A small restaurant can bring out the best in a kitchen: a clear focus, a menu that bursts with the creativity of space constraints.
But a wee dining room can bring out the worst in us: The harder it is to get seated, the harder it is to maintain the placid mask of Minnesota Nice. Nabbing a table gives us the same rush as if we’d surged ahead in a race for a parking space or shoved our way into a departing elevator and watched the doors shut on the stragglers behind us. No need to be so cutthroat about it; a little planning separates our better and worse selves. Click a few buttons, reserve a couple weeks in advance, and claim a spot at Hyacinth, the 40-seat sliver of a restaurant on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
Hyacinth’s size does give it the air of rarity. Aside from the banquette seating that lines the eastern wall, there are only a handful of tables and eight unreserved bar seats to choose from. Conversation that doesn’t build to a yelling match is an easy proposition in a small space such as this; low but sufficient lighting and unfussy decor make it ideal for a date.
Servers are affable and available (and paid a living wage; no gratuity line here). Of course, with a limited number of chairs, you’re subject to the dining whims of whoever’s seated before you, but when our table wasn’t ready in time for our reservation, we were swiftly treated to a round of Cocchi Rosa aperitifs.
Someone in our party remarked that the restaurant had the vibe of a Brooklyn eatery, small enough to match a New York footprint and vibrant enough to be a fixture in a bustling food scene. Fitting, since the brains behind Hyacinth, Paul Baker and Rikki Giambruno, came to us by way of Park Slope-Prospect Heights, where they’d worked together at a beloved spot called Franny’s. When it closed in 2017, the pair made their way back to their home state of Minnesota, determined to start anew.
Or, start somewhat anew. Here there are marinated olives, fresh pastas, crostini, salumi—aside from the fact that Hyacinth doesn’t do pizzas, the menu is not a wholesale departure from Franny’s. And why should it be? A 15-year run in New York is nothing to sneeze at. We’d just as soon have Baker and Giambruno bring that tried-and-true magic back to us than chart a new course.
The cooking rests comfortably in the category of southern Italian and Mediterranean fare: bright, citrusy salads, roasted meats, seafood, and pastas. Some delights—like a crusty arancini with creamy mushroom-rice filling—are a recognizable enticement. Less so? The farinata, which few will know and all will love. Behind the seductive name is a chickpea pancake sliced into triangles with paper-thin lacy edges, a topping of roasted garlic and rosemary, and an almost soft, cheesy texture in the center.
The farinata isn’t the only textural marvel at Hyacinth. The siringate, an Italian churro, has an irresistible fried sugar crust with a custard-like center. It’s dessert at dinner, but a completely respectable side dish at brunch. Reserve what’s left of the accompanying dulce de leche to spread on your toast. At dinner, another pleasant rendition of the crispy-to-creamy texture awaits in the squash and fontina risotto al salto, which is fried to a flat golden crust on top—firm enough even to slice and serve like a pie.
Pasta, too, is cooked to a satisfying springy al dente, with simple flavors to match: cacio e pepe, pork ragu, lemon, parmesan, capers. The clam fusilli and the shrimp bucatini were both on the salty side, but a sumptuous, tomato-less pork ragu cloaked each mezze maniche in a peppery glaze. If you’re a pasta fiend, share a few half-portions ($16) around the table and get a sample of Hyacinth’s noodle mastery.
The menu changes with the seasons and is structured for the traditional Italian dinner: antipasti (we recommend the excellent roasted apple crostini), primi (which comprises those pastas we talked about), secondi (including a meltingly tender roast duck breast with sweet quince and spiced parsnip), plus the contorni (sides), and the dolci (sweets).
If you’re a cocktail drinker, you’ll have much to delve into here. On the surprisingly sweet end of the spectrum, find the smooth Quince and Pear with bourbon, vanilla, and allspice, and the potent Italian martini with sweet vermouth. The Jasmine and Honey uses tea-infused gin to bring floral notes to its lemon and honey base, while the balanced gimlet checks all the boxes for a refreshing and simple sipper. Most compelling—in flavor and style—was the Midnight in Palermo, an inky purple concoction that gets its spice from a thyme-ginger syrup, its deep color from blackberries, and its unique verve from a splash of Lambrusco.
At brunch, a whole new cast of characters arrives (though a few classics like the martini and gimlet stick around). We can enthusiastically recommend the Sicilian Sunrise, the poster child for boozy breakfast punch, with sweet rye, bitter grapefruit, tangy blood orange, herbal clove syrup, and spicy chili. It’s balanced, it’s served at breakfast time—we’re calling it a balanced breakfast.
Oh, fine, you want food. Hyacinth’s brunch menu is a pleasing homage to the greatest thing since sliced bread: sliced bread with toppings. Five breakfast sandwiches range from the squishy and gooey Flatbush sandwich of bacon, scrambled eggs, and American cheese on a roll, to the more dignified Delancy, a stack of chicken liver, bacon, apples, and pickles on brioche. The only puzzling offering is the Mulberry, which combines eggs, robiola cheese, chili mayo, and pickles with several unwieldy hunks of fried potato, all on a soft roll. We love the extra crispy potatoes as a side, but couldn’t figure out how or why to keep them on the sandwich. A more delicate option is the frittata, which presents like a soft omelet topped with generous amounts of black truffle, fontina, and braised rabbit.
Brunch is on Saturdays, not Sundays; lunch is not available here; and dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday only. Hyacinth knows its worth. If that hard-to-get appeal doesn’t make you wild with desire, the siringate with
dulce de leche will.
Click here to see a photo slideshow of Hyacinth
790 Grand Ave., St. Paul
drinks $12, entrees $12-29