Joan's in the Park: A first look

The cozy space that St. Paul's Highland Park residents have long known as Grandpa Tony's pizzeria has been transformed into a neighborhood bistro. The walls received a warm coat of soft mustard-colored paint, and white linens cover the tabletops.  Despite having only the one large front window, the space feels bright and welcoming.

Owned by partners in business and in life, Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop, Joan's has been open for exactly two weeks.  Dunlop runs the kitchen (that's her with the knife in the logo.)  Her food is approachable for a relaxed evening with friends and appropriate for an impressive date night. 

We sampled four dishes.

Beef carpaccio arrives at the table in a traditional presentation, paper-thin slices topped in a small mound of baby arugula, a delicate sprinkling of coarse sea salt, and a splash of earthy, rich white truffle oil.

The cracker-like crusted, oblong flatbread we sampled was topped with sweet Italian sausage made in house, with thin strips of roasted red pepper and a daub of rich, creamy burrata cheese that melted onto the crust and threatened to slide into a cupped palm. 

The lox, again made in house, was mildly cured, sweetly flavored, and presented like a blooming flower on a large white plate.

The fillet we sampled was expertly cooked and rose-colored all the way through.  Nestled in a caramalized onion jam mixed with roasted red bell pepper, it was tender and hearty.

It's no surprise that the steak is so precisely prepared.  The couple met while working for red meat stalwart Morton's.  Dunlop has the entire (prime, no less) short loin brought in and breaks it down herself in the back.  "That way each steak is perfectly cut and trimmed," she explains.

The restaurant is filled with the laughter of their boisterous, blended family.  All their grown children have joined them in the venture, and all have some serious restaurant experience, including having worked at Bar La Grassa, Groveland Tap, and Fuji Ya.

The owners had been looking for the right place of their own for years, Schmitt says. She grew up in Highland Park, and the location felt like a homecoming.  With plenty of on-street parking, a list of approachable wines, and the easy, elegant interior, the owners hope to find a niche where neighbors will become regulars and part of their extended family.

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