Cook St. Paul is proof that good things come in small packages. The miniscule restaurant -- located in the space that formerly housed Serlin's Cafe in St. Paul's Payne-Phalen neighborhood -- had its soft opening last Thursday and by Saturday, the line was out the door. Impressively, owners Eddie Wu and Charles Cook refurbished the space, perfected the menu, and opened Cook St. Paul just four months after Serlin's closed.
The space is small but comfortable, and though it was a bit quiet on our visit, Wu seems keen to prance around the restaurant and interact with any and all customers. Because an overly decorated space of this size would verge on claustrophobic, the owners have kept the decor minimal, settling for the occasional framed map and document on the wall, tiny succulents on each table, and three eccentric light fixtures.
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Cook and Wu strive to make everything on the menu from scratch, from the hot sauce to the potato chips. The breakfast menu includes traditional items like short ribs eggs Benedict, omelets, and French toast, as well as Wu's signature Korean pancakes served with two poached eggs. For lunch, options range from Korean items like Bi Bim Bop and a spicy Korean burger to a walleye sandwich and mac-and-cheese.
We started with the Bi Bim Bop, which Wu said was one of his three contributions to the menu (Wu is more front-of-house, while Cook handles most kitchen matters). The dish features a fried rice ball atop a variety of veggies and a perfectly poached egg. The rice was firm, slightly cold, and tasteless, but the egg, kimchi, and additional veggies brought the flavor punch we expect from this spicy, savory Korean classic.
Next, we tried the Monte Cristo, which was nothing short of perfection, so we were not surprised when Wu told us the Monte Cristo is one of the first items he and Cook learned to cook together 21 years ago. Their long-term experience with the sandwich is clear -- it comes perfectly fried in homemade house bread with roasted turkey, smoked ham, fontina, cream cheese, and a side of strawberry jam. The meats were tender and the cream cheese lent an unbeatable melt-in-your-mouth quality.
We were anxious to try the homemade apple pie with Sweet Science ice cream for dessert, but by 1:45, they had run out, to the disappointment of almost everyone in the restaurant. We settled for a slice of bourbon bundt cake prepared by Wu's wife. The sides were dry, but the inside was perfectly moist, with a strong alcoholic edge.
If we've learned anything from Portlandia, it's that tiny brunch spots attract the biggest crowds. Based on the decor, prices, and quality, we predict Cook St. Paul will soon become a Twin Cities staple.
Cook St. Paul 1124 Payne Ave., St. Paul 651-756-1787 Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.