During a rough economy, we see fewer high-profile restaurants opening. Big money is holding on to its wallet and not bankrolling vast, glossy adventures. I’m thinking we won’t see a giant Buddha decorating a two-story scene anytime soon. What we do see is more independent chefs and restaurant veterans pulling together resources to go out on their own and make a go of it in a space that needs only minor alteration. That’s Joan’s in the Park.
Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop, both vets of high-end steak houses, took over the small Grampa Tony’s space in Highland Park off Snelling. The square box of a joint has been gussied up with a clean, classic storefront and warm lemon-yellow interior. They’ve added white tablecloths, wine bottle décor, and a dark-wood wine bar, and the effect truly reads “neighborhood restaurant.” Tables seem packed with locals dating and celebrating; I saw one engagement and two anniversaries during my visits. And that’s the vibe: easy, charming, comfortable.
Part of that vibe is due to the visibility and presence of Schmitt, who works the dining room, and chef Dunlop, who makes occasional appearances, touching tables and chatting easily with guests. There’s never a moment’s question as to who own this place; they work it gracefully like a couple hosting a grand dinner party in their home—a goal that all hospitality pros say they’re aiming for but seldom achieve.
The menu carries the ghost of steak houses past with straightforward preparations of seafood and beef as the star. A simple beef carpaccio piled with arugula hits a fresh note to start, and the daily bruschetta seems to win every time— once with burrata and cured speck, another time with fresh, fluffy ricotta, white beans, and a healthy glurg of fruity olive oil. The baby beet and blue cheese salad has nice robust chunks of cheese and salty bacon. The filet was a tender hunk, done beautifully, as was a gentle piece of salmon with a tangy miso sauce. On the other hand, crab cakes were small and not very crabby, the apple goat cheese salad was a bit sparse on the goods, and halibut was overdone and rubbery. Flatbreads were inconsistent and sometimes fell a little flat on flavor. Desserts are easy to skip. And I know steak house fare usually garners a higher price, but the portions seem a bit small for the money.
On the current menu, it’s hard to believe that anything at Joan’s will knock your socks off, but cutting- edge cuisine isn’t the name of their game. Here’s what it comes down to: If I were in the neighborhood and wanted to wash away the world with a fat glass of wine (from a well-appointed and not obnoxious list) and a wild mushroom flatbread, would I pick Joan’s? Yes, indeed. Would I drive across town for it or recommend it to the food-obsessed? Probably not. But I would happily gather with friends there if it was suggested, knowing that the hospitality outshines the food, which may still evolve. Sometimes the worth of a creative plate is overvalued while the need for a truly welcoming place is overlooked.
631 Snelling Ave. S., St. Paul, MN 55116, 651-690-3297, joansinthepark.com