorful and good.

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