Joan's in the Park adds elegance to Highland Park
Even with a fresh new awning, the old stucco building that used to house Grampa Tony's Pizza on the corner of Snelling and Bayard, nestled among Highland's many nail salons and dry cleaners, is a humble site. But the team behind Joan's in the Park, owners Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop, have an enviable pedigree: the Capital Grille, Morton's the Steakhouse, and Tria, just to name a few. With arts 'n' crafts branding that screams "bead store" rather than "well-curated menu" (which thankfully it possesses), and a dining room with fewer than 15 tables, could this place conjure a memorable, soul-stirring supper out of the neglected, world-weary pizza ovens? As soon as the Rosemark Bakery bread arrived hot at our table, with a soft-as-challah interior, we knew the answer would be a loud and resounding, "Yes."
Anchored by high-end supper-club favorites like shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, and filet mignon with homemade hollandaise, Joan's menu demonstrates right off the bat a keen understanding of its place, both in terms of its audience and what it can do in the kitchen of a former pizza joint. The owners make use of the ovens that were already there, offering as many intriguing flatbreads as they do entrées. The flatbreads are an especially nice option for repeat neighborhood customers who might want to come in for a good snack and a glass of jammy zinfandel but don't want to run up a big bill. The sweet sausage flatbread with extra-creamy burrata cheese and a freshly made crust featured crumbled, well-seasoned sausage, but on the whole it lacked heat or any lasting zip. Better to go for the bolder and brighter flavors in the rosemary-potato-goat cheese version. In fact, any time the pink peppercorn vinaigrette is mentioned in a dish, order it.
For non-flatbread snacks at the smallish wine bar or restaurant, there's a daily-changing bruschetta, an Asian-influenced salmon tartare, and an easy-to-share cheese plate. The crab cake is pricey, given that it comes just one to an order, but it's a memorable start to your meal. When broken apart, the cake revealed huge shards of sweet claw meat with very little else—just enough binding to add flavor without subjugating the extremely delicate texture. Joan's beef carpaccio is sure to become a signature dish, with a simple and classic preparation of arugula, a drizzle of pungent truffle oil, nutty and creamy shaved Parmesan, and a sprinkle of sea salt. One area where Joan's is lacking is in offerings for vegetarian diners. The salads make for fine starts—nothing earth-shattering here—but even most of those contain meat. You can get by fine here if you eat seafood, which Joan's does exceptionally well, but until they decide to expand the menu, strict vegetarians may not leave with bellies as full as their carnivorous friends.
That said, for meat-eaters the proteins are handled expertly. Ethereal Massachusetts day-boat scallops are flown in and given an even sear to retain the yielding, elegant meat. My dining companion ordered a practically fork-tender New York strip, a canoe-shaped steak that is hand-cut in-house to avoid any gristle. He declared it the best and most uniquely flavored cut of beef he had had since the Strip Club.
A nice surprise in the entrées was a whole roasted bone-in poussin with grape agrodolce, an Italian take on the now ubiquitous gastrique, with a balance of "agro" (sour vinegars) and "dolce" (sweet golden raisins). The poussin itself was a little daunting in terms of how to attack it, but our server reassured us she would bring a hot towel to the table, so we "shouldn't be afraid to really get in there and use your fingers." Seeing a miso-glazed salmon dish on a menu is again nothing new, but this one had wonderful flavor. Treacly brown sugar mingled with the deep flavors of the miso and an incredible lemon zing.
I thought molten lava cakes were a thing of the past, but Joan's revives the concept in the best possible way. The Hot Chocolate Cake has a light but fudgy chocolate shell that, when pierced with a fork, cracks open to reveal a pool of glossy liquid chocolate. Let it flow all over a scoop of Izzy's melting ice cream and you'll be moving on to an after-dinner drink before your server even returns to let you know the cake is probably cool enough to eat. The best dessert we had, though, was also the simplest. A perfectly shaped half of a pear was skinned, poached, and caramelized with butter, sugar, and the welcome return of the pink peppercorn vinaigrette. Through round after round of sampling the menu, the service remained some of the most genuine and attentive I have experienced. It's the kind of service you barely notice because your every need is anticipated.
For all the good things to say about Joan's, it does have the challenge of its surroundings. It's not exactly a destination place, yet it's mostly too expensive for everyday dining. Even so, with its intimate space, where every person you meet seems so glad to have you there, with its elegant but still familiar food, and with its generous pours on wines by the glass, Joan's could easily become St. Paul's next great date spot.
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