Of course I was eavesdropping, and wouldn’t you know it? The diner seated at the table immediately to my right seemed to be reading my mind.
“I wish this restaurant was in our neighborhood,” she sighed to her companion.
I wanted to lean over and say, “I’m with you,” but that felt like crossing the kind of personal-space boundary that reflexively causes anxiety among Minnesotans.
We were all enjoying another satisfying meal at St. Paul’s Colossal Cafe. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the restaurant’s Minneapolis sibling (the name is tongue-and-cheek, as the place is seriously tiny) has been serving up outstanding short-order breakfast-and-lunch fare for six years.
The Tinucci family — John and Carrie and daughter Elizabeth, familiar faces to fans of the long-running Tinucci’s in Newport — bought the place from founder Bess Giannakakis in 2010. While preserving much of what made the Colossal so special — the yeast-driven flapjacks remain the bestselling a.m. dazzler that they have always been — they’ve also made considerable improvements.
The Tinucci’s most ambitious moment came late last year, when they debuted their second Colossal in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, a venue with much-needed elbow room, a beer-and-wine license and, most important, dinner service. The result? A sterling example of the kind of daylong dining destination that should be within walking distance of every Twin Citian. Well, if we lived in a perfect world, anyway.
The Tinuccis’ motto, “American scratch cooking,” isn’t a shallow marketing ploy, it’s a business-as-usual credo, from baker Jason Ermer’s well-made breads to chef Andy Lilja’s vibrant, frequently imaginative cooking.
Dinners should definitely start with the thick slices of grilled bread heaped with a color-coordinated medley of (nicely toothy) red-flecked cranberry beans, pale white (and creamy) cannellini beans and firm, buff-colored garbanzos, each bite heavily perfumed with rosemary. How delicious.
Or else the superb thin-cut, simply seasoned lamb chops, their char yielding to a slightly pink and intensely flavorful interior. They’re served with two can’t-resist, yin-yang-y embellishments: Israeli couscous gently seasoned with cumin and other heat-inducing North African spices, and a thick, kind-of-sweet date chutney. What a way to start a meal.
Rather than a full-out cheese plate, Lilja goes all in on a Wisconsin-made burrata, splashing mozzarella’s ultra-creamy cousin with a fruity olive oil, a simple-pleasures way to top sturdy slices of Ermer’s grilled sourdough.
An inventive beet salad is bested only by a good- and good-for-you combination of kale and white beans. Oh, and plus-size, deeply caramelized scallops share a plate with a flurry of like-minded flavors and textures, with pops of tart citrus sneaking into rich mushrooms, crunchy almonds and a crispy, mouthwatering pancetta.
Local, local, local
And that’s just the starters, most of which are designed to share. Lilja sticks to his locavore instincts — his past gigs included a tenure at Heartland, the Mt. Everest of the local-foods movement — while managing to charge prices appropriate to a neighborhood cafe. Wisely, he also steers clear of the temptation to go overboard. No menu sprawl here, just a tightly focused but not limited selection.
Lilja will never be able to yank the über-succulent, teasingly smoky pork ribs out of his cooking rotation — they’re that hypnotizingly good. Those in search of a simple chicken dinner have an oasis here, with a generous portion of crispy outside, juicy inside bird and all the right trimmings: soak-up-every-drop pan juices, roasted fingerlings and butter-drenched sautéed spinach.
Meaty grilled shrimp are the stars in a build-your-own plate of tacos, although a tangy slaw of fennel and red cabbage and warmth-inducing jolts from grilled jalapeños are a close second. Pillowy gnocchi is pure comfort food, fulfilling anyone’s elemental craving for tomatoes, basil and Parmesan. Those in the mood for a steak can have one, expertly grilled.
Sandwiches, served with a veritable mountain of hand-cut, just-past-golden fries, do not disappoint. He might be piling thin slices of ultra-tender pork tenderloin into a soft torpedo roll and dressing it with rosemary-infused aioli, or going overboard on the crisp, smoky bacon in a category-killing BLT. Or Lilja could be putting a just-right touch (tangy cranberry chutney) on a better-than-Mom’s meatloaf, or making what might be the best turkey sandwich in the 651. (Love the zesty accents that liven up this frequent winner of the World’s Most Boring Animal Protein contest.) Whatever he’s up to, Lilja is doing what neighborhood cafes should do but often don’t. Namely, specialize in creative, well-executed takes on weeknight favorites, sold at plain-old-Tuesday-night prices.
Looks good, too
HCM Architects — the firm’s offices are next door to the Minneapolis Colossal — has cleverly transformed a former clinic into a comfortable and stylish let’s-hang-out hangout, the room’s tans and browns complemented by an open-timbered ceiling. The best seats are halfway down the long, skinny storefront, where a wide counter overlooks Lilja’s workspace. Service is sorority-rush friendly, and the Tinuccis are so neighborly that they still accept personal checks.
The anti-pancake crowd has plenty of other reasons to make a habit of either Colossal in the morning, namely the basic but well-composed breakfast sandwiches. Desserts rarely rise above so-so, and for a crew capable of producing a first-rate scone, the cinnamon rolls, those vital carb-loading breakfast building blocks, are curiously dull, their chief asset being their gi-hugic size.
But the Colossians are not without a knack for handling flour and butter, because the tender, knobbly buttermilk biscuits are first-rate, and the jewel of the restaurant’s small grab-and-go case is, without question, the lovingly made par-baked chicken pot pies. I’d pass them off as my own, but who am I kidding? There’s certainly no one in my circle of friends who would believe, even for a minute, that my comfort-food comfort level comes anywhere near such well-tended American classics.
As for dinner service at the Minneapolis Colossal, don’t hold your breath. “People do ask,” said Elizabeth Tinucci with a laugh. “I try to explain that we hardly have enough refrigerator space for our breakfast food.”
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