Here are 10 details that everyone should know about the soon-to-open Hyacinth, the work of chef/owner Rikki Gaimbruno, chef de cuisine Paul Baker and general manager Beth Johnson.
1. The project is a homecoming. Giambruno and Baker are both native Minnesotans who have devoted their careers to cooking in New York City. “I’m thrilled to be back,” said Giambruno. “It got to a point in my life where the hassles of being in a place like New York did not outweigh the benefits of being in a place like New York. It’s great to connect with old friends, and it’s great to enjoy the simple stuff, like being able to see your grandmother, or have Sunday dinner with your family. We’re from here, but we’re outsiders, because we didn’t come up in the restaurant business here. We’re here to join a great restaurant and beverage community. Paul and I say that this is the restaurant we would have opened in Brooklyn, and we’re happy to be doing it here. Especially with the support of our families and the community.”
2. All three have fascinating bios. “Paul and I have a long relationship,” said Giambruno. “When I made the decision to move here last fall, Paul was my first call.” Johnson came on board in May. “And it’s like she’s always been here,” he said.
Giambruno attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. His resume covers a number of New York City restaurants (“from neighborhood joints to Michelin-starred places,” he said), but the one that made the deepest impression was Franny’s, the beloved and influential Brooklyn go-to for seasonal pasta and pizza that made New Yorkers happy from 2004 until it closed last fall (“A perfect Brooklyn restaurant,” hailed the New Yorker). Giambruno started as a line cook at the restaurant — owned by Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens — in 2014, and was its executive chef for its last two years. “Franny’s is of course a huge influence on every aspect of the restaurant,” said Giambruno. “They had a strong vision, and it’s amazing how they influenced several generations of chefs. I’m so lucky to have been a part of that. We wouldn’t be here if a lot of people hadn’t opened their minds to us and nurtured us. I really admire Andrew and Franny for the way they’ve approached their careers. Rather than milk the restaurant for all it was worth, they decided to leave on top. They decided that they had done an amazing thing, but that this chapter in their lives was over.”
(By the way, the restaurant’s 2013 cookbook, pictured, above, and written by Feinberg and Stephens with Melissa Clark of the New York Times, is a total keeper).
Baker was educated at the former Le Cordon Bleu in Mendota Heights; an early work experience was at the former Masa in downtown Minneapolis. “I needed to leave Minnesota, and I didn’t think I’d come back,” he said. “But obviously, I’m thrilled to be here.” He cooked his way through several New York City kitchens, including the Breslin and a double stint at Franny’s, where he and Giambruno met and the two became friends. “That was a point in your career when you recognize that you’re a part of something special, in part because you’ve also been in not-special places,” he said.
Johnson was raised all over the south, and her baptism in the hospitality industry was when she moved north and found herself working as a housekeeper at a bed-and-breakfast in Spicer, Minn. “That was a hard job, but it got me thinking about hospitality,” she said. While she attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she worked in restaurants. “Lucia’s opened my eyes and taught me a lot,” she said.
3. They deliberately landed on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. The restaurant occupies a small storefront formerly occupied by the Golden Fig; the store vacated the space when it moved next door into larger digs. “We sought out the right neighborhood and the right small space,” said Giambruno. “We want it to be a destination but also a place that was home. We want it to be a place to sit at the bar in jeans, but also have a level of sophistication for birthday and anniversary celebrations. We want it to feel like you’re going out somewhere fun.”
4. Giambruno’s childhood home was on Hyacinth Avenue in Victoria. “Hyacinth has been the name of the restaurant that has existed in my head for a long time,” he said. “My family informs everything about this place. We’re a family that loves food and hospitality. The unifying element of my family was the dinner table. My mom is an amazing cook and an avid gardener, and I grew up eating seasonally, and appreciating the bounty of Minnesota springs and summers. We’re Italian-American, from Sicily. I grew up eating Italian-American food, and it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I had Italian food for the first time. It blew my mind and made me more proud of where I’m from. We’re going to apply those cooking techniques to Minnesota ingredients.”
5. Hyacinth was designed by Tim McIlwain of HCM Architects of Minneapolis. “He designed Bad Weather, my brother Joe’s taproom,” said Giambruno. Another sibling — Gina Giambruno — played a major role in the restaurant’s look. “She understood, in her bones, what we wanted and helped us to realize it,” said Giambruno. “She found the tiles, the light fixtures and other details. She said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to everything.” The restaurant’s distinctive tiles — particularly the green patterned beauties behind the bar — really grab the eye. That’s no accident. Turns out, when discussing sources of inspiration, “beautiful ceramic work” was a frequent topic of conversation. “Not just Italian ceramics, but all across the Mediterranean,” said Giambruno. “In some way we knew that it was going to play a big part in the design. And we wanted tile that would make a splash.”
6. Plan accordingly, because the place seats just 38 people. “We’ll be reserving a percentage of those seats, but we’ll also be keeping space for walk-ins,” said Johnson. The restaurant will be open for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday. “In this business, dinner is the show, it’s prime time,” said Giambruno. “The overall idea is quality, not quantity. We’re a small company [the restaurant will have a 14-person staff], and this arrangement means that we can all work together, all the time. That leads to consistency. We know that we can be excellent five nights a week.” There’s another reason why diners won’t see lunch anytime soon. “The more you add hours, the more you end up burning out the staff,” said Baker. “This arrangement guarantees that we’ll all still love food.”
7. The menu will follow that of a traditional trattoria. In other words, it’ll be organized around antipasti (grilled vegetables, salumi, olives), and then pasta (“We’re passionate about pasta, especially dried pasta,” said Baker), either as a main meal or a smaller portion, followed by larger courses (fish, poultry, red meat and shellfish) and shareable dishes along the lines of polenta and farinata, thin pancakes fashioned from chickpea flour. And it will change, often, tracking the seasons. “It’s about using the best ingredients, when they’re at their best,” said Giambruno. “It’s about spontaneity, with lots of changes as the season progresses. Let’s find the best, cook it to perfection with ingredients that make it shine.” One example: Think of grilled trout with roasted peppers and a sweet corn relish, or what Giambruno calls “the roast chicken of my dreams,” a Minnesota-raised bird with a spice rub composed of black cardamom, Ceylon cinnamon, coriander and cumin that’s roasted, tandoori-style, in a high-heat even, and glazed with a sticky-sweet blend of Zinfandel, vinegar and honey. Top price on the opening menu is $26.
8. The beverage program will take its cues from the kitchen’s Mediterranean emphasis. “If the wine isn’t Italian, then we’ll be focusing on wines from Spain and Croatia,” said Johnson. “And Italian cocktails — spritzers, Negronis — they’re so much fun to drink.”
9. The trio's social media game is strong. Follow them on Instagram and work up an appetite.
10. Already familiar faces at several area farmers markets, Giambruno and Baker consider themselves fortunate to be opening on Aug. 14. “It’s the height of the growing season, and we’re going to be a very vegetable-centric restaurant,” said Giambruno. We’ll have corn, tomatoes and eggplant on our first menu, and how great is that?”