As in most real estate transactions, Joan's in the Park co-owners Susan Dunlop and Joan Schmitt didn't get everything on their wish list when they purchased a former pizzeria in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood and converted it into their dream restaurant.
Namely, an efficient kitchen. Theirs came equipped with a double-deck pizza oven and little else. No sauté station, no fryer, no hood. But the limitations haven't been a roadblock. Dunlop, who runs the kitchen (Schmitt presides over the dining room, beautifully), invested in a few induction burners for boiling water and has otherwise demonstrated a tremendous capacity for creativity by devising a menu that rarely reflects its pizza-oven roots.
That Dunlop and Schmitt know their way around a steak is no surprise; between the two of them they've racked up more than 20 years of experience in the steakhouse business, including tenures at Morton's and the Capital Grille. "We don't want to be thought of as a steakhouse, but with our background it would be embarrassing to not have a good steak on the menu," said Dunlop. "It's what we know."
And how. With no grill at her disposal, Dunlop cranks up the lower half of her pizza oven to 800 degrees and relies upon cast-iron skillets to insert a tasty sear into salt-crusted prime New York strip and filet mignon, imbuing the juicy beef with a mouthwateringly crusted outer char that yields to a juicy, butter-knife-tender interior. Both cuts arrive at the table prepared precisely to order, with suitably appropriate embellishments -- a fine roasted tomato hollandaise on the filet, a sweet-spicy onion jam for the strip. They're terrific, and reason enough to visit.
Here's another: seafood. Dunlop limits her choices to just a few familiar types of saltwater fish, but treats them with respect. Last month, she was using that upper oven, a few hundred degrees cooler than its lower counterpart, to transform halibut into a thing of beauty, crusting it with colorful crushed pistachios and dressing it with traces of mint and a pretty tomato confit. She's now replaced the halibut with scallops, but on one recent evening, I happened to drop by when she was test-driving cod and, wouldn't you know it, the results might have been her crowning achievement, the fish's moist and gleamingly white flesh juxtaposed against a crisp, golden crust. It deserves a permanent berth on her menu.
There's a similarly uncomplicated approach to salmon, finished with conventional but effective Asian accents. For chicken, Dunlop opts to go the whole-young-bird route, roasting it until the skin crackles but the meat remains juicy, with the kind of pan drippings that beg to be sopped up with bread.
A particular use for the oven
It's only natural that Dunlop puts her pizza oven to its intended use, turning out a handful of oval-shaped flatbreads, their pliant crusts dressed with an agreeable array of ingredients. The pick of the litter is one that combines a terrific house-made fennel/pork-shoulder sausage with roasted red peppers and luscious burrata, although it's easy to become partial to the blend of smoky bacon, salty blue cheese, crunchy toasted walnuts and sweetly mellow slow-cooked onions.
In the spirit of the restaurant's modern-day supper-club aura, the side dishes are a definite highlight, from ultra-creamy mashed potatoes to miso-glazed roasted carrots. Salads are perfectly pleasant but little more. Best is the feisty Caesar, which isn't timid about its signature garlic-anchovy flavors, while the most skippable is an indifferent salami-mozzarella chopped salad that could have come right out of a supermarket deli case.
Starters are more impressive. I loved the meatballs, composed of lamb and sirloin scraps, seasoned with golden raisins and thyme and served with a cool, herb-laced yogurt sauce. Ditto the lovely wet-cured salmon, layered on crisp toasts swiped with a bright parsley pesto. There's a decent crab cake, too, notable for its enormous chunks of sweet blue crab and a rich caper-flecked aioli.
Oh, and kudos to Dunlop for steering clear of flavorless tomatoes -- the Minnesota default recipe -- when composing an ever-changing bruschetta; instead, she played tangy goat cheese against sweet balsamic vinegar and roasted red grapes with a finish of salty, thinly shaved speck. Really nice.
Desserts don't break any new ground, but they get the job done. A fragrant, molten-in-the-center chocolate cake accomplishes all that is required of it, a heaping slab of tiramisu hits all the right spongy-coffee-mocha notes and a moist red velvet cupcake arrives with a lavish swirl of decadent cream cheese icing.
Some suggestions for the kitchen
Would I change anything? Well, yes. Vegetarians have little to order, and nothing in the way of entrees. Some of the menu's ingredients -- white asparagus, anyone? -- are so out of season that they're practically back in season. A more judicious approach would occasionally have an outsized impact; when it comes to truffle oil (on an otherwise marvelous wild mushroom flatbread), a little has the power to go a very long way, and a red grape agrodolce (an Italian sweet-sour sauce, in this case on that fine roast chicken) could find a more nuanced sugar-acid balance.
The words that would most accurately preface the bar's foray into wine cocktails would be "ill-fated." Some prices come with a side of sticker shock. Oh, and a memo to the exceptionally hospitable service staff: Touting "homemade" salad dressings may have been a selling point a decade or more ago, but in late 2011, in an independently owned restaurant, made-from-scratch standards should be a given.
The cozy if somewhat plain setting tops out at about 50 seats, an intimate, let's-go-out-for-date-night environment that remains too depressingly rare in this Land of 10,000 Mammoth Restaurants. There are expansion plans afoot, however. Dunlop and Schmitt are currently navigating their way through the approval process to transform an adjacent parking lot into a patio.
"When the weather turns warm, we might want to open for brunch on Sundays," said Dunlop. That possibility -- and the prospect of steak and eggs, Dunlop-style -- had me doing some mental arithmetic: How many more weeks until Memorial Day?